01 November 2015

Reform reform

The Liberal rightwingers who want to turn a large party into a small one have succeeded in convincing gullible broadcasters into calling them "reformers". It's an achievement for them I suppose, but it's amazing how the word "reform" acts as a verbal prophylactic on further thought.

In all broadcast outlets they call John Ruddick and his pals "reformers", and their agenda "reforms", without really thinking about what they might mean - as though the word itself drowns out thought and examination about how we might be governed. Today's risible effort by Peter Hartcher is just the latest offender; nowhere in Australia's supposedly diverse and competitive media is there any organ that refers to them in any way other than as "reformers". Nor do they examine what those "reforms" mean, for those in the Liberal Party, and for those of us outside it in jurisdictions governed by said party.

Let's understand this "reform" movement by reference to its actual behaviours, and analyse what those "reforms" might mean. Let us do, in other words, what Australia's political journalists are too lazy and stupid to do (harsh words those, but justified by examples in what follows). Australia's democracy has been ill-served by poor reporting. We've elected poor governments on the basis of poor advice from Hartcher and others telling us crises exist where they do not, that shit is actually chocolate, and yet those responsible for such poor and toxic advice remain in their offices.

The view from the aristocracy

Aristocracies preserve themselves longest, said the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, "but only democracies, which refresh their ruling class, can expand".

Quite so. It's just as true for organisations as it is for entire countries ... These power cliques are expert at preserving themselves. They are closed to refreshing themselves. They are stagnant, failing, largely invisible to the public, the slow-rotting foundations on which the public [information about] parliamentary structures stand.
Sure is. Politicians come and go, but Peter Hartcher is ensconced atop The Sydney Morning Herald. Hugh Trevor-Roper advised Rupert Murdoch's The Times that a forgery purporting to be the diaries of Hitler was the genuine article: he became a Lord, and Murdoch's organisation continues to rely on bogus information on many other issues (e.g. climate) rather than face up to issues of truth or falsehood. Just so we're clear about who's who and what's what.

There's a bit of Wikipedia journalism on North Sydney, followed by this:
It's such a Liberal stronghold that Labor has conceded defeat; it's not even going to put up a candidate for the North Sydney by- election. In short, it's a great opportunity for the Liberals to put forward an outstanding Australian, someone of real accomplishment, a future leader.
I'll give Hartcher that. Before I knew Trent Zimmerman was running I thought Turnbull would use the opportunity to get a top-level QC/SC into North Sydney, to avert the laughable situation whereby nobody in the Coalition had a finer legal mind than George Brandis. The parallels with Menzies and Barwick, or Howard and Daryl Williams, are instructive at a time when the law is a major aspect of the changing contemporary relationship between government and the governed.
Instead, the power aristocracy that controls the NSW Liberal party head office declared an "emergency", shut out branch members from voting, and imposed a party machine operative on the electorate.
Political parties move fast like this whenever there's a sudden election. It isn't the first time the Liberals have done this and nor is the practice unknown in other parties. Hartcher's hysterical hyperventilation echoes Sheehan's shifty shouting in keening for things that never were, and confusing anti-democratic rightwing clowns with democratic reformers.

Branch members did vote in that preselection, and it is misreporting for Hartcher to claim otherwise. He's so carried away pushing an agenda that he's made an error of fact. A junior reporter would be disciplined for that; the political editor seems to be above such petty disciplines as mere factual reporting. Local branches did get a say. Hartcher and Sheehan imply that they might have voted differently if they had exclusive rights over their local candidate; I'm not sure that's true.
A senior federal Liberal describes his achievements with this euphemism: "He's a man of wide experience within the party."
It wouldn't be a Hartcher story without an anonymous quote, with the unspoken demand you be impressed that senior sources talk to him (and play him for a mug). We might equally say that Peter Hartcher is a man of wide experience within Fairfax and the press gallery.

If I were political editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, I would remember (or be reminded) that Zimmerman had recently run for preselection in the state seat that covers most of North Sydney. I would recall many of the criticisms that can be made of Zimmerman now could have been (and were) made against Hockey when he was first preselected, or former Liberal North Sydney MP John Spender: great party pedigree, not much accomplishment beyond it.

Zimmerman was President of the NSW Young Liberals in 1991-92. His predecessor as NSW Young Liberal President was Joe Hockey, a former candidate for the federal leadership and a long-serving minister. He was succeeded by John Brogden, who went on to become state Liberal leader. The tension between these three was adequately described in Madonna King's biography of Hockey. If Hartcher can accept (without smart-alec wisdom-after-the-event) that Hockey and Brogden were politically talented, then he can accept the same of Zimmerman.

The broadcast media apoplexy over Zimmerman reminds me of similar kerfuffle from Victoria in 2006, when Josh Frydenberg ran for Liberal preselection in the safe Liberal seat of Kooyong. Nine years later Frydenberg is a Cabinet minister. Zimmerman is much smarter, harder-working, and better able to get over himself than Frydenberg (the same can be said for most people, and some bits of furniture).

What does it mean for "the Liberal Party" to endorse a candidate?

When I was a member of the NSW Liberals in the 1990s I voted in preselections for Liberal candidates. So did John Ruddick, for that matter. Neither of us were members of a "power aristocracy", or even senior members of the organisation. We sat among local Liberals in making those decisions, because the Liberal Party selects its candidates as a cohesive organisation rather than the sort of franchise operation the "reformists" want.

Every member of the Liberal Party is a member of a local branch. Some local branches operate in areas where the local members are (almost) always a Liberal; these are safe seats. Some local branches operate in areas where local members are sometimes Liberals, often not; these are marginal seats. Some operate in areas where the Liberal Party has never been represented at state or federal level; these are safe Labor or Nationals seats. None of them are more/less Liberals based on where they live. Members of all those types of branches come together to represent the Liberal Party as a whole. When the Liberals preselect a candidate for North Sydney, or anywhere else, that candidate represents the Liberal Party as a whole.

When the Liberal Party loses office at state or federal level, the MPs preselected for safe seats on Sydney's north shore and elsewhere become the face of the party as a whole, and provide the building blocks for re-growth. When the party preselects fools for these seats, the image of the party as a whole suffers. When the party preselects capable-seeming people for those seats it reflects well on the party as a whole. The party has a renewal opportunity in North Sydney, and soon in Berowra and Mackellar and hopefully Warringah. If the party as a whole chooses well in those seats, the Liberal Party across the state and nation will be well served; if they choose badly, good local candidates in marginal seats will be handicapped by association.

Many readers of this blog will not be sympathetic to the Liberal Party, but to understand how it works you have to put yourselves in the shoes of those who are.

Political journalists and the Liberal Party

The Liberal Party is the leading party in the Coalition of parties that governs Australia, the country's most populous state (NSW) and a few other states besides. If you don't really understand the Liberal Party, you probably aren't much chop as a political commentator regardless of what it says on your business card.

If you want to talk about democracy in the Liberal Party, start by explaining why local members in safe seats should get all the profile, the kudos and resources, while Liberals in marginals and other seats make do with scraps. A fundraiser in North Sydney will raise more money than a similar event in almost any marginal; those who set up the North Sydney Forum knew this, and you'd think Hartcher of all people would go back through his notes on that. It was (typically) sloppy journalism for Hartcher not to call Ruddick on his "reforms", to interrogate his ideas.

From 1990 to 1996, North Sydney was represented by an independent MP, Ted Mack. Mack had hundreds of local supporters who didn't give a damn what Liberal Party head office wanted, and didn't care about Liberals inside North Sydney or beyond it. They raised their own money and took their chances. What the "reformists" want is a version of the Mack model: for local Liberals to select local candidates, removing the idea of whole-party candidate endorsement, but gaining all the money and resources that come with a major party. Sheehan and Hartcher haven't considered that. Nobody else who calls these people "reformers" has, either.

I called out Gabrielle Chan and Daniel Hurst from Guardian Australia on social media about this. They had enough social-media savvy to say "Thanks for getting in touch!", but neither they nor anyone else covering politics in the broadcast media show any sign of questioning the terms "reform", "reformist" etc. regarding these people and their agenda. Being dumb is one thing, being incorrigible is another.

Political journalism fails when it makes you less well-informed about politics rather than you were after reading/ hearing/ watching it. When political journalism fails, it has far-reaching consequences for the nation.

Moderation in all things

Hartcher flails about with Wikipedia, incensed that someone should have gotten to Zimmerman's position without duchessing him. He then cuts-and-paste a whole lot of wild-eyed Sheehan howling about Michael Photios (who is, to be fair, close to Zimmerman). Then comes this:
[Zimmerman's] faction is known as the "moderates" but it's a system based on patronage, not ideology.
Well, yes and no. For 18 of the past 20 years the Liberal Party has been led by either John Howard or Tony Abbott: there isn't a lot of ideological moderation left. The only real "moderation" comes in tolerance of intra-party dissent, which is a "democracy" issue I suppose.

In the 1990s John Ruddick wanted republicans out of the Liberal Party. "Go join the Labor Party!" was one of his favourite refrains to us "lefties". In 1997 he ran for a Senate vacancy, and lost to Marise Payne - a woman, a moderate, a republican, a former NSW Young Liberal President, a friend of Trent Zimmerman, and now a minister in the Turnbull Government. Those of us who are awake to Ruddick know that had he won, he would have become like South Australia's Cory Bernardi. Look at how Ruddick embarrassed himself at APEC in 2007 by demanding we all fawn over the visit of President Bush (it's in the archives, journos!). Not even the most obtuse press gallery journalists regard Bernardi as a "reformer", yet they happily and unthinkingly slap the title on Ruddick.

When the right control the Liberal Party, they set the terms of compliance and enforce them ruthlessly. A few weeks ago, Eric Abetz was foaming at the mouth at the very prospect of Liberals voting for same-sex marriage: now that the boot's on the other foot, Abetz is happy to cross the floor over an issue that was settled when he was a member of Cabinet. John Ruddick was as happy as a pig in mud within the party of Howard and Abbott, and goodness knows he flung plenty of the stuff; but now that it's not all going his way, he's flounced out and is openly threatening to take down an endorsed Liberal candidate.

You'll note that Juris Laucis got off much more lightly than any outspoken Liberal would have if Ruddick and pals were running things. Bronwyn Bishop shirtfronted Liberals who went to the press against her and hers, but is more than happy to let peanuts like Laucis and Ruddick off the leash when it suits.

Ruddick is mates with Jackie Kelly, another self-styled Liberal "reformer". Kelly also quit the Liberal Party and ran against an endorsed Liberal candidate, directing preferences to Labor.

Abetz had said it was some sort of tragedy that people left the Liberal Party after Turnbull became PM. With Ruddick, and Kelly, and this shithead, and that dill, and others besides - they don't seem like much of a loss in nett terms. Hartcher's idea of "Liberal rot" more and more upon Ruddick and his word trumping all other considerations. This isn't some sort of Liberal Spring, and I'm not going back - but there sure is a gap between the line Hartcher/Sheehan wants to push and the actual facts.

If I was a political journalist I'd be awake to this "reform" scam by bloody-minded rightwingers who can't get their way: but not a single member of the "competitive" press gallery, nor any of their "political editors", are.
Ruddick made headlines when he was twice threatened with suspension from the party for daring to publicly urge reform. Now he's gone further and quit the party in despair ... "The Left ran the party in NSW and it was a disaster, the Right ran the party in NSW and it was a disaster, we need a new way, and that is democratic reform.
If you leave the Liberal Party in despair, as I did in 2000, you stop referring to the party and its members as "we". Factions become a problem for other people. You get on with your life.
Although Ruddick was part of the minority faction, the Right, he says his motives are not factional ...
What sort of "journalist" takes someone like John Ruddick - or anyone else in politics really - at their word?

Get to work

Let's set aside journalists not doing their jobs, a regular theme of this blog. You did ask Ruddick what he did for a living, didn't you Peter Hartcher?
... mortgage broker ...
Ah yes.

Maybe there are Labor-voting mortgage brokers out there, but I haven't met many. There may even be some who are Greens, or Racists Who Like Being Racist But Don't Like Being Called Racist, or other parties. Met plenty of Liberal mortgage brokers/financial advisors though. I note that when Liberal governments get in, they tend to relax reporting and other regulatory compliance issues on mortgage brokers, such as acting in the client's interests rather than the broker's. To be fair, there was a bit of coverage about this in the broadcast media - mostly by the business journalists rather than the political journalists. They noted the donations to the Liberals by big financial advice firms, without really looking into the little guys (big players have big compliance departments who take regulation and reporting in their stride; smaller ones less so).

Blessed are the financial advisors, and heaven forfend that any imputation should fall upon ol' Johnny Ruddick - but if I was a political journalist I would examine further the link between this man's business and political interests. Not saying there's anything there - indeed, I'd give him the benefit of the doubt - but just as mortgage brokers tell you they'll give you the best possible deal on your mortgage, so too journalists love to say they're inquisitive and sceptical and ask the tough questions.
"If I run I'd say, 'This is a referendum about whether we want a democratised, reinvigorated Liberal party or whether we want the head office machine and its dull candidate to have ever-growing power.'"

He says that, if elected to federal parliament, he would vote as a pro-Liberal independent, "I wouldn't do an Oakeshott or a Windsor." And he'd prefer not to have to run at all. He's casting about for another candidate to stand as an independent Liberal against Zimmerman.
Why not? Oakeshott and Windsor got great deals for their electorates in 2010-13. If you quit the Liberal Party "in despair", as Oakeshott and Windsor did the Nationals, why not? Why did a journalist who followed the 2010-13 parliament closely not unpack this?

Why is Ruddick "casting about"? Does he want his vision for the Liberal Party or not? Is he afraid to get his hands dirty (yep, sounds like the John Ruddick I know)?

The byelection is a bit over a month away - now's not the time for "casting about", now's the time to get it together. Hartcher really has lost whatever investigative touch he may have had.
The whole point of reform, Ruddick says, is about attracting candidates of real accomplishment "people like Malcolm Turnbull", not faceless apparatchiks.
Turnbull is going to campaign for the endorsed Liberal candidate, and I doubt he is fooled by Ruddick's saccharine compliment. Ruddick didn't run in that preselection because Zimmerman would have thrashed him, even with a greater branch weighting. By dodging the prospect of losing a ballot while standing for a principle, Ruddick can claim to stand for democracy without looking like the serial loser that he is (the Liberal Party just doesn't want him, they never have). Ruddick's being disingenuous about Turnbull and Hartcher's too dumb to call him on it.

Ruddick is no more a "reformer" than he is a "saucepan", an "idiot", or a "Wednesday morning". This will not stop journalists insisting that both a) he is so a reformer, and b) when it comes to politics, they know what they're talking about.

Political bikies

If we have a democratic party, there simply won't be this bikie gang style of factions because you'll have 1000 people voting instead of a handful.
Former Liberal leader Billy Snedden once described the Whitlam government as "political bikies pack-raping democracy". Former NSW Labor Premier Nathan Rees and former Queensland LNP Premier Campbell Newman announced plans to crack down on bikie gangs and spiralled into political oblivion. Going after bikies should be a political winner, but it clearly isn't.

Everyone, just cut out the bikies thing. That includes you, Ruddick.

Song of Myself

Tony Abbott showed in his parable of the medicine cabinet in Battlelines that when he is given a job and doesn't want to do it, he simply doesn't. Commentators who call on Turnbull to pull Abbott into line are stupid and ignorant of history, and of any tangible mechanisms to "pull Abbott into line".

You don't pull Abbott into line. Kevin Rudd was ready for a third crack at the Prime Ministership, like Andrew Fisher, until the ALP told him firmly it was a non-starter. The Liberal Party won't do it. If you want Tony Abbott out of a job he does not want to do, the only way to do it is to get behind the most effective political operation I have seen in a long time.

I laugh at supposedly experienced commentators who fall over themselves with shock and horror about Abbott's speech in London: how could we possibly have known what he was like? Oh please, Barrie and Paul, please just fuck off, and take Hartcher and the "reform" zombies with you.

Reform political journalism

The very word "reform" has become so debased that anyone who wants to change anything, and cloak themselves in respectability, will call their tweaks "reform". Protagonists in zombie movies used to cry out for "brains" - these days zombies cry out for "reform".

Journalists don't have the skills to assess whether or not a proposal really will have the positive, far-reaching effects suggested by the dictionary definition of that word, but they bleat for "reform" nonetheless. Tax reform, productivity reform, reform reform.

Journalists can detect if a reform is "controversial". If it's "controversial" is unlikely to be "bipartisan", which is the gold-standard for political journalists. Any policy that ascends to "bipartisan" can only be good, even if it is an embarrassing and costly and all things against the dictionary definition of reform: mandatory detention of asylum-seekers, superannuation tax concessions, defence procurement, billion-dollar fuck-ups that cost our nation more than money, all of them bipartisan and lauded by people like Peter Hartcher. Anyone who wants to "reform" those things, particularly in a bipartisan way, will get a rails run from Hartcher and other press gallery dummies.

In the 1980s sitcom The Greatest American Hero the character Bill Maxwell (Robert Culp) would fall into a sudden deep sleep if he heard the word "scenario". It was the hook for many comic moments, and the Liberal right's use of the word "reform" on the press gallery is similar (all the funnier when press gallery journos get all huffy about their experience and savvy, etc.). Eric Abetz talked about reform all the time and did bugger-all. John Ruddick has learnt this trick, hiding in plain sight under a cloak of "reform". If Tony Abbott had used the word more he might still be PM.

Australian political journalists notice that when politicians use the word "reform" they turn people off, but still they persist in reporting "reform" without examining it. They fail to realise they discredit themselves when they bandy about a word when it is obvious they do not know what it means, and that their sources use the word deliberately in order to deceive.


  1. Informative as ever Andrew, thank you.
    My unreliable memory suggests that Billy Snedden's "Bikies pack-raping democracy" was an allusion to Vietnam Moratorium demonstrators. Given that it was so successful (ahem), he may have decided to give it another run in reference to the Whitlam Government.

  2. B-b-but, Oakeshott and Windsor were traitors, doncha know?

  3. Just depends whose in government really , we had decades of "debit and deficit " speak and the holy grail "surplus" , that's until the liberal party got back into office suddenly we don't hear those cliches as much anymore ....wonder why ?
    I agree with you Andrew whole heartily that the word "reform" seems to be like something that just wont flush away it just keeps poking it's head up from the political sewer. How much tax "reform" , health care or education "reform" can we have ? , we are entering the fourth generation of reforms . Its like a reform of the reform that was reformed by the previous reformers , quite a concept.
    How about some media reform ?
    Isn't Barrie fast shaping up to be the most annoying idiot on Tv , I guess with the Murdoch crowd you expect the bullshit so you just turn off ,but with ABC Cassidy it seems like hes having some sort of late life identity crisis , the man cant miss a trick he seems to blindly support who ever happens to be in government , watching insiders has become a liberal love in , It makes my blood boil to see Cassidy flirting with Greg Hunt when he should be taking to the man with a cattle prod . what are we to do?
    Cheers Andrew

  4. There was so much in this post to consider Andrew.

    It pleases me to share your abhorrence of the easy acceptance and use of the word 'reform' by journalists in this country.

    It is insidious and smothers debate.

    Reform is a spin word. Journalists should not use it so carelessly.

    Reform is change with a sugar-coating. Reform is a positive word whereas change can be for the better as it can be for the worse. It is the responsibility of journalists to weigh the pros and cons of change. Referring immediately to change as reform must cloud judgement.

  5. The word reform (as against change) has two implications. The first is that the thing being changed is in some way deficient; the second is that the change is an improvement. Both implications should be examined, but t rarely are.Err

  6. Mr Zimmerman is playing identity politics to win the gay vote in the press around Sydney

    It also amuses me when these gay candidates try to win the pink vote by assuring the public they are members of the community


  7. Good post Mr Elder. I also fumed when I read Hartcher's silly article on Saturday. One point you haven't made in relation to Hartcher's assessment of Zimmerman as a "man of scant accomplishment" is that, if he is elected as MP for North Sydney, he will be - as far as I know - the first openly gay Coalition member of Federal Parliament (and, for that matter, I can't bring to mind an openly gay Coalition MP in the States or Territories, so Zimmerman might just be the first openly gay Coalition MP in any jurisdiction).

    Given that, thanks to the growing power of the right wing, anti-gay sentiment seems to have been on the rise within the Liberal Party over the past two decades, I reckon that this is could be seen a rather major accomplishment on the part of Zimmerman.

    1. Liberal Senator Dean Smith is openly gay. Plus Bruce Notley Smith in the NSW parliament.

    2. Bruce Notley-Smith is the openly gay LNP member for Coogee in the NSW parliament.

      Zimmerman will do what conservatives always do: say 'vote for me, gays, I'll represent you,' then do nothing.

  8. I first read "Sheehan's shifty shouting" as "Sheehan's shtty shouting" and thought it awesome alliteration. Instead it was merely good.

  9. Thank god someone is finally saying it. FFS It is not a reform if the majority are worse off!!!
    The CPG are truly pointless. They NEVER question but accept, like sheep, whatever is dished up to themyear in year out.
    Smug Turnbull is clearly having real trouble hiding his contempt.
    Now that we have a Liberal prime minister who 'farts rainbows' things are worse than ever.

    What is the bloody point of them?

  10. the word "reform" is only matched by the latest in Turnbullian changes in rhetoric that is "and everything is on the table"