29 November 2015

Brough enough

As we head into the end times for Mal Brough, let's consider how his career represents several things wider than him: machismo, keeping Aborigines "in their place", opportunity costs, and the price of loyalty. Oh, and of course, piss-poor standards of political journalism.

Act I: Taking the crease

Before first entering parliament for the electorate of Longman (now held by Wyatt Roy) in 1996, Brough had been an army officer. The press gallery singled him out for Big Things. When Tony Abbott was promoted to Cabinet in 2001, Brough replaced him as Minister for Employment Services.

Malcolm Farr made a telling anecdote [link broken] about Brough at a cricket match. Because Farr is an old-school journalist in the mendacious world of political reporting, he did not use that anecdote to look into what Brough did and how he did it, questioning his statements and fitness for office generally; instead, the coverage of him (by Farr and others in the press gallery) is pretty much all direct quotes and giving Brough the benefit of the doubt.

Act II: Hubris

In 2004 Brough became Minister for Revenue and Assistant Treasurer to Peter Costello, where he was responsible for hacking into the tax base at the very time the mining boom was taking off. Part of the reason why Wayne Swan, Joe Hockey, and now Scott Morrison, have been unable to do much about the revenue side of the budget is because of Brough's hard work back then. It's notable that those tax breaks did not lead to the private sector picking up the slack in terms of infrastructure; Australian history suggests that where government fails to take the lead, no infrastructure magically appears. Interesting experiment, though.

In 2006 Brough entered Cabinet as Minister for Families and Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. This might sound like he was doing squishy welfare stuff; not a bit of it. Brough came up with the idea of using a report into sexual abuse in Northern Territory Aboriginal communities, Little Children are Sacred, as a pretext to send the Army in to occupy those communities and stamp out anti-social behaviour. He ignored the report and there is no evidence it made much of a difference one way or another, but it made a big splash - this may explain why Labor kept it after 2007. Frances Jones shows how Brough encouraged the Tiwi Islands Land Council to adopt schemes that created no jobs and degraded the environment: a lose-lose situation for people who were doing it tough already.

Despite the demonstrated lack of any link between the Northern Territory Emergency Response and any sort of success metric, the press gallery remained convinced that Brough was an action man and a Liberal star on the rise. He was Hotspur to Tony Abbott's Prince Hal. Consider this table of Sheer Damn Manliness:

Relationship to the Queen
Talked a lot of talk about the Queen
Held the Queen’s commission
Occupation before entering politics
Student (well into 30s), journalist
Army officer, sales
Economic credentials under Howard govt
Peter Costello disdained his understanding of economics
Minister for Revenue, helped diminish tax base
Military deployment proposals
To Ukraine, protect plane debris
To Northern Territory, protect Aboriginal children
Military deployment proposals supported by Labor
Re-elected in 2007
Complained publicly about decline in income after having been Cabinet minister
Disdained major political development
Climate change
Merger of Liberal and National Parties in Qld
Supported Brough for LNP preselection in Fisher for 2013
Supported Brough for Abbott ministry 2013
Supported Abbott as Liberal leader February 2015
Supported Abbott as Liberal leader September 2015

Act III: Nemesis

If Mal Brough had held Longman in 2007 then he, not Tony Abbott, would have been the favoured candidate for leader when Turnbull stumbled in 2009. Brough would have negated Rudd's Queensland appeal and been a bit more presentable than the often uncouth and puerile Abbott. The press gallery would have loved that action-man crap and Labor would hardly have been in a position to criticise his failures in Indigenous policy, having perpetuated them.

But, he didn't. If ever a minister was going to come out of the Howard government and fall into a series of cushy boards and advisory roles, according to the political-class fantasy, he was it. Brough faffed around and ended up as the last Queensland State President of the Liberal Party. He was against the merger with the Queensland Nationals that formed the LNP: he lacked the clout to stop it altogether and the wit to turn it to his advantage. He looked truculent, like a lamb trying to back out of a sheep-dip at the last minute, rather than a political operator contributing to something bigger than himself. It meant he couldn't secure a seat for 2010, which may have seen him back in Cabinet in 2013; more faffing around, this time outside the LNP power structure.

George Brandis also showed his true colours at this time, putting up a token resistance before succumbing. As Attorney-General his role has been to talk about John Stuart Mill, but then assert that civil liberties must be sacrificed to Daesh and that you can exercise a right to bigotry. If your idea of political activism and progress is to offer a token resistance before succumbing, Brandis is your model for involvement in major-party politics.

By 2012 Brough had come around to the idea that politics was his only real career option, and that he had no choice to suck up to people who were once his peers and juniors. Brough was a minister when Peter Dutton was first elected; when Brough went into Cabinet Dutton had taken over his junior portfolio. Dutton had been re-elected in 2007 and was cruising to a Cabinet role without doing anything. As Peter Slipper committed political suicide by all but switching to Labor, Brough could have played the statesman and let the LNP bring Fisher to him - but instead, he got his hands dirty. That sexist menu for his fundraiser in 2012 (no I won't link to it) is a perfect example of officers' mess wit.

As with Kathy Jackson, Independent Australia were onto Brough from the outset. The press gallery resisted the allure of sleaze and illegality because Brough was part of the Restoration narrative. This is why there's no point dipping into broadcast-media summaries, and why ABC reporters look silly when they write off questioning of Brough as 'Labor mischief': the Ashby thing ain't their mischief. IA put out numerous articles and a book on the matter while the broadcast media can offer only potted half-embarrassed recaps.

Act IV: You can't step in the same river twice

When the Abbott government took office in 2013 there were a few changes to the Shadow Ministry becoming Ministers, but basically the Abbott government was all about restoring the Howard government as though nothing had happened between then and 2007. Two Howard-era Cabinet ministers elected in 2013 did not get a portfolio - Philip Ruddock and Mal Brough - and Ruddock had declared he didn't want a portfolio. Brough sucked it up and got on with backbenching, and the press gallery stopped gushing over how great it was to have the old gang back together. Brough didn't have the twinkly-eyed gravitas of veterans like Philip Ruddock or Warren Entsch, and wasn't a fresh face either.

The LNP merger Brough had so opposed was designed to make it easier for the Coalition to win State government in Queensland. Brough had foreseen that it would be a disaster, and the performance of the Newman government 2012-15 proved him right. In politics you can be a drunk, a thief, a sex maniac and/or a terror to work for, and people will cover for you; but get proven right when everyone else is wrong, and that warm inner glow won't save you. The January 2015 Queensland state election proved everything turned out to be just as bad as Mal Brough said it would be.

The first chance he got, in February 2015, he voted against his brother-from-another-mother Abbott. In September he voted against him again. The lack of press gallery coverage about Ashby (mainly protecting favoured source Christopher Pyne) must have lulled Prime Minister Turnbull into thinking Brough was cleared of the matter concerning Slipper's diary and other questionable behaviour. It was always a sad joke to put him in charge of electoral probity, and now it seems like the Prime Minister will have to find someone else.

The longer Brough stays as Special Minister of State, the less likely it is there will be an early election. A quick replacement would have been a clear sign the government was up to something. He is also Minister for Defence Materiel at a time when big procurement projects are up for grabs.

If Turnbull hadn't appointed Brough to the ministry, Brough would have joined the Abbott-Abetz sooks' club, and/or gone bonkers like Senator Macdonald.

Abbott allowed himself a chuckle as Labor finally started questioning him over Ashby-Slipper, at a time when even the press gallery would give them coverage for doing so. Abbott allowed himself a chuckle, as he does when others come under the scrutiny he has always escaped: a could-have-been Liberal leader mocked by a has-been.

The Australian Federal Police had all but dropped their investigation into the events surrounding the Speaker's diary until recently. I note, without making any allegation, that the minister responsible for the AFP is George Brandis. If this investigation damages the political careers of two of Brandis' ministerial colleagues (Brough and Pyne) while leaving his untouched, it could be a masterstroke worthy of House of Cards. If not, it could be the greatest own-goal in Australian politics since the Costigan Royal Commission.

Governments can lose a minister or two without affecting their ability to be re-elected. Turnbull knows this, as does any student of Australian politics. Predicting the demise of Brough or even Pyne will finish Turnbull is to over-egg the situation. Mind you, Mal Brough's whole political career has been empty hype on the part of the press gallery. Now that it is over, it is clear how insubstantial it was.

19 November 2015

Who do we burn?

After Paris, after Beirut and the Aeroflot Russian airline flight and ... and all the other outrages, apparently we have to burn someone.

Who, and how, are the questions to be answered. At this difficult time it would be preferable to join hands in unity; but burning nobody, no way, is no longer an option. Pretending that it is an option means that you can overlook a choice "we" seem to have made but not acknowledged.

"Us" and "them"

In all of the commentary and space-filler surrounding the news from Paris, the commentary from Professor Andrew MacLeod from King's College London stood out. He said that in any war you have to define "us" (who we are fighting with, and for) and "them" (who we're against). In the current environment, we can define these terms in one of two ways:
  • "us" is all non-Muslims, and "them" is all Muslims; or
  • "us" is moderate people of goodwill and tolerance, and "them" is extremists, whether ISIS-style Muslim fundamentalists, white supremacists, etc.
My sympathies tend to the latter interpretation, and so do pieces like this and that and millions of others that have popped up over the past few days, and which echoed good and noble sentiments from long before this weekend. Those pieces imply that by reaching out to Muslims, in Australia and elsewhere, "we" force "them" into ever-decreasing circles to the point where - well, actually the endgame isn't clear at all. It's a kind of "Tomorrow Belongs To Us" triumphalism.

I want to believe in it so much but I'm suspicious of it, and am tired of being played and let down by those without the skill and wit to manifest good ideas.

Had Farhad Khalil Mohammad Jabar fallen in with a bad crowd that was differently bad, and overdosed on heroin in an alley, it would have been a tragedy - but not an ignition-point for mass-hysteria. Same as if he had shot Mr Cheng while stealing his car. This is not to argue for some sort of quietism here, to pretend any attempt to tackle broad and difficult issues must be futile. It is to say that there are costs for turning "our" backs on some people but not others; the idea that we turn our backs on nobody, that we're all brothers and sisters, is not merely false. It is a lie that ultimately hurts people. It creates blind spots that make managing this situation more difficult rather than less.

I can forgive people being taken aback by a 'bolt from the blue'. Even the experts get wrongfooted from time to time. It's just boring to act all shocked at having one's face slapped by something that had been staring one in the face for ages.

In reaching out to moderate Muslims, people of goodwill and good sense, "we" leave people behind. They're the same people we've been leaving behind for years now, well before September 11 And All That. They are people with low education and fewer prospects for building and maintaining economic security for themselves. They are the people from whom Malcolm Turnbull, for all his honeyed words from Berlin and Antalya, is removing welfare payments and healthcare and school resources and penalty rates. In the absence of working-class solidarity or the British Empire or the righteous comforts of sectarianism, some define themselves against new arrivals to Australia such as Muslims. When "we" reach out to new arrivals "we" turn our backs on "them".

By turning "our" backs, "they" do not run out of options. Australians who define themselves in terms of race, of an Anglo-Saxon/ Caucasian/ Aryan identity, can tap into powerful forces within our society.

National myths like Eureka Stockade and Anzac have explicitly racialist elements. Not only is it possible to celebrate those national myths without wallowing in the racialist elements, but in fact most Australians do. These myths give those excluded in the modern reaching-out world far more purchase in Australian society than those being reached out to. Muslim Australians are free to join the armed forces and serve their country and many do so, tapping into the nationalistic legend embodied in those institutions. Increasingly it seems they will burnish their names in battle at the expense of their co-religionists, maybe even their relatives. Australians of German ancestry served in the two World Wars; John Monash was the grandson of a Prussian bookbinder. A contemporary Australian with a swastika tattooed onto a white face is trying to claim that symbol has lost the alarm and disgust that comes with it, and that other traditions and symbols seen increasingly often in Australia are more foreign, more alarming and disgusting.

It would be great if they gave up their silly white-supremacist, all-Muslims-are-terrorists ways and joined us in the reaching-out. It would also be great if the attacks in Paris were the last of their kind. It would be foolish to bet on either outcome.

Another potent legacy in Australian society that advocates for unity-against-Muslims can tap into is commercial radio and television.

Articles of faith

If you believing in defining "them" as Muslims, then you have to define what Islam is. If you believe that Muslims are generally people of goodwill, with the few exceptions you'd make for any other group, then you'd leave it to Muslims to define what Islam is.

Pauline Hanson declared that Muslims who didn't support Daesh were obliged to abandon their faith. Tony Abbott denied that Daesh drew on the precepts of Islam at all. These are deeply silly opinions, not only wrong in fact but potentially offensive for non-believers to wade into any religion's theological disputes.

Abbott uses his Catholicism as part of his public identity, and bristles when others use it to frame him in ways he doesn't like. Once again, he can't see that what's offensive when done to him may not also be offensive when done by him toward others. It's as though he, and other Christians who share his opinions on Islam, dare not trust Jesus' injunction to love your enemies (which would lead you to the second of the us/them options listed above, rather than the first).

It's also interesting that he voices his opinion while Turnbull and Bishop are abroad, exercising duties Abbott proved himself unfit and incapable to perform. There was a widely held assumption that Abbott, supposedly a thoughtful man and a Rhodes Scholar, would give up his boofhead ways when he became Prime Minister. When he left office, having disproven any benefit from all the doubt he'd been granted, people still thought he'd become thoughtful and considered despite all the evidence. There is just no helping some people.

George Brandis has revealed himself with his insistence that, whatever may happen, however effective our security services may or may not be, the answer is diminution of what civil liberties may remain wherever possible. This man holds a public position and acts against the public interest. He must be removed as soon as a better alternative becomes available.

Muslims debate matters of theology, and whether particular people are/aren't acting in accordance with it, all the time. It's understandable that commercial TV/radio might wish to ignore those debates. Having done so, however, it's more than a bit rich to insist that all Muslims must denounce the daily atrocity from those who claim to act in their name. Very few red-haired women were called upon to apologise for Hanson, or for Julia Gillard for that matter.

People still believe that commercial TV/radio is the national debate, and that you have to run the gauntlet of its quirks and abuses to get your message out there. If you can wear other aspects of your faith lightly, then this too may bear examination. It doesn't broadcast to the 'greyzone' where many of us live.

Paris again, Washington, or somewhere on your way home from work? Muzzies or bogans? How we define "us" and "them" is one of the major debates for early 21st century politics.

18 November 2015

Commercial media, Pauline Hanson, and radical Islam

In the 1990s Laurie Oakes claimed that the "national broadcaster" was not the ABC but the commercial media outlet he worked for, Channel 9. Since then, commercial television and radio have declined in Australia. Oakes wouldn't make that claim now, or he'd be ridiculed if he did. People have other options for spending their time than watching TV or listening to the radio:
  • Well-educated people spend less time on commercial TV/radio than less well-educated people.
  • Younger people spend less time on commercial TV/radio than older people, who had grown up in an era where there were fewer alternatives.
  • People from non-English-speaking backgrounds spend less time on commercial TV/radio than people from English-speaking backgrounds.
The people now running commercial TV/radio find it more rewarding to hang onto the audiences they have rather than take the risk on a broader, more representative audience that may never embrace those media so ardently as its ageing, Anglo-Celtic, politically inflexible existing audience.

If Muslim Australians were big consumers of Australian commercial TV/radio there would be more Muslim Australians appearing on commercial TV/radio, and running it. Populist presenters making ignorant and hurtful comments about them would be disciplined, and talkback callers offering such content would rarely be put to air.

New migrants tend to work hard and try to fit in, and don't need to be harangued about working hard and fitting in. Rhetoric about 'fitting in' rings hollow from people who regard being both Muslim and Australian as a contradiction in terms, or an exercise in malicious deception. The small numbers of new migrants who don't fit in, who lash out at people and property of a society they don't feel part of, confirm commercial media in their biases.

Those now running commercial TV/radio remember when larger numbers of Australians paid attention to them, back in the 1990s, and one of the personalities who got people to tune in was Pauline Hanson. The assumptions of politics at the time suggested that being disendorsed by the Liberals when they held a strong majority in the House of Representatives should have rendered her irrelevant. Instead, she got millions of dollars worth of free publicity from commercial TV/radio. Political parties have small armies of people raising money in order to buy the sort of exposure Hanson got - and gets - gratis.

In 1998 Hanson's party won a million votes. She lost election after election, she went to prison, and in some cases she paid dearly for free publicity. No longer holding public office, she shunned publicity. Eventually she accepted interview requests from those who promised her an easy time. Pauline Pantsdown's satire of her was as gentle as Billy Birmingham's affectionate, unthreatening impersonations of Richie Benaud. As Jason Wilson points out, her exclusionary immigration attitudes had become mainstream, bipartisan policy (and the broadcast media loves bipartisan policy).

Compare the trajectory of her career to other politicians from the late 1990s: Cheryl Kernot, or Peter Reith, or even David Ettridge. Note how Hanson has survived while Clive Palmer, a smarter operator with more money and votes than Hanson could ever muster, has faded. Many voters in the next federal election will have no clear memory of her as an elected official. Those who have negative memories of her may be outweighed by those who look on her more kindly.

The only interviews on Australian commercial TV/radio with Hanson in recent years have been puff-pieces. Many of her opinions echo lines run by talkback radio, and they have her on to run those lines and reinforce them to a receptive audience. She stayed in the limelight through Dancing With The Stars, an odd definition of stardom. Age had softened some of her rhetoric. A tough interview would arouse sympathy and "controversy" that would go on and on, and work to her benefit. The idea that she is a menace to the unity of Australian society, a belief expressed often in the late '90s, has become harder to maintain.

When there are racist outbursts on content that commercial TV/radio really cares about, such as sport or entertainment, they are slow to act. They are quick to play up a "controversy" that is never resolved, but it isn't in their interest to shut down what they consider a genuine expression from their audience.

Samantha Armytage spent her career in Australian commercial TV, and occupies one of its plum roles as co-host of Sunrise. When she made a "racist gaffe", the resulting conflict arose from a powerful institution being held to standards that it does not set. See also, the treatment of Adam Goodes being Aboriginal in a public place. Commercial broadcast media is run to certain formulas that make racist assumptions and don't challenge them; this helps embed them among those who are watching/listening, and repels those who aren't.

If you can accept that Daesh and al Qaeda aren't representative of Islam, then you can accept that Pauline Hanson's resurgence on Australian commercial television is not a genuine expression of Australia today. She represents a recurrence of some national infection, nasty and untreatable, public but embarrassing.

Scott Atran points out a clear disadvantage for those who would harness the power of commercial TV/radio to promote trust and goodwill:
We have “counter-narratives”, unappealing and unsuccessful. Mostly negative, they rely on mass messaging at youth rather than intimate dialogue. As one former Isis imam told us: “The young who came to us were not to be lectured at like witless children; they are for the most part understanding and compassionate, but misguided.” Again, there is discernible method in the Isis approach.

Eager to recruit, the group may spend hundreds of hours trying to enlist a single individual, to learn how their personal problems and grievances fit into a universal theme of persecution against all Muslims.

Current counter-radicalisation approaches lack the mainly positive, empowering appeal and sweep of Isis’s story of the world; and the personalised and intimate approach to individuals across the world.
So much for harnessing the power of mass-media to counter the Daesh narrative, as we might discourage people from smoking.

It was always a laudable goal to have commercial television reach out to a broader audience, beyond Anglo-Celtic Australia, to include Muslims and other relatively recent migrants. Indeed, there were sound business reasons for them doing so. Now our society needs cohesion and dialogue to maintain safety and security, and it would be nice if the commercial broadcasters could get on board as a community service. It’s too late for that now.

If Hanson and those who run commercial TV/radio could choose to define us/them for who’s with “us” and who’s against, they'd choose the one that resonated with their audience: demonising Muslims and other new arrivals, who were never part of their audience anyway.

There will be politicians who align their interests with those of commercial media. If you thought the Murdoch papers were a bit supportive of the Coalition in 2013, then this country’s commercial media are going to treat Tony Abbott like the king in exile in 2016 (similar to the way they treated Rudd under the Gillard government). He has spent his life aligning with the interests of commercial media. Not only Hanson, but other minor parties who want to crack down on immigration and civil liberties will get much more earned media free airtime than, say, the Greens or other established non-government political entities. Nick Xenophon will have to flirt with anti-Muslims, or walk on his hands down Rundle Mall, to get the free coverage that got him this far.

In their mutually weakened state they'll help one another before they'll help those who ignore them. And what could be more Aussie (pause) than friends helping friends when they're struggling (cut to shot of Australian flag rippling in the breeze, then to shot of a southern-cross tattoo on a comely white female buttock, then to an ad).

12 November 2015

A royal commission into the mandatory detention of asylum-seekers

The system of mandatory detention of asylum-seekers began in 1992, when Paul Keating was PM and Labor Left inner-city Melbourne MP Gerry Hand was Immigration Minister. Since then, Labor has been in power for 10 years and the Coalition for 13. Both parties have been implicated in human rights abuses involved with mandatory detention, and with the rorts that have seen foreign governments and multinational companies paid billions of Australian taxpayer dollars to treat people badly and mess with their heads.

These people are kidding themselves. Labor has committed itself to continuing mandatory detention until the next election, and afterwards if it wins. It cannot back down, or even change that policy significantly:
  • The Shadow Minister for Immigration, Richard Marles, is a factional ally of the current Opposition Leader. While he might go through the motions of challenging headline-grabbing events like deaths, riots, or cost blowouts, he is not going to challenge the fundamentals of the policy.
  • The Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Tanya Plibersek, has said repeatedly that we should work more closely with countries in our region to build a system where asylum-seekers don't have to take their chances on the Arafura Sea, and are treated humanely within Southeast Asian countries and their asylum applications are processed and, um, whatever happens to refugees at a time where they number in the tens of millions worldwide happens. I had expected Plibersek to travel a lot throughout the region, talking with political leaders at or below the ministerial level, but apart from a content-free trip to Kiribati she hasn't done nearly enough.
  • The Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, is adopting a strategy of differing substantially with the government on a few key issues - and this is not one of them. At Labor's federal conference earlier this year, he twisted arms and worked the system enough that the entire party reaffirmed its historic commitment to mandatory detention. If Labor were to change policy direction before the election it might need a new leader.
  • Chris Bowen and Tony Burke are both former Ministers for Immigration. Both are likely to be senior members of the next Labor government. Any measures Labor may direct at Peter Dutton, Scott Morrison, or Philip Ruddock would rebound on them, too.
  • State politicians Eddie Obeid and Bernard Finnigan had very little to do with mandatory detention, but they show Labor can't get out of its own way let alone reform vast national policy.
You used to be able to vote for moderate liberals to curb the excesses of a Coalition government. Philip Ruddock helped kill that. Mandatory detention is bipartisan.

Tony Abbott tried to wedge Shorten by making mandatory detention worse than the conditions from which asylum-seekers fled. Abbott is gone from the Prime Ministership but Dutton remains the relevant minister. Shorten and Marles and Plibersek kept their jobs, too. Mandatory detention isn't a wedge when it's a platform.

Labor and the Coalition are locked in to mandatory detention. They're not just "committed", or "sending a signal" that has gone to every corner of the world for more than two decades, a signal received and played back to us by the United Nations. The outsource providers of those centres can and do charge what they like, knowing the Australian government has no choice but to pay. This also applies to the governments hosting them: they breach formally-defined human rights and basic human decencies minute by minute, knowing that the Australian government dares not define standards without tacitly accepting that it breaches them, and that breaching those standards is bad.

Consider those costs in light of current debates about taxes, deficits, and cutting benefits.

Press gallery journalists can't tell whether a policy is good or bad, right or wrong - they can only tell what's controversial. At different times when Labor was in government, under both Rudd and Gillard, they flinched before full support for mandatory detention. The press gallery belted them hard and unanimously for deviating from bipartisanship.

Nobody in the media, nobody in the major political parties, examined asylum-seeker policy from basic principles. The media shut down rather than facilitated public debate, because it values bipartisanship over debates it cannot control. All major-party MPs got a free pass from the press gallery when they wept in Parliament over the boat that hit the rocks on Christmas Island, and they all kept their free pass when they voted to tighten the screws still further.

There's been a bit of discussion on this blog about what is or isn't an informative interview, or a hard-hitting one. It seems that every interview involving Peter Dutton is hard-hitting, regardless of who interviews him or how. He could have the softest interview ever and he would still come off looking like a goose. There is no point "popcorn-scrabblingly" hoping for a tough interview on Dutton, because:
  • there have been plenty and they make no difference, in terms of policy outcomes and conditions in the camps; and
  • they make Dutton look resolute and tough, with a touch of martyrdom, which feeds his rightwing support base; and
  • a Labor government would be no better. At all.
So much for partisanship being the only basis for criticising political coverage (and for brushing off any/ all criticism as though it were).

Intrepid journalists who actually get over to Nauru and Manus Island put the entire press-release-chewing gallery to shame. Their descriptions of what we do to those people is more important than all the journo-fetishising of bipartisanship. The broadcast media are culpable for reinforcing mandatory detention and deserve no credit when the policy changes, as it must. The public debate to develop better policy will have to exclude the major organs of the broadcast media. They can trail along behind the debate in bewilderment, as they do on most issues, or they can step up once they have stood down the long-serving "Canberra insiders" who have clogged their pages/airwaves with bad judgment calls for too long.

A royal commission (or whatever replaces this mechanism under a republic) into Australia's mandatory detention system will be necessary. It will not be pretty, and all the worse for justice denied and injustice compounded. It would only take place when a future Labor/Coalition government is over a barrel and has no choice but to agree to a measure that could damage them and their major opponents. It might be forced on them by Greens or independents; it will have far-reaching effects on this country's established politics.

Sexual abuse against children within those detention centres should be referred to the existing Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Decisions about how those camps operate are made in Australia, with the Australian government as their client. The idea that they are under the effective jurisdiction of foreign states fails under actual examination of how the camps work.

No religious entities have stepped up. The scriptures of the major monotheistic religions in Australia are full of instructions to be generous to unfortunate strangers who turn up at your door. The performance of religious organisations against the scriptural standards they set themselves is patchy at best.

The belief that the current system can't continue cannot usefully flow through to faith and prayer: religious organisations and their leaders are more strongly committed to covering up and avoiding than resolution through exposure.

It can't be resolved through high-quality journalism because Australian political journalism is mostly useless fetishises bipartisanship over all other considerations. The odd telling story will be uncoupled from policy change through set-piece interviews that fool both journalists and politicians into thinking they have done their jobs.

The Navy resisted government instructions to be as harsh as possible, so the government militarised the Australian Federal Police and Customs.

This can't be resolved politically because both major alternatives are stuck in the same policy. Neither has sufficient standing with the community to start a conversation about how things might be different/better. There are alternatives to the major parties but nationally they are piecemeal, community-based and fragmented.

It can't be resolved legally for much the same reason; an injunction here or a judgment there won't invalidate the whole mandatory detention system, and even small wins will almost certainly be reversed by rushed legislation.

Royal commissions aren't as impeccable as they might have been, but they are all we have as tools both to expose systematic malfeasance over decades, and to avoid both the silly press gallery and you-scratch-my-back bipartisanship that will ensure injustices and inefficiencies continue. They only arise under specific political circumstances though, so you have to hope and be alert to things political journalists can't understand, let alone explain.

You can only do what you can with what you have. Some will tell you that what you have is all you'll get, but they're wrong about that too.

10 November 2015

Skewered and stabbed

When John Birmingham went after this blog I thought traffic would 'splode, with people piling in to see why anyone would pick on a sweet, fading light-entertainment show. Barely a ripple - this blog is experiencing pretty much its normal traffic and I thank those who’ve left comments here and elsewhere. Why not click on the link above and help Mr Birmingham with his traffic? It’s only fair.

I never wanted to skewer anyone, or stab anyone; literally or figuratively. The violent imagery came from Crabb and Birmingham themselves, projected onto me as though I were the blank canvas. My idea of appalling violence is what a phrase like “popcorn-scrabblingly” does to the English language.

I just want to know how we are governed, and what options we have for how we might be governed. I don't agree that the status quo is our only option. That’s what this blog is about. That’s my hidden agenda. That’s what’s driven the retitling and revamp of this blog (they love a bit of reform). Confusing light entertainment with information doesn’t help anyone.

Birmingham clings to the unproven theory that going into politicians’ homes and engaging them in the sorts of conversations you have with strangers on public transport is enormously valuable. He can’t provide any examples because, after four-and-a-bit whole series, there are none. Posters on the previous threads racked their brains and all they could come up with was Abbott’s fish/steak thing - which was pretty telling, but you knew he was a prick anyway.

Birmingham could do worse than refer to his commenter BennO:
There's no way you see something closer to their true character in these shows. It's a chance for the pollies to show themselves as warm and fuzzy. It's as artificial as any press conference, just in a different way.
In my job, I elicit information from people. I get a lot out of passively observing and asking polite questions. Sometimes I have to raise my voice: whatever works in terms of gathering information. When it comes to political journalism, information is the thing. But in this case, I think I’m beside the point.

Sir John of Birmingham has raised high his blunt instrument and smitten the imaginary skewerer to maintain the good name of Milady Annabel. Hurrah! Like most people, I haven’t met Crabb or Birmingham; unlike either of them I can divorce criticism of their work from personal attacks. They have fallen for the dreaded Journos’ Syllogism:
  • No journo admits criticism from a non-journo; and
  • No journo ever criticises a fellow journo; therefore
  • All journos are above criticism, and it’s your shout.
If you’ve provided no information worth a damn, it doesn’t matter whether you’re nice or shouty.

I’m well aware that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar - if honey-coated flies are your thing. I bet Annabel Crabb has a recipe for them (“cheap and simple over the summer!”) - why don’t you order her book and find out? Birmingham and Fairfax were too cheap to make the link; but here at PGR information, like food, is best when there's plenty of it, and it's shared.

09 November 2015

Kitchen cabinet unvarnished

Like Andrew Bolt, Annabel Crabb has developed a media persona which cannot admit the possibility of anger. Crabb is locked in to being unrelentingly light, bright and trite in public; to divert from that image would pretty much end her persona (it might make for a more complex persona over time, but it would smash Kitchen Cabinet in the process).

In this piece, she wants to reject any and all criticism of her Kitchen Cabinet episode with Scott Morrison. She talks about how the media landscape has changed - yet, like some shell-backed reactionary from the old school of Australian media, Crabb expects that assertions will take the place of explanation and argument in reiterating the premise of her show. It isn't only politicians or sportspeople who reveal character under duress.

She has, as ever, buried some genuine issues under the guise of incivility - as though the very act of questioning what she does is illegitimate. You'd expect that she would maintain civility throughout, for to let it slip would undermine her position in more ways than one.

I understand why people like Kitchen Cabinet as light entertainment, and it's true that if I don't like it I'm free not to watch it. However, Crabb has said that the show has an importance that goes to the political, how we understand our leaders and representatives. This is the basis on which I criticise the show: I think it fails as political information, the claims Crabb makes for it simply don't hold.

Crabb starts by framing all criticism as inherently unreasonable: nothing more than abusive, violent (stabbing), even "spittle-flecked" - no media channel I use admits or presents information in moist form, but anyway. Perhaps the spittle came not from her interlocutors but from Crabb herself, livid at being questioned yet again by the ungrateful masses.

This is another example of a phenomenon I've noted for years now, as recently as last week, whereby Crabb simply cannot admit the possibility that other people with opinions she doesn't like may nonetheless have a point. As far back as 2010 she delivered a lecture to the University of Melbourne whose basic thrust can be summarised as: do not mess with us. We are the media and you are not, so just don't. We can prank one another but we will not be pranked, so you can all piss off and just buy our products both literally and figuratively. This attitude prevails, even to her most recent article, and I doubt any actual facts can ever persuade her to a different view.

About halfway down the page she stops engaging with spittle-flecked apparitions and deals with an actual person, someone sanitised by appearing in an outlet for which she used to work:
... the most cogently-put and interesting came from TV reviewer Ben Pobjie in The Age:

"What a government minister is like at home – or in the kitchen – is irrelevant to the country: what matters is what they do. And the more we get to know them personally the more we fall for the lie that 'what they're really like' is important."

I can't agree with this. I don't think you can possibly separate what people are like from what they do. Political leaders – like every single one of us – are shaped by the things that have happened to them and to the people close to them. Those factors – what they're like – exert a considerable and usually invisible influence over the most important decisions a political leader will ever make. Namely: which issues they are going to choose to die in a ditch for, which they will pop in the too-hard basket, which they might compromise on. This is the stuff that realistically drives the political process. And fleshy, human, and deeply subjective stuff it is too. Knowing what a person is like is powerful.
In my earlier piece I gave examples of previous KC episodes which failed utterly to create any sort of link between politicians' professed beliefs and their actual performance in office. There are no countervailing examples where Crabb has artfully winkled out some special insight into a politician's soul which informs us to this day.

To be fair to Crabb, Morrison was always a tough sell. Even his old school won't have him. The Australian Women's Weekly did a "puff piece" on him which claimed faith and family motivate him. Yet, his treatment of asylum-seekers shows how little those elements really motivate him in the actual execution of the powers of his office. He blithely declared that he did not discuss "on-water matters" and the fearless combatants of the press gallery simply accepted this. The idea that Crabb supplements strong coverage is garbage.

In theory, you can't possibly separate what people are like from what they do. Crabb hasn't made that connection in her show. She hasn't allowed for the possibility - no, the repeatedly demonstrated fact - that those politicians have humoured her, but essentially revealed nothing about themselves and the decisions they take in office. She hasn't deigned to give examples that even rebut, let alone refute, her failure to meet her own standards. There are two reasons for this:
  • There are no examples where she has demonstrated a human moment in Kitchen Cabinet leading to a policy outcome inexplicable by standard political analysis. You can't give an example where all of them (nearly thirty half-hour episodes) fail Crabb's own test.
  • Annabel Crabb doesn't answer to you, peasant. If she's got Mark Scott on side then who the hell do you think you are, anyway, having opinions? If she's learned one thing from politicians, it's to answer a specific question with a generality.
Clearly, the light, bright and trite persona is bogus, and more brittle than a genuine and stable personality should be. Ben Pobjie is right in saying that Kitchen Cabinet is nothing more than light entertainment, though I don't share his affection for it or for Crabb.
Why should it only be political journalists and insiders who get to see [the "fleshy, human, and deeply subjective" aspects of a politician's life]?
This falsely assumes it is. It falsely assumes a political persona in the arena of parliament is somehow genuine. We all saw Joe Hockey and Michael Keenan blubber while vowing that children wouldn't be sent to offshore detention centres, and then we saw them do exactly that which they vowed never to do. All Crabb got was Hockey's Bart Simpson bedsheets. She told us nothing about Hockey's performance as Treasurer, nothing about his determination both to strip entitlements from others and abrogate appropriate them for himself.

Look at every other episode and you'll find plenty of nothing there, too. Kitchen Cabinet has a strong and proven track record as pablum; no future episode will ever be particularly insightful. Crabb seems to think it is a new idea which must be given a(nother) chance.
Now, the defining moments of political journalism will always be the ones where someone gets hurt. We moan about how nasty politics is, of course, but what can match the thrill of Leigh Sales ripping some minister a new one, or the sickening speed with which a pleasant exchange with Laurie Oakes can turn into an episode of unforgettable political violence?

To watch politicians under pressure is always informative, and sometimes it can be popcorn-scrabblingly compelling (who can forget Mark Riley's epic stare-off with a fizzing Tony Abbott?)
If you regard political journalism as a performance art, I suppose, in which politicians and journalists are both performers rather than jointly committed to informing Australians how we are governed. If you do (and Crabb does) then the cooking show is just another piece of vacuous performance art, liable to be manipulated by a politician both familiar with and contemptuous of the press gallery.

Now that the Abbott government is over, we see that Abbott-Riley exchange spoke volumes about how that man would govern - more so than the Kitchen Cabinet episode with Abbott. Again with Morrison: go back through the Kitchen Cabinet episode (oh go on, I had to) and see that it was far less insightful than Morrison's recent smart-arse response to Paul Kelly on a major economic thinker.
To observe such a person in their own environment offers – in my view – some useful information about how they might behave outside it.
Again with the unsupported/ unsupportable assertion: put up or shut up.
Our democracy is big, vigorous and free. I treasure it.
When you spend too much time around politicians you learn to lapse back into a banality, preferably one with a patriotism theme.

Imagine Australia was a dictatorship - and I don't mean under some penny-ante operator like Campbell Newman, but a full Stalin/ Assad/ Kim-style monster. All the proper investigative journalists would be dead or in prison. The state broadcaster would showcase the dictator with Annabel Crabb, who would sit on his knee and playfully tweak his moustache. He would declare that he laughs at funny movies and cries at sad ones, and Crabb would agree this makes him human. They would eat the green-brown slop of Official Rations and Crabb would agree it was good enough for the likes of us. It would be So Watchable because nothing else would be on.
It was suggested to me a few times recently that "PR puff pieces" like Kitchen Cabinet are "swamping" journalism. Dear God. I have never heard such bollocks.
You can't insist on civility above all else, and regard any/all criticism as infra dig, while carrying on like that. Think about all the bollocks to have come out of politics over the past nineteen years: does that really trump them all? Does it come close? See what I mean?
The media landscape is heaving with old and new players, on various platforms, locked in minute-by-minute competition to expose, investigate and hold to account anyone in public life.

There is even enough space and expertise for whole squads of experts to debate the merits of individual television shows!
Peace activists dream of a world where schools and hospitals are fully resourced, but the Air Force has to run a cake stall to buy bombs. So too, those of us who want more and better from political journalism would have it show us and engage us on how we are governed, and how we might be governed, rather than being told Kitchen Cabinet really does have a serious purpose.

Imagine if you dare, Annabel Crabb dropping off the depleted public broadcaster like a suffused tick and running Kitchen Cabinet from her own phone and YouTube channel at no cost to anyone but herself. You may say this is the stuff of dreams, you may even say it's unrealistic; but again Crabb doesn't wanna hear it and can't engage, so it must be "bollocks".

Mind you, what elevates Crabb above her fellow Age alumnus Bolt is that Crabb doesn't equate all criticism with 'censorship'. She does not do the rounds of all media to moan she is being 'silenced'. She doesn't think there should be no public dissent, as Bolt does; she just thinks she's above it, she just can't engage with it and shouldn't have to.

How little it took for the veneer of civility to fall away. How little remains once it has fallen. There's no better time to can a stale program that has failed to meet even the modest objectives set by its host, whose mask of dimply cake-bearing effusiveness has cracked to reveal a snarling diva who simply will not be questioned by the lower orders.

08 November 2015

No favours

The press gallery has disgraced itself yet again by falling for an old trick, which some can anticipate but none seem able to head off. This time it's failing to spot information released after 8pm on a Friday night. Reactions to this news have been interesting, and revealing of both political bias and journalistic framing which most press gallery journalists would deny even exists.

When politicians, or anybody really, wants to release good news, they will do so in a way that suits journalists and maximises coverage. When people have bad news they won't release it at all, or will do so in a way that minimises coverage. Even the dullest press gallery journalists are awake to the trick whereby bad news is released late on a Friday, or just before a big event or holiday, or even during a big and unexpected event. Their employers don't seem to be awake to this ruse though, and every time it happens journalists are caught out. Shame on you if you fool me once, shame on you if you fool me again and again, because we're journalists and we just don't do shame.

Many outlets reported the fact that Shorten would not be referred for trial as a straight news story, like the ABC link above and the Guardian. Others, particularly in the Murdoch space, tried a meta-interpretation about Shorten and the royal commission.

They tried to continue linking Shorten and the royal commission in the way US conservatives do with set-piece inquiries into their political opponents that never fully implicate nor exonerate them: the practice has become known as 'swiftboating', a reference to the issue used to bog down John Kerry's Democratic candidacy for the US Presidency in 2004. Swiftboating was tried on the Clintons with Whitewater (though this preceded 2004, the practice was similar and later acquired the name) and now with Benghazi. In Australia the inquest-as-punishment tactic was tried on Kevin Rudd with pink batts, Julia Gillard with her renovations from decades before, and now on Shorten with the trade union royal commission (TURC) and AWU side deals. This linkage is part of the shortcomings of journalism, what they call 'framing' or 'context'. It often isn't helpful for readers/ listeners/ viewers/ citizens in understanding a situation; people resist the framing and thereby miss other aspects of the story, and other political stories. Journalists who (unwittingly or not) help muddy the waters jeer at the public for becoming disengaged, when such disengagement is more properly a failure of journalism.

One example of this Shorten-TURC meta-analysis is this piece by David Crowe, non-paywalled as I write but which may be yanked back behind that 21st century Mauer. It is not the worst example of its type, but Crowe is pretty much the archetype of the hapless press gallery drone who cannot and dares not go beyond his riding orders, and who will always patronise readers rather than provide useful information on how we are governed that might upset those who drip-feed him content.
The royal commission into union corruption does itself no favours by leaving it until a Friday night to clear Bill Shorten of any crime.
What an extraordinary statement that is. If that's when the information came to light, then that's when it came to light and it should be reported as soon as possible afterwards. Let's apply Crowe's logic to other big stories of recent years:
Lindy Chamberlain did herself no favours when her baby disappeared in the early hours of the morning.
Al-Qaeda did itself no favours by leaving it until the early hours of the morning to hijack planes and crash them across the northeastern United States.
The environment does itself no favours by jacking up temperatures to vindicate climate-change alarmists.
Labor itself no favours by leaving it until late on a Saturday night to lose the election to Tony Abbott.
Now you might claim that Crowe is entitled to some time off on a Friday evening, and I couldn't agree more. David Crowe, and almost every other member of the press gallery, should get as much time off as possible. Crowe's employer, NewsCorp, does roster journalists on after hours in a service they call a "night desk", and those people should keep an eye out for late-breaking stories like this but apparently, they don't.

What could Crowe have meant when he lamented that an official inquiry "does itself no favours"? As a quasi-judicial body, is it not obliged to act without fear or favour? To whom/what is it obliged to do favours, David?
The Opposition Leader warrants better treatment than that.
Yes he does, and good on you for leaping to his defence! Such concern is totally consistent with your reporting on Shorten and TURC. Is Shorten, as a potential prime minister, owed the "favours" you mention?
Burying awkward news on a Friday night is an old political trick – and commissions are not meant to be the place for that. Its submission on Shorten needed to be clear and upfront, not left to the 13th paragraph of a press release at 8:07pm.
My job involves gathering information from human and documentary sources, hunting through it and analysing that information, to often tight and shifting deadlines. I'd love a job where my colleagues and I became accustomed (if not entitled) to being spoon-fed information like the press gallery is.

Imagine being handed a piece of paper, with all the information for the day on one or two pages, then attending a short meeting where a person basically read out what was on the piece of paper just handed to me and my colleagues. Imagine we then got to ask questions, and the answers came back as reiterations of the phrases on the aforesaid bit of paper. Then imagine all I had to do was reformat those words, and maybe splice in some other words provided in a similar manner by someone else (the opposition, or a lobbyist). Now imagine that all happened in plenty of time ahead of my deadline: my job would be much easier than it is. It would approach the near-singularity of bludging and busywork that is the press gallery.

Crowe should have been able to rely on his "night desk" colleagues to pick up this story, rather than grizzle about news happening at times inconvenient to him. Maybe it just isn't reasonable for anyone, least of all Crowe himself, to act on the assumption that he is across all of the operations of the trillion-dollar entity that is the Australian government.
The commission has done great work uncovering the misuse of union members’ funds by the officials meant to help them. The labour movement is collectively shamed by revelations that an official spent workers’ cash at Tiffany’s.
I'm glad I didn't have to read to paragraph 13 of this article for Crowe's framing. Being an organisation comprised entirely of humans, I'm sure that unions and companies and government departments do feature the odd bit of graft and other malfeasance. Independent Australia was onto the HSU long before The Australian or TURC. I'm not convinced that graft is more prevalent in the union movement than in other operations, and nothing in the reporting coming from Crowe or his colleagues have helped confirm or disprove that notion.

What Crowe is doing here is claiming a role in vindicating the Heydon Royal Commission, or TURC. When this body, operating without fear or favour, releases information late on a Friday evening they are not just letting themselves down. They are letting David Crowe down. He's willing to help, but he can only do so much.
But if commissioner Dyson Heydon is to carry any influence with the public when he hands down his final report at the end of the year, his inquiry has to be seen to be fair.
Heydon is required to hand his report to government; influencing the public is the job of politicians, and Heydon has never sought nor held public office. Those who do so use the media as their conduit to the public, and Crowe is more than a willing tool in this regard. It is impertinent for him to insist that the royal commission help him by fitting its activities to his schedule. Crowe believes that prioritising the media in releasing information would be 'fair', and implies such 'fairness' would flow therefore in the ways those who fell foul of the commission might be reported.
Accusations of political bias have already damaged Heydon and the commission. Now there is more fuel for those attacks.
Journalists are taught to write in the active voice: it's action-oriented and more compelling to read, it clarifies responsibilities, and it requires fewer words than the passive voice. Whenever a journalist lapses into the passive voice they are up to no good.

If the TURC was politically biased against Shorten, and now Shorten is not to face charges, then surely "accusations of political bias" (wherever they are) have less fuel, not more?
The counsel assisting the commission, Jeremy Stoljar, obviously had a difficult deadline to release his submissions. Perhaps the workload was too great to finalise all the documents in time. But would it have been too difficult to issue a statement about Shorten earlier on Friday?

If tardiness was the problem here, it looks sloppy. If it was an attempt to draw attention away from the core conclusion, it looks like media manipulation.

Shorten and his staff were given no notice of the statement and say they first learned of it when journalists called them. Some claim that Shorten’s lawyers tried to contact the commission on Friday to check if anything was being published, but got no response.
People work late for all sorts of reasons. Clearly, the lack of notification to Shorten's office negates rather than reinforces Crowe's idea of a stitch-up. Should the commission have withheld this information until 9am Monday?

The commission released its own statement on the timing:
The submissions were completed in the early evening of 6 November and immediately released to all affected persons through the Electronic Court Book shortly before being publicly released to the media at 8.07pm. There was no disrespect intended to any affected person by this process.

The Commission's public website is operated through an external agency who will publish the submissions on the website on Monday.
Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mr Crowe. Tardy and sloppy, indeed.
And the findings themselves? They hold more risks for Shorten than some might think ... Who knows what could emerge if the commission’s final report recommends action against Melhem and the entire affair ends up in court? ... The questions over Shorten subside.
Crowe's rather limited imagination is running away with him, and with the editors who failed to cut out such drivel. If there's a story, base it on the facts. If Shorten has no case to answer, why dream up scenarios where me might and call it reportage?
For now, though, the result is there for all to see. Shorten faces no submission that he broke the law.
It seems so contingent. Questions about Shorten have merely "abated", like a flood-tide that man is powerless to control, rather than been resolved by processes of oyer and terminer.
He has an instant answer to anyone in federal parliament, or elsewhere, who tries to attack him over what has emerged at the commission.
By "elsewhere", Crowe must surely include 'from the press gallery'. Maybe he could take time out from his day job as press secretary for the Heydon Royal Commission to ask Shorten one of his carefully framed questions. Maybe.

Within this story, The Australian links to other stories on the same topic:

Notice how they cast doubt on the exoneration of Shorten with the 'scare quotes', which are not afforded to the far more doubtful contention in the following headline. I'm not blaming Crowe for this, but I note he is not strong enough to set a clear tone for his articles, based on solid facts and sound analysis.

A royal commission should inquire into a pressing matter of public concern, but it should not need a cheer squad or public explainer in the way Crowe (and other journalists) claims. If this royal commission is first and foremost for show, if accommodating media deadlines trumps other considerations such as close and careful application of the law, if it requires "favours" from David Crowe, then it is in trouble. It is in so much trouble that Crowe, with his limited scope and skills in journalism, with his absurdly overestimated popular appeal and his misunderstanding of what a royal commission is/should be, simply cannot save it. He can barely justify his own role in this process, insofar as he has one, and insofar as the events of Friday night excluded him from it.

Crowe tips us off to TURC's essential illegitimacy, a failed witch-hunt tripped up by rules of evidence and the laws of the land. He reveals the extent to which he falls short of hopelessly inflated expectations. He does himself, his employer, the Heydon Royal Commission and this government - and his few and dwindling readers - no favours whatsoever.