25 October 2015

The nostalgia act

More than most journalists, political journalists get caught up on the idea that their work is "the first draft of history". Laurie Oakes has a particularly bad case of it. He embodies just under half of Australia's federal political history in his own person, and while his blind spots have been shared by others in the press gallery this is not to say that they do not exist, or are trivial.

What follows is not some sort of sledge on Oakes, but a demonstration of why the press gallery as a construct (including its construction of "doyens", the ultimate straw-men among people all too fond of building them) is such a lousy way to report to citizens about their government.

In this trip down memory lane, Oakes uses all his yesterdays to mislead his readers about political success - what it is and how to achieve it:
IN the valedictory speech marking his retirement from Parliament on Wednesday, Joe Hockey lamented “the Abbott government was good at policy but struggled with politics”. The first part of that sentence might be open to debate, but the political ineptitude of the administration in which Hockey served as Treasurer was there for all to see.

The Rudd and Gillard governments were also hopelessly ham-fisted when it came to the political basics.
When you go after a Liberal government, you apparently have to dump on Labor for "balance". To their credit, both Lenore Taylor and Laura Tingle rubbish the idea that the Abbott government was good at policy; maybe they can rise to the idea that the very prospect of an Abbott government was anathema to good policy, and that they should have called Abbott out ahead of time.
Everyone has seen Bill Shorten in action. The jury is perhaps still out on Malcolm Turnbull ...
Subtly writing Shorten off in favour of his fellow Packer retainer? So much for balance. But that's not where Oakes lets himself down. Most of his article is a book review gone wrong, where he does what a self-respecting political journalist must never do - what Taylor and Tingle didn't do with Hockey in the examples above - Oakes takes a politician at his word.

OK, he mainly quotes Keating, who seems a more substantial figure and somehow more vivid than many of those who came after him. Even so, he was wrong simply to quote Keating without matching his words to actual events:
On performing in Parliament Keating says: “It’s an art form. You’re on the stage. You must maintain the psychological control.

“Someone like Alexander Downer would step up to ask me a question ... I used to call Peter Costello the talking knee ... They’d all laugh. But those laughs are so off-putting and confidence-destroying.

“You must be winning in Parliament; you must keep the psychological hegemony, and that means when they come to ask you the questions, you have to have the answers and be psychologically in charge.”
Those references to Downer and Costello came in Keating's final term in power, 1993-96. Look at the video of Keating from that time and you see the glum faces behind him; they knew they were shot ducks, and however little or much a bit of levity might have punctuated the darkness it didn't change this politically or policy-wise one bit. Costello and Downer did not disappear into history like, say, Jim Carlton or Peter Shack. They replaced him and undid things Keating cared about.

Keating, his biographer Kerry O'Brien, and Oakes were all veterans in different ways of the 1980-83 parliament, the last term of the Fraser government. Any reading of Hansard, of contemporary press coverage, and of the growing range of books covering that period, forms a consensus that Fraser had an absolute psychological ascendancy in that parliament over Labor leader Bill Hayden and would-be Labor leader Bob Hawke. At one stage Fraser so rattled Hawke that the latter fled the House in tears. If you think that stuff really matters, look at the results of the 1983 election and consider: so much for psychological dominance. Neither Abbott nor Turnbull have achieved that level of dominance over Shorten, and would it matter if they had?

Performance in parliament has never been a duel of oratory or wit. The closest the Australian parliament has ever got to that was the sparring of two fine legal minds, Robert Menzies and H V Evatt, and even those engagements were rare and featured more pulled punches than telling blows. Even in Fraser's day, certainly in Keating's and more so now, "performance in parliament" is little more than the government asserting: we won, you lost, ner-nerny-ner-ner. If the government is behind in the polls the opposition might dish it back. Apart from that, assertions by Oakes and Keating about the importance of parliamentary dominance counts for absolutely bugger-all. Keating may not want to admit that as parliamentary performance is part of his legacy.

Parliament is Australia's best-subsidised but lamest performance space. Almost all of the great issues of our time are played out elsewhere, including at press conferences near but outside the actual House and Senate chambers. By the time the big issues reach parliament they have been premasticated and often predigested; they sit oddly in the mouths of those delegated by party machines to 'represent' us. The back-and-forth of Question Time elucidates nothing about the issues, nor about the personalities involved in public life today. The major parties put this on for their own bemusement; no tactical victory, real or perceived, is worth the revulsion and diminution of public interest in policy, politics, and politicians that results. You will know politics is changing for the better when it is abolished altogether.

Oakes took Keating at his word, and as a result Keating has less to tell us about modern politics than Oakes seems to imagine.

Laurie Oakes should be more than just some sort of polite reviewer of parliamentary theatre, or books thereon. All press gallery journalists should be - but apart from Taylor and Tingle none of them are. Parliamentary theatre is the sort of shitshow that makes real journalists suspect the story is happening elsewhere, an instinct that journalists assigned to the press gallery never had or which have to be dulled if you're going to get-along-to-go-along in that environment.

You can use your dotage to sharpen your perspective, like Oakes' and O'Brien's contemporary Alan Ramsey has, or you can become the jukebox of nostalgia like Oakes has become - lending his own fading brand to those of fading brands NewsCorp and Channel Nine, diminishing both in their power to tell us how we might be governed (and thereby diminishing their influence in determining outcomes). A masterclass in politics and journalism right there.

10 October 2015

Predictable behaviours

Malcolm Turnbull addressed the NSW State Council of the Liberal Party and was jeered for claiming that the party isn't run by factions (see video in this article).

Here's what he was doing by saying that. Turnbull wanted to be jeered by factional hacks, and to appear to float serenely above the factional fray, which is what he did.

Gullible journalists like Adam Gartrell report this with the cliche LIB SPLIT SHOCK, but who even listens to those people? The imagery there is of those who still believe in Abbott - the intelligent, decent and noble Tony Abbott of fantasy, since witheringly exposed - losing their decorum in the name of a cause that has already been lost. Didn't Turnbull say some nice things about Abbott - and this is how they behave?

They all look like sooks and grumps now. Who wants a sooky, grumpy future when they can have the sunny, vague optimism of Malcolm Turnbull?

Journalists initially love it when parties march n lockstep, then they get bored and regard partisans as muppets. Whenever journalists get criticised for their poorly-written stories on social media, they assume that such criticism can only come from partisans. When parties engage in debate, journalists can't examine he merits of one side or another so they just go BLOOD IN THE WATER DISSENT CHAOS and assume that's good enough for the likes of you.

Turnbull has played his internal party opponents off an even break. Liberals will be seething that the dreaded media are searching for the worst in their recycled leader; Abbott will have won no new sympathisers today.

Is there any objective truth to the notion that factions don't run the Liberal Party?

In the absence of any hard data, let's rely on the following graphic for what follows:

(c) The Australian

If conservative factional chiefs had insisted on a vote for Abbott, then the following conservatives can be said to have broken ranks:
  • John Alexander
  • Bronwyn Bishop
  • Peter Hendy
  • Jason Wood
  • Scott Ryan
  • Mal Brough
  • Steven Ciobo
  • Teresa Gambaro
  • Stuart Robert
  • Bert van Manen
  • James McGrath
  • Dennis Jensen
  • Steve Irons
  • Luke Simpkins
  • Michaelia Cash
  • David Johnston
  • Rowan Ramsey
  • Andrew Southcott
  • Sean Edwards
There is not a bleeding heart anywhere in the above list. Had those conservatives voted for the more conservative candidate (Abbott), that candidate would have won. 

Bronwyn Bishop has been in Parliament since 1987 and has participated in many Liberal leadership contests. As a fierce warrior for conservative values you might expect she'd have voted for the more conservative candidate in each of those contests, and that last month's vote is some sort of aberration. Sadly, no: at her first ballot in 1989 she voted for Andrew Peacock because he promised her a frontbench role, and Howard wasn't that desperate. Six years later, Downer handed over to Howard on the proviso that his frontbench be maintained, which included Bishop. Howard dumped her at the peak of his powers, after she'd had more than a fair go. She is vindictive and/or an opportunist before any other consideration, but happy to tear strips off anyone else she deems "wishy-washy". 

Bishop might have allowed herself a hiss from between clenched dentures, not knowing or caring that it played into Turnbull's hands.

If the Liberals had the sort of rigid factions that the ALP has, all of the aforenamed would be dingoes and rats and what have you, and none would be guaranteed of preselection (Southcott is not contesting the next election, and maybe James McGrath will summon up the courage that deserted him in 2012 to run for Fairfax).

Only in Tasmania and Victoria did conservatives have any luck in holding the line. Conservatives in Queensland saw the consequences of holding the conservative line (so did the Vics, but their party organisation is more robust and unforgiving). Western Australians take the view that if you're going to travel all that way to Canberra, why bother for the sake of opposition?  NSW is pretty tightly factionalised, with only three opportunists breaking for the winner. 

Turnbull is quite the showman, but he is not such a populist that he can pull off a call-and-response like US politicians can and do. By tossing out the factional bone, and watching smirking as the factional dogs fought over it, Turnbull positioned himself above the factional fray. He played the factions, and played the press gallery too.

He was confident that the press gallery can be relied upon to draw the wrong conclusions - but nevertheless, present him in the way that best suits his interests.

09 October 2015

Sooky one day, snarly the next

I got the horse right here
The name is Paul Revere
And here's a guy that says if the weather's clear
Can do, can do, this guy says the horse can do
If he says the horse can do, can do, can do

Frank Loesser Fugue for Tinhorns (from Guys and Dolls)
Former State MP for Cairns Gavin King has written a biography of his former Premier, Campbell Newman. I haven't read the book but I have read excerpts of it in the broadcast media, and their responses seem every bit as interesting as the ins and outs of Queensland politics.

King demonstrated a strong talent for embarrassing himself to get publicity, as though media attention was more important in itself than as a conduit through to the community he represented. He tried and failed to make complex issues like assaults on the body or movements of the body bend to both his will and the limitations of his understanding. He was probably astute to publish his book through the conservative Connor Court, ensuring no pernickety publisher would fact-check it too critically.

Media reports quote King's/Newman's complaint that the defeat of the LNP state government after a single term renders reform impossible. Journalists shirk the whole idea of 'reform' and what it might mean, accepting the word as a gobbet of content rather than an idea in need of unpacking: it is left to people like sociologist Mark Bahnisch to explore questions like reform of what, to what ends and in whose interests, etc.

Their main focus seems to have been on what Newman thought of the media, as though this was the most important and newsworthy aspect of the Newman government. Apparently he thought they were a "pack of bastards", shallow and what have you. This is what gets them going. The trouble is, it doesn't really go anywhere.

Confident that I'm not a bastard

The ABC's state political reporter Chris O'Brien leapt into print with a headline that promised so much. He spends half the article recapping the situation, before this:
After his last all-in media conference in late January, Mr Newman told colleagues "... that's the last time I'll ever have to talk to that pack of bastards."

The initial reaction by some of us bastards has been to dismiss the criticism as sour grapes.

That's an understandable response. It's natural for anyone - journalist, jockey or jeweller - to defend themselves when they're admonished in print, and the book is steeped in Mr Newman's deep disappointment at the fact and manner of his defeat.
Understandable perhaps, but the right response?

Where journalists are different is in their analysis. Information is useless without analysis and context, and journalists add value when they supply both information and analysis. Anyone can stick a microphone in front of somebody and transcribe it: that's a job that can be replaced by computer hardware and software, and one day soon will be.

O'Brien should have been big enough to analyse the criticism for areas where Newman had a point, to concede them with as much good grace as he (O'Brien) is capable of, and to show how he might do better. Instead, he commits to tossing out baby and bathwater with equal force.

Jewellers and jockeys, lawyers and doctors and politicians, face real career limitations in the event of proven malfeasance in their jobs. Journalists do not. Journalists can, and do, dismiss any and all criticism as whinging, going directly into defensive mode without any real clue what they are defending or why, other than their feelings and those of their colleagues. It is flatly untrue that everybody is as incapable of self-examination as O'Brien admits himself to be.
But largely [Newman] avoids admitting any actual mistakes of policy or action.
Well Chris, you were the ABC's state politics reporter during that time: any suggestions about what they might have been? No? That makes you as bad as him, surely.
However, does that mean that his "sour grapes" - and reporters' umbrage - is all we take from the book and its reception?

"Can Do - Campbell Newman and the Challenge of Reform" is more than 300 pages long. It includes lengthy sections, in the words of the author and in passages written by the subject himself, that offer up suggestions and opinions for improving the way politics is done and covered.
What are they, Chris? You're an experienced journalist - draw those ideas out, examine the arguments for and against - no? If your article had a point, that would have been it.
What if Newman and King make some good points, but they're overlooked because Mr Newman is regarded by opponents as bitter and twisted and because he stops short of a full mea culpa?
What are the "good points", and how can you tell? What if an ad hominem attack on Newman and/or King just doesn't cut it? Note this - "is regarded by opponents" - the passive voice and anonymous quote, the marks of journalistic failure.
I don't think there's any harm in debating the book's premise that the coverage of politics in Australia today leaves something to be desired.

As a political reporter I defend what I and my colleagues do, but I have some sympathy for the opinion that there should be more in-depth reporting of government and politics. I happen to think there's plenty, on radio programs and news websites and ABC television current affairs (the last of which Mr Newman acknowledges.)

But I don't dismiss out of hand the view that there isn't enough and that it could be better. It's worth discussing.
But you do dismiss it out of hand, Chris. Here we are near the end of your article and you claim there's "plenty" of in-depth reporting, which presumably gives press gallery journalists some sort of excuse to be trite and banal. See the two paragraphs following the above quote, O'Brien's anecdote about Wayne Bennett at the NRL Grand Final: "... may come across ... labelled by some critics ...". Gutless shirking of perfectly fair criticism of reporters.
Similarly, Mr Newman's bleak view of media - even if genuinely held - cannot be separated from his disastrous electoral outcome.
Really? Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Jeff Kennett and Neville Wran are three examples of politicians with similar views about press gallery journalists and journalism; all had more substantial achievements than Newman, including getting re-elected.
Secondly, can his criticism of media be treated dispassionately by media? Yes, perhaps - but not easily.

As one of the pack of bastards who was at that last news conference, even if I am fairly confident that I'm not a bastard, and even if Mr Newman was thinking about some other bastards and not me, I am at least subconsciously inclined to reject his analysis of my craft.
O'Brien should have answered his rhetorical question in the negative. When criticised he gets his dander up and can't tell whether criticism is legitimate. That second paragraph quoted above is embarrassing, his confidence based on nothing but ego. Maybe he's right to assert his subconscious over any capacity for sensible analysis; it's just a pity.

The journos' syllogism

So perhaps journalists should stay out of the argument about journalists.
That line is whimpering defeatism.

When it comes to criticism, journalists have a syllogism that goes as follows:
  1. No criticism of any journalist by any non-journalist is ever legitimate.
  2. Only journalists can truly know what it's like to be a journalist, so only they are in a position to criticise - if any criticism is warranted.
  3. No journalist ever criticises another journalist, because that would be mean and disloyal - and any criticism of journalists can only ever be mean.
  4. Go back to step 1 until you a) are sick of it, and b) realise they will and can never, ever change. Any and all criticism of journalists is never about the journalists, only about you; Q. E. fucking D.
There's no helping some people. O'Brien (and most journalists, let's be frank) want an impoverished, two-part world: journalists over there, doing the same old same-old without thinking, day in and day out, while over here those of us who want more and better from journalism can chat amongst ourselves, and never the twain shall meet.
It may be naively purist to say, but reporters reporting on criticism of reporters makes them part of the story.
"May be"? How could you tell?

Aren't we well past the point where we can pretend journalists are "not part of the story", as transparent as a window pane? I won't sustain anyone in that fantasy.
We need to be able to explain our actions as reporters and rebut ...
Why not a bit of forethought and humility? Nobody wants to hear your whiny defensiveness. We all have to think about what we do and how we do it, and do things differently when common practice no longer yields expected results.
But it's difficult to remain disinterested in that particular to and fro.
While being Premier of Queensland is a piece of cake? Really? Get over yourself and admit your analytical skills are non-existent, O'Brien. That old saying about politicians needing to be replaced like nappies need changing applies to press gallery journalists too.

Lessons in leadership

Madonna King is not a press gallery journalist but has written extensively about politics. While O'Brien wrestled with issues that are too hard for him to understand, MK (initials to distinguish her from Gavin, from the singer, and the Christian icon) is convinced a simple ad-hominem slapping will suffice to deflect - no, defeat - criticism.

It is a feature of most bad journalism that you have to scroll down a third or even half-way down an article to get to the point. Many can be forgiven for giving up altogether. MK's rugby league analogy was laboured but this bit was jarring:
... on Sunday night when the Cowboys stole the premiership from the favoured Broncos.
The Cowboys played within the rules and won the Grand Final on the field, within the rules of the game. They did not cheat on the field or engage in skullduggery off it. The Broncos were not the reigning premiers, nothing was "stolen" from them. If you can't get that right, what else in this article is bullshit?
Why else would [Newman] think - after the biggest defeat in history - that he is in the position to lecture us on everything from reform to the role of the media?

Despite the LNP loss, he still can't see that he was the reason for it. Now it's the pack of bastards in the media, or those on his team that didn't really pull their weight, or even voters, who didn't understand what he was doing was in their best interests.

Eight months after voters sent him packing, the poll loss is still everyone else's fault, except his own.
The man is entitled to his opinions. An opinion does not become a "lecture" just because you don't want to hear it. He has some experience with reform, and with the media, and so his opinions might have some weight - or they might not, but the umbrage at the very fact of expressing them is silly. Newman might not be self-reflective, but as we saw with O'Brien above (and with Newman's brother-from-another-mother Tony Abbott) he's hardly alone in that.
His book, can do, is bare in self-analysis but it offers a thorough (although one-sided) account of his government's actions. All the attention, so far, has been on his criticisms - a focus the former premier will no doubt highlight as proving his point about the paucity of modern political debate.
Newman may have participated in its writing, but it would be "his" book if he had written it. MK lets Gavin King off the hook - maybe this is another example of the journos' syllogism, maybe Madonna and Gavin are related, who cares? When MK talks about "all the attention", she really means all that journalists want to write about - as though what journalists want to write about is the same thing as what people want and like and need to read.
But what comes through the most is Newman's unwavering belief in himself.
Is Newman the first politician who believed in himself? No. Is self-belief a feature of non-political lives, such as those of (say) journalists? Yes. Is this a silly criticism?

It's certainly passive-aggressive. Someone who wants to disagree with you, but who lacks the information, the debating skill and the sheer wit necessary to make a case and hold to it, will say something like "you're very sure of yourself, aren't you?" in an attempt to throw you off. This is what MK is doing here: like O'Brien, she can't tell whether Gavin King and Newman have legitimate criticisms of the media. She can only tell that there are criticisms, and that considering them and responding to them would be harder work than she is prepared to do.

Lessons in history

His inability to play as part of a team is highlighted more and more, evidenced by the fact that he didn't even consult his wife Lisa about running for the top job until a month after he had sought the advice of others. By her account, he just mentioned it casually as he walked out the door on the day his candidacy was to be revealed.
It was demonstrated long before then. Before becoming Premier, Newman had been Lord Mayor of Brisbane. In that role his autocratic tendencies were obvious to the point where even the media noticed. When he became Premier, smarter people in Queensland were awake to what he was like. Journalists, desperate to maintain whatever is to be gained by insider status, wrote slavering articles and allowed him to slap their faces over and over for years.

Now that Newman's career is over even the most supine journalist doesn't have to cop that any more. When they go after Newman, they do so because he's now outside the whole fed-chooks system that press gallery journalists don't question, and which stunts their ability to tell us how we are governed.
And of everything that has come out in the past two weeks, that is the point I struggle to understand most - particularly given the keenness with which [Newman] later embraced [his wife's] campaigning skills.
Why are we even speculating about his marriage, anyway? Why did Lisa Newman switch to such a full embrace of the life of a politician's partner? What if she holds the media in similar esteem to her husband? What about Gavin King's wife? You see where this gets us: nowhere, particularly in terms of media criticism. But hey, MK has had her say - or lectured us - and that's the main thing.
Campbell Newman can say what he likes, but he led his party to an historic and unexpected defeat, and lost his own seat ...
... and ner-nerny-ner-ner, tu quoque you loser! No mention of Newman's media criticisms and any evaluation of same, no mention of anything he might have achieved among the wreckage of his government, but a resentment that the man both has an opinion and dares to express it.

Had Newman offered Madonna King a series of exclusive interviews, as Joe Hockey did for her biography of him, that might have been different.
So to put himself up, now, as ... someone even the party might turn to in the future is breath-taking in its arrogance.
Really? He said his career was over, but ... oh I see, MK just made that up.

There is a question to be had about how the media were so keen to embrace Queensland's change of government in 2012 (or at least not get caught defending a government on its way out), so happy to put up with the crap Newman flung at them for three whole years, and now happy to pile on him now that he's having his say.

Maybe they're just not as perceptive as we need journalists to be.

You could be really smug

Censorship (n.)

1. Any regime or context in which the content of what is publicly expressed, exhibited, published, broadcast, or otherwise distributed is regulated or in which the circulation of information is controlled. The official grounds for such control at a national level are variously political (e.g. national security), moral (e.g. likelihood of causing offence or moral harm, especially in relation to issues of obscenity), social (e.g. whether violent content might have harmful effects on behaviour), or religious (e.g. blasphemy, heresy). Some rulings may be merely to avoid embarrassment (especially for governments).

2. A regulatory system for vetting, editing, and prohibiting particular forms of public expression, presided over by a censor: an official given a mandate by a governmental, legislative, or commercial body to review specific kinds of material according to pre-defined criteria. Criteria relating to public attitudes — notably on issues of ‘taste and decency’ — can quickly become out-of-step.

3. The practice and process of suppression or any particular instance of this. This may involve the partial or total suppression of any text or the entire output of an individual or organization on a limited or permanent basis.

4. Self-censorship is self-regulation by an individual author or publisher, or by ‘the industry’. Media industries frequently remind their members that if they do not regulate themselves they will be regulated by the state. Self-censorship on the individual level includes the internal regulation of what one decides to express publicly, often attributable to conformism.

5. In Freudian psychoanalytical theory, the suppression of unconscious desires that is reflected in the oblique symbolism of dreams: see displacement.

- The Oxford Dictionary of Media and Communication

Again, I have no idea how "awful" or "woefully-titled" can do is (or whether it is), so I have no choice but to take Gay Alcorn's word for it. What I don't have to take is her misinterpretation of what censorship is:
I will defend Newman against, of all places, the Avid Reader bookshop, the premier independent bookshop in my hometown of Brisbane. Avid Reader is routinely named the best bookstore in the city, with a “ridiculously comprehensive” selection.

Its owner, Fiona Stager, is a former head of the Australian Booksellers Association and a leading cultural figure in Brisbane [you there, stop that sniggering] ... Avid Reader is refusing to stock Newman’s authorised biography, written by former Queensland MP Gavin King. Stager told ABC radio that Newman’s decision soon after winning office to scrap the premier’s literary awards was a key reason.

“We saw that as an attack on the writing, editing, book-publishing, book-selling community in Queensland. It seemed ironic that the first thing he did after losing was to turn around [and] be involved in the publication of a book,” she said.

Stager says the store has “always reflected the views and feelings of its community” and that many of its customers were devastated by Newman’s public service job cuts.
Love it when a journalist has a point, and gets to it.

Nowhere in that article, nor anywhere else I could find, is there any indication that Stager is campaigning to have the book banned. She is not threatening Newman or King with violence, as Salman Rushdie was - not by Stager - over The Satanic Verses. Stager certainly doesn't have the power to censor it, even in her capacity as "a leading cultural figure in Brisbane" (stop it!).

When I rang Avid Reader and asked them to set aside a copy of can do for me, the jackboot of the state came down hard upon my neck and here I am in a remote gulag, for who knows how long? the staff helpfully referred me to another shop nearby which stocks the book.

If Stager had expressed her misgivings about Newman, as I dare say she had even before this book came out, wouldn't she have been a hypocrite for pocketing that all sweet sweet cash which is undoubtedly pouring into the coffers of her competitors? What about if said competitors sold out of stock, and Connor Court could not replenish in time - would they be censoring Newman too? The absurdity of this argument is demonstrated whenever anyone dares to talk back to Andrew Bolt: he goes on his national TV show, his nationally-syndicated newspaper column, his blog and his mates' radio shows, grizzling loud and long that he is being "censored".

Alcorn is a journalist who grew up in Queensland when it was governed by Bjelke-Petersen. Short of someone like Peter Greste, or immigrants who fled repressive regimes, few people in this country should be more aware of what "censorship" really means - and how absent it is here.
Fundamental to my now-quaint notion of progressive politics is tolerance, debate, and the critical importance of free speech, even of speech I intensely disagree with.
It's a pity that Alcorn couldn't engage the book itself, and the issues it raises; and how easy it apparently was for a few tweeps to bump her off such fundamental convictions as she might have, or even her understanding of words. The issues apparently raised in the book are live issues in politics today: law and order, the assets of the state and how they are to be used, how we choose and discard our leaders. If Alcorn doesn't deign to engage the ideas raised by King and Newman then she can hardly blame Stager for doing likewise. Alcorn claims Stager has a responsibility to public debate that she herself has shirked.


... Now this is no bum steer
It's from a handicapper that's real sincere
Can do, can do, this guy says the horse can do.
If he says the horse can do - can do - can do ...
Here again we have seen the limits of 'horse-race' journalism, where the shortcomings of the favourite somehow become apparent after he has slipped back in the field - never before.

For Newman's political career, there is no "can do". There is only "has done" or "didn't", it is too late for "can yet do", "could/ should/ would have".

The whole idea of fourth-estate journalism, of all the privileges enjoyed by press gallery journalists like O'Brien, big-in-Brisbane journos like Madonna King, and ex-editors like Alcorn, is that they will tell us how we are governed and how we might be governed. They won't, they can't - instead, they flock to essentially the same meta-debate about the media and how nobody is allowed to question it. Anyone who does can cop an ad-hominem attack, in place of the fair and well-informed debate they all claim to champion but none can actually conduct.

So Campbell Newman has criticisms of the media. So does anyone with any experience of them. Some of these probably are the illegitimate gripes of someone who shirked the responsibilities of both democratic scrutiny, and to engage the public on issues that go beyond technocratic matters of expenditure and regulation. Some of them might be more than fair: there may even be some really important lessons that journalists, and those who employ them, would be foolish to ignore. O'Brien, Madonna King and Alcorn are well placed to examine these, but they haven't and can't. Instead, they have hurled babies and bathwater with equal force.

Newman's pathetic attempts to limit public debate have been thwarted. Nobody said that public debate can only happen at Avid Reader, or in different broadcast-media outlets that can only ever seem to run much the same story from the same angle and never revisit it. Now we need information about how we are governed (which includes information about how we have been governed, and what our options are on how we might be governed). Are journalists - experienced journalists, with years of experience observing politicians and politics up close - in a position to do this?

They're in a position to do this, but they don't. Newman, and Tony Abbott, are just two recent examples of politicians described by political journalists as soaring and swooping like eagles, who turned out on closer inspection to be turkeys caught in updrafts of broadcast-media hot air. Campbell Newman has every right to lecture journalists on how they should do their jobs, because almost none of the practitioners have much of an idea - they get reflexively defensive without any real clue what it is they are defending. While it's certainly true that Newman's criticisms are unfair, it's indisputable that journalists can't tell which criticisms are fair and which aren't. They have no basis but their own feels to do so, and that leads them only to note the mote in Newman's eye while overlooking the beams in their own.

Even Queenslanders need to be well governed. They - we - need more and better information than self-obsessed, obtuse journalists can provide. Journalists who can't get over themselves aren't just flawed humans, they are social, economic, and democratic bottlenecks. They should accept criticism (not in general but specifically) and engage with it. They should accept that people will and should go around them to get the information they/we need, the information to which we are (go on, say it) entitled.

02 October 2015

Less than expected

One of the things that keeps this blog going is a desire to use its backlog as the raw material for some in-depth studies into how the Australian media misinformed Australians about the way they were governed 2006-15, and the alternatives we might've had (and might yet have). Recent reading suggests it might be hard to draw a line at the fall of Abbott, and that the effects of crap journalism from the press gallery will yet linger like nuclear waste.

That's your interpretation Leigh

Scott Morrison has not taken to the job of Treasurer with the aplomb some had expected. Being Treasurer is a big, tough job. On what basis did anyone expect a new Treasurer to take to it easily? Hockey had been Shadow Treasurer for years and never made the transition. Swan kept as low a profile as was possible initially, until he started getting across his brief. Costello was the last Treasurer who could do the worse-than-expected-cut-the-promises pantomime, and made an early faux pas by disclosing off-the-record discussions with Alan Greenspan that sent global stock markets into conniptions.

Morrison hasn't had years of preparation for Treasury, he couldn't keep a low profile if his life depended on it, and as with John Dawkins his action-man persona means nobody will cut him any slack. Even so, the press gallery was unanimous that he was the only choice for Treasurer, and are a bit confused that he is less a duck-to-water and more like a duck trying to waddle across a freeway.

His big triumph at Tourism Australia wasn't one. Scott Morrison failing to sell Australia to foreign tourists was a bit like Alan Bond and John Elliott having the Australian beer market locked up between them, and going broke anyway - a failure so inexplicable that merely laughing at them or throwing them into prison wouldn't have been enough. Morrison is to blame for Lara Bingle, and it will come back to bite him: I don't know the issue, nor the day nor the hour, but one day the government will do something that antagonises Bingle and activists will rope her into saying "Hey Morrison, where the bloody hell are ya on [issue]?". They will cover that to the exclusion of all else because you know what the press gallery is like.

As NSW Director of the Liberal Party Morrison sucked up and spat down, including on my old Young Liberals branch. He started his frontbench career dumping on people who aren't citizens, don't speak our language, and who are hidden from us; he moved on to people who are dependent minorities, to be typecast and shunned.

As Treasurer, his modus operandi doesn't really work. Nobody is disconnected from the economy. If you start defining a group and then blaming them for everything wrong with the economy (Jewish bankers? Trade unionists?), you just look like a loon. He's said blaming the global situation is a cop-out. Blaming Labor is a cop-out too, particularly when you consider the Coalition has spent 13 of the last 20 years in government.

The press gallery note his early stumbles but can't quite explain them. To be fair to the gallery, and to Morrison, they haven't written Morrison off. To be equally fair, what is the point where you do so? What is the difference between what the Australian Treasurer needs in times like these, and what Morrison (or, insert your alternative here) offers?

Did the press gallery sell us yet another dog when they presented Morrison as the only real choice for Treasurer? Imagine if he'd become leader, as one or two commentators predicted.

The three-word slogans, three-word slogans

Peter Martin doesn't blame the press gallery for the gap between expectations of and performance by Morrison. He blames Turnbull for talking Morrison up. In reality, Morrison was foisted on Turnbull, and nobody in the press gallery demurred.

Morrison is doing the three-word slogans for two reasons: first, he's nervous. He's resorting to what he knows, what got him into the position in the first place.

Second, he thinks so little of us that he genuinely believes simplistic slogans will do. Morrison is on a fast learning curve in terms of economic and budgetary policy, but at heart he is a conservative. Conservatives believe people are greedy and facile and don't know what's good for them. Conservatives believe they know best, don't need to engage in debate and risk their ideas, and that stunts can chew up media space that might otherwise be given to competing ideas. Conservatives want to do what they want with a minimum of opposition, and don't want to do the heavy lifting of bringing millions with you.

Joe Hockey had made the same mistake. He met with actual economists off the record and impressed them with his grasp of the finer points of economics, some of which were different to his public statements (e.g., poo-poohing the idea that there really was an economic crisis. Just between us, behind closed doors, c'mon). On the record he was a performing gimp, with his simplistic nonsense about budget emergencies and what have you. The actual economists told journalists that Hockey had a depth that wasn't obvious in the media persona, and journalists believed it and reported it long after the facts had betrayed everyone involved.

Morrison is trying the same thing Hockey did, but without a decade's experience as a minister or of matching it with people who know about economics. He can't win. He can patronise people, and be dismissive to journalists, but if he was truly across his brief he wouldn't do either of those things. The Prime Minister, no shrinking violet, knows this. Not everybody can engage in abstruse economic jargon, but everybody cares about their job and their friends' jobs and house prices and the sense of well-being that keeps everything and everyone ticking along. Martin is right when he implores Morrison not to patronise us, to engage with the detail, to engage with us as though we too help shape our own destinies.

Perhaps it's too early, even in a hyped-up age, to expect Morrison to be across the detail. What made Keating so effective were not what would now be called "zingers" in Parliament. Keating went to interview after interview, day after day, showing that he was across the detail. People who hated him knew he was across the detail, and couldn't bump him off it. Nobody has confidence Morrison is across the detail, but all this pleading is to encourage him to get across it, and soon.

A sucker, an even break

When Wayne Swan gave way to Chris Bowen as Treasurer - was it really only two years ago? - Hockey as Shadow Treasurer did not hesitate to monster the new boy. Now as Shadow Treasurer, Bowen has refrained from going after Morrison. Is Bowen being restrained, or merely weak? Will Labor regret not defining Morrison, and tripping him up? If we had a proper press gallery, they would be asking those sorts of questions.

All in good time

Michael Pascoe did much the same thing as Martin, but with a bit less patience and a bit better understanding of the politics. Morrison is trying to get the right back on side, by talking about spending rather than taxing. He thinks that by being a conservative Treasurer he will eventually win back the right-wing zombies who think he betrayed Abbott.

Note that neither Pascoe nor Martin are press gallery, but their analysis of Morrison is better than all the press gallery put together.

Abbott thought he'd be safe by cleaving to the right, and built up a Praetorian guard of Queensland right-wingers around him. Plenty of them voted for Turnbull - the idea that such people should demand loyalty from Morrison is just bullshit. Journalists who understand politics would call them on it rather than do anonymous quotes.

Andrew Bolt (no I won't link to his article) was late in running the same sort of slavering get-a-room profiles on Abbott, how brilliant and warm and witty he really was and is, etc., that press gallery journalists have been running for years. All that "best Opposition Leader ever" stuff was garbage. People hate themselves for having believed it and hate the media for dumbing down public debate to the point where people regard it as beneath them. Like the rest of the Liberal right, Bolt dares not admit that Abbott lost because he did pretty much what Bolt hoped he'd do. They keen and wail over Abbott when they are really lamenting their own irrelevance. They aren't the stoic defenders of timeless truths they wish, they assume, they are.

Morrison's refusal to swear a biblical oath before God and Ray Hadley will also impress all but the most butthurt conservative - eventually. Tony Abbott would say whatever he felt needed to be said to get a momentary advantage; Morrison did to Abbott what he did to the country. In taking on Morrison Abbott still overestimates, in his enfeebled state, his ability to take on anyone and beat them.

When John Howard became Liberal leader in 1995 he took the stick to the factional leaders of the Liberal right. He gave the moderates a whack too, but he wanted to make it clear that he owed the right nothing. They needed to get behind him, not the other way around; it was his last chance to become Prime Minister and nobody was getting in his way. They slunk around like whipped dogs for months, but they respected him and were rewarded in government. Morrison knows that you can do over the right and not lose them forever.

This is why [$] what Peter Brent thinks is a conundrum isn't one. Brent makes the most elegant straw men of anyone in Australian political commentary, you almost feel like a vandal knocking them down. With a Liberal loss the right will grow proportionally in importance because the moderates necessary to hold marginal seats won't be there. They will turn to Morrison because he has, and will have, the most net achievements as a conservative. Andrews is relegated to the backroom obscurity from which he should never have emerged. Dutton is a galoot, everyone knows it; he may lose his seat even if Turnbull wins.

Abbott, now older than Rudd, Gillard, Nelson, Costello, or Fraser were when their moment had passed, is hanging on because he has no better options. Nobody is offering him even the table scraps Reith or Costello are getting from the private sector. Turnbull is giving him nothing. Morrison is doing to Abbott what Julia Gillard should have done more - ignoring him, letting him burn himself out.

Liberals in his area are more likely to preselect a more moderate replacement, but only if he goes quietly - nobody is going to chop him down, we've all seen how he behaves when he takes the contest personally.


Direct ministerial responsibility for the Tax Office comes not from Morrison but Kelly O'Dwyer. You would expect O'Dwyer to be announcing this, and a real journalist would have examined why Morrison did.

So Morrison wants to announce a new Tax Office but doesn't want to talk about tax. Morrison would have stood with his back to Fr Rod Bowers' pithy church signs. Instead, he talked unconvincingly about big economic development themes. He owes Canberra nothing and is happy to move public servants away from there. Gosford was the civic centre of the fast-growing Central Coast before big shopping malls shifted the business and the bustle out of town, which goes to some of Turnbull's thinking on cities. The site where Morrison wants to build a Tax Office had been earmarked for open space, reorienting Gosford toward its waterfront as Melbourne and Brisbane and Newcastle have done.

Wicks is a NSW Liberal and a potential voter in future Liberal leadership contests. Oh, and colourful media identity John Singleton has an office in Gosford. Even if O'Dwyer had wanted to make this announcement, Morrison was always going to pull rank.


O'Dwyer worked in Costello's office, she's never hidden her interest in economic policy, and has applied herself to such policy in committees. She's been the loyal soldier in media appearances, to the point where many who observe politics closely can be forgiven for thinking O'Dwyer is dull-witted and unimaginative. She's now in a role where she can dispel that image, and perhaps take a slower but surer road to the Treasurer's office than Morrison has.

Watch for the press gallery to give Morrison credit for O'Dwyer's work, again and again - you know what they're like.

If Andrew Bolt decided that he wanted Kelly O'Dwyer's seat, the Victorian Liberals would give it to him. They are that stupid; they're taking resources that might be profitably used to defend O'Dwyer or Billson and throwing them away in the hills where Sophie Mirabella lurks. Say what you will about whether Labor and the Greens can join forces to outseat O'Dwyer, or how they might go against Bolt, but she has put herself up for public life and actually engaged the public in ways that Mirabella never could. Meanwhile, Bolt, like Victorian Liberal State President Michael Kroger, declined numerous rails-run offers. O'Dwyer is not a sook like Bolt or Abbott, and she runs rings around Mirabella.

Jim Short was a young Treasury official in 1964 when he was sent to work in the Treasurer's office. He saw the great economic and political challenges of the time up close - the transition to decimal currency, the upheavals in Vietnam and Indonesia - and was hooked. It took him 20 years to get into Parliament and another ten to become Assistant Treasurer. Months later Howard dropped him over undisclosed share holdings. O'Dwyer has already come in ahead of Short's long and futile career arc.


Our country is heading into a period of economic turmoil. Our major media outlets misrepresented the competence of the immediate past Prime Minister and Treasurer. They talked up the incumbent Treasurer too - but at this stage his friends will plead to cut him some slack, while his enemies might be persuaded to give him enough rope. This is the time for some cold-eyed assessments of what our country requires, not to go into bat for good old Scottie.

Our country needs information and recognition of where we are at, and our options on where we go from here. Scott Morrison needs to be across those issues and those options - and he needs to take us with him. Some will agree but those who won't need to respect him and see this or that announcement as part of a coherent whole.

The Prime Minister can't build the coherent whole by himself, and there are no straw men for Morrison to build, let alone knock down. The press gallery will never get the bigger picture by working Morrison like a jukebox of three-word slogans, so they should stop trying. Nobody is impressed by that crap. Nobody needs it. Only they and their equally silly editors confuse it with news.