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.


  1. A case of Turnbull keeping his enemies closer than his friends. What a joke the whole system is, and we are the fools.

  2. Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison are a strange double act.
    Turnbull is full of happy talk about a gilded future. Morrison is the human Rottweiler he physically resembles, all warning growls and snarls.
    It is all very confusing.
    All I know is that this country has a disturbingly high youth unemployment level. These are the very people who should be enthusiastic about the future.
    Those in the work force are more likely than ever to be on casual contracts or working part-time and making ends meet with penalty rates which are under threat.
    This morning the Fairfax press delivers the results of an investigation which shows yet again that foreign students on 417 visas are being horribly exploited.
    And despite all assurances by successive governments that they are policing instances of under-payment, some companies are openly advertising their low pay rates to unsuspecting students in foreign publications.
    As Adele Ferguson pointed out this week, the US economy is propped up by workers who are grossly underpaid and that Australia was well on the way to a similar situation.
    I do not feel confident about the future.

  3. Thank you for this excellent article. Morrison comes across as an unintelligent bully. I don't think it will take all that much rope.

  4. Are the cuts to the ATO aimed at making it less capable of pursuing tax avoiders?

  5. So much depends on a treasurer having a good rapport with the top echelon in his department. Could be worse than Hockey, who did get some defence of his legacy from Peter Martin. Not that I was convinced by it.

  6. Higgins is changing and Kelly O Dwyer has some work ahead of her.

    I like her style where she chastised Tim Freedom Boy Wilson along with that Liberation looney Brendan O Neil both on Q and A.

    Julian Sheezel has been appointed as her Chief Of Staff.

    Higgins is going to have a lot of gay candidates running along Kelly O Dwyer.

    The area is one of the most wealthiest in Melbourne.

    It's silly when our city has been voted as the most liveable in the world and yet they plan to change the racial discrimination act..

    Yep Liberals are privileged dumb people Andrew

    Watch this space.

  7. Great article as always. I find myself wishing more and more that you could replace Paul Barry on Media Watch, though I expect they'd need to expand the time slot.

  8. Always a good read

    In taking on Morrison Abbott still underestimates, in his enfeebled state, his ability to take on anyone and beat them.


  9. Peter Martin most definitely works full-time in the press gallery, and has for a long time.