27 December 2015

Dropping the penny

When Michael Gordon describes his Manus Island nightmare it is in one sense a nightmare for all of us, given that our laws and taxes create the position Gordon is describing. In another, Gordon is forced to confront - however unwittingly - a professional failure on his part, and of pretty much all Australian journalists who report on Australian politics.

Since 1992, Australian government policies on detention of asylum-seekers has been increasingly cruel and wasteful. Since then the Prime Ministership has changed six times and the political party in government has changed three times; the policy has continued, becoming crueller and more expensive. The idea that such policies have a deterrent effect is palpably false, believed by nobody except politicians and journalists.

Journalists cannot tell whether a policy is good or bad. They can tell who has announced it. They can tell whether or not both Labor and the Coalition support it. They cannot evaluate competing claims about its cost or efficacy or other qualities a policy may or may not have, merely describing them as noise toward the end of their articles (they may reinforce this with a pithy quote from a minister, named or unnamed, who describes this as "whinging").
There is a view that the situation on Manus, like that on Nauru, is unsustainable, and that eventually the penny will drop that the end does not justify the means, that punishing one group of people endlessly in order to deter others is immoral and that there is another way to achieve the same policy objective ... the images that trouble me are two sides of the same coin.
That view is not new and more widely held than someone in the Canberra bubble might dare admit. To be fair to Gordon, he's had a hell of a shock and has changed his mind about a big issue where it was easy just to go along. He was wrong to be so dismissive of the view he now holds just because it lacks "savvy".

Michael Gordon has dedicated his career to avoiding the drop of that 'penny'. It is the coin with which he is paid, his very currency as one of this country's leading political journalists. He has helped devalue that coin, and can't let it drop without losing something of himself - something no PNG thug can ever take from him. The press gallery unanimously agrees Michael Gordon is one of their finest and most experienced journos. Impressionable younger hacks look up to him, and in some cases he shapes their careers.

Political journalists have - and if you read back through his work, Gordon in particular has - a bias toward 'bipartisan' policies. Bipartisan policies are reported favourably by the press gallery. Policies which don't have the support of the opposition, where the government can only pass them through the Senate with the help of the Greens or Senators from other parties, are reported less favourably than bipartisan policies - regardless of their other merits.

Journalists are more interested in how a policy will play (i.e., what politicians and journalists will think of it) rather than how it will work (i.e., long after journalists have moved on to something else, we will still be bound by regulations and spending decisions that may not even address the issue).

Almost all bad policy is bipartisan:
  • The fact that the government spends more than it raises in taxes, and that it prefers to tax individuals over corporations;
  • The ongoing war in western Asia, which has neither success criteria nor an exit strategy;
  • Australia is committed to billions of dollars of expenditure on defence equipment that doesn't meet our needs;
  • The fact that we have reduced our civil liberties in the name of safety in the face of terrorism, yet we are no safer and less free while terrorists flourish;
  • The failure of our relations with Papua New Guinea and other states in the southwest Pacific;
  • The ducks-and-drakes over federal-state relations. Press gallery journalists like Gordon are fond of quoting one of Keating's less well-considered lines about Premiers and buckets of money, without realising their responsibilities to fund services from a low tax base; and
  • There are others. So, so many others.
Almost all of those policies have, if you go back through the archives of Gordon and his ilk counterparts, received strong support for the breadth and depth of their bipartisanness. Other considerations are marginalised; bipartisanship is all.

Michael Gordon had a glimpse into the consequences of bipartisanship, and in short, he was afraid. He grizzled a bit about it in his second-last paragraph, but I suspect it will take a better journalist and a stronger person than he to admit his mistakes and change the basic assumptions of his professional life. He could well end up like Katharine Murphy: someone with random flashes of insight into the sheer extent of journalistic failure in Australian politics, but who can't recognise it as such and won't ever do a damn thing about it.

Forty years after the events of 11 November 1975, and after the three main protagonists have died, Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston have concluded Kerr wasn't a very good choice for Governor-General. The reports at the time Kerr was appointed, however, led to the opposite conclusion and can be summarised as follows:
  • The son of a Balmain boilermaker, Kerr won pretty much every academic prize at the University of Sydney Law School;
  • Glittering career in the law, culminating in becoming Chief Justice of NSW; and
  • Whoa hey, so impressive
There was, of course, the undertow which journos would have known at the time: the vainglory, the alcohol, the pushy missus, his collegiate approach to the law (and thus his inability in a role requiring sole discretion, where counsel with legal peers like Barwick, Mason, or Ellicott was inappropriate), etc. In keeping with the mores of the time all that stuff was hushed up. There was no way journalists or editors could link what they saw as scuttlebutt with the way Kerr would execute his responsibilities in office. Kerr might have sued, and - worse! - the press gallery might have missed out on garden parties at Yarralumla.

Kelly won't be changing the way Murdoch journalists cover politics. Gordon won't institute much change at Fairfax either. I don't know why either of them bother.

Hunter S. Thompson used the death of Richard Nixon to underline the essential failure of press gallery journalism - not just in the US:
Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism -- which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.
Plenty of Australian politicians have similarly slithered into office, looking good on paper (remember how Tony Abbott was a Rhodes Scholar, of Jesuit education and social justice principles?). Paul Kelly and Michael Gordon and every other press gallery numbskull lauded all those unsuitable people into positions of power, and lauded one another at how savvy they were, without daring to show us what the consequences are of bad leadership (beyond, say, a blistering phone call from Peter Credlin).

Pure gonzo isn't the answer to what afflicts press gallery journalism. Thompson's holy fool routine requires the reader to indulge the journalist even more than the assumptions under which the current press gallery operates. Gordon's mistake with his revelation above is that he can go back to covering politics in the same way he has always covered it.

When the people are badly informed, it is the media's fault - especially when they coalesce around one side of a story. That's when you blame the media. They're not to blame for everything in our political system - but going after the press gallery for failing at their jobs isn't "shooting the messenger". We are right to insist on more and better from these people.

24 December 2015

Going in too hard

This exchange on Twitter shows how social media can apply good sense to political journalism where it would otherwise be miserably absent:

David Crowe from The Australian was, in line with his predilections and those of his employer, galumphing down the road of a shock-horror story of differences of opinion within the government until social media pulled him up. Naturally no consideration of the issue at hand, and its effect beyond Canberra, is forthcoming or even possible from such an experienced press gallery denizen. The post from Richard Cooke (not a press gallery journalist) above shows a perspective that Crowe lacks, but also reveals that Crowe is not even sure what politicians like Fierravanti-Wells are up to. What is the point of all those support services in the press gallery when people like Crowe - no blow-in, supposedly a senior operator there - disregards years of slow and patient policy in favour of cliched schlock? It was good of Fierravanti-Wells to put out her statement within Crowe's working hours.

So Fierravanti-Wells and Abbott are both conservative Libs from NSW. Crowe, like many experienced political journalists, can't draw on past events to explain what is going on now. He's probably right in assuming such audience as he has cannot even handle nuance, but a good journalist would make an effort nonetheless. Once you understand the Fierravanti-Wells/ Abbott relationship, Crowe's feebleness in lunging for the low-hanging fruit of division (and missing!) becomes apparent:
  • Fierravanti-Wells ran against Abbott for preselection in 1994.
  • When she later decided to run against Bronwyn Bishop in the adjacent electorate, under the assumption that the older woman had her go and Howard didn't like Bishop anyway, Abbott supported Bishop.
  • When Abbott became leader he made Fierravanti-Wells opposition spokesperson on seniors, while Bishop was opposition spokesperson on ageing; an inexplicable balls-up unless you see it as a means for fomenting clashes between two people whose relationship was already damaged.
  • Fierravanti-Wells is no dummy; but she didn't have the impressive pre-parliamentary career that Julie Bishop had, nor is she a serious policy wonk like Marise Payne, nor is she a factional death-star like Bronwyn Bishop, nor is she representing a marginal seat. Each of those qualities may have seen her advance beyond the uncomfortable position she appears to be in today.
  • When Abbott became Prime Minister, almost all of his opposition frontbench became ministers for the portfolios they had shadowed. Bishop became Speaker. Fierravanti-Wells was demoted.
  • Abbott and Fierravanti-Wells both used to believe that Muslims were a conservative constituency who should be courted by conservative politicians. Abbott chose to depart from that belief, and that departure led him to where he is today. Fierravanti-Wells stuck to her beliefs in light of the evidence before her.
After all that, Crowe could only run the stale and pointless SPLIT SHOCK narrative.

Over nine years of blogging I've dismantled Crowe's finest constructions numerous times, and I think I've established that he is a galoot. He stands at the dead intersection of both press gallery drones and Murdoch yes-people, the most unfortunate crossroads since Robert Johnson's in the 1930s. Unlike Johnson, Crowe is not developing any new licks; he is just assembling and reassembling political cliches from the journalistic tailings provided by his employers. I almost feel sorry for him. Perhaps it's Christmas sentimentality, or perhaps I'm just losing my touch.

On one level, I really want to believe that a) press gallery journalists work hard and b) are clever enough to get around political manipulation; but because the evidence points away from such a belief I just can't support it, and can barely even humour true believers. We need more and better information on how we are governed (and how we might be governed) than the press gallery are capable of providing: such a belief should be more widely shared, given the failure of the contrary assertions and the manifest inadequacy of the political choices proffered to us. People make dreadful decisions when they're misinformed, when at the ballot box, when making investment decisions, or at the Cabinet table.

Nobody in the press gallery, nor in the wider Australian broadcast media responsible for political news, is any closer to getting this than they were in 2006. They cannot bear their own culpability. They would prefer to blame things beyond their control (the internet, ad revenue), or even invent them ("24 hour news cycle"), rather than change their ways.

Nine years from now the thick crust at the top of the press gallery will probably still be there, and coverage of government won't be any better, and the media organisations probably won't have the good grace to shut down and stop wasting everyone's time and resources. In calling for more and better, over and over, perhaps I am repeating myself; but this is true of anyone with a cause unfulfilled that is too important to be abandoned, yet so bereft of measurable impact that it fails to attract the like-minded to put their shoulders to the wheel.

Yeah political coverage is broken, but what can you do? You won't change them. That's why I go in hard here: the failure of Australian political coverage matters, it has far-reaching consequences and the incumbents cannot be persuaded. When journalists are sacked I neither cheer nor weep but am amazed that the press gallery is spared, while proper journalists are dumped unpaid from a profession that needs the good ones more than ever.

It's so stupid that coverage of East Timor and West Papua, or the Rugby World Cup, is better than that of the federal government.

Should I take the time to show political journalists how they should be doing their jobs, per the dotpoints above, or do press gallery journalists work for billion-dollar corporations that can do their own fucking research to save their own worthless employers from further discrediting themselves? Isn't the whole point of them to provide information to those of us paying attention, but too busy to do so fulltime?

You don't have to do your own foraging to eat - so why should you have to do your own journalism to find out what's next, and what your options are? People talk about the future of journalism as though current employers of journalists have one. In an information age information providers should be making out like bandits. The fact that broadcast media aren't, that they are not only incapable of organising a booze-up at a brewery but are dying of thirst in such an environment, shows that they are stubbornly persisting at something other than providing necessary information. Rarely can you stop them lapsing back into their stock of cliches to try and describe situations that simply don't fit them.

Not being a press gallery journalist I knew Abbott would be a fuck-up as Prime Minister, and said so. Every day he held office defied political gravity. I thought he'd be such a fuck-up that he wouldn't get there in the first place, and I underestimated the extent to which Crowe and his silly mates covered for him and made such a clueless man look like he had all the answers.

Not being a press gallery journalist, I can amend a previous post where it is eclipsed by better information.

All the very best to you over Christmas and the New Year, dear reader, even if you are like Crowe and the still too many others who can only write the same stories about the same things in the same way that he does: it's called media diversity. I'm still considering doing formal in-depth study into the sheer depth and breadth of the failure of Australian political coverage 2006-2015. Summertime is good for reflections and suggestions, and as ever any suggestions on how this blog can be improved will be welcomed to the extent they are constructive.

20 December 2015

In defence of the NDIS

I think the NDIS is one of the great nation-building initiatives, and said so here in response to what I thought was an ill-considered attempt to talk it down.

I gave examples where tinkering scuppered policy outcomes, and have worked on public-sector projects where short-sighted, rapidly changing objectives increased costs and depressed outcomes (and depressed good people trying to make the bloody thing work). Yale Stephens at Red/Blue probably doesn't have that experience and was hypnotised by the figure of $24b, which admittedly is a biggie. Anyway, pop over to his blog and see what you reckon in what are apparently Contesting Assertions.

15 December 2015

Between two stools

Ian Macfarlane knew better to entrust his political career to the Nationals. As head of the Cattlemen's Union in the 1990s, he had shown a real skill at getting seemingly unreconcilable interests to come together and form some sort of agreement; a case of political skill preceding political ambition. When he began expressing an interest in going into politics, but was reluctant to join the Nationals, John Howard persuaded him to join the Liberal Party and to replace Bill Taylor as MP for Groom.

But I doubt he'd suit the office,

Soon after he was elected in 1998 he went on Lateline with then-Nationals MP DeAnne Kelly. Kelly ragged him for being less than a true Queenslander for not having joined the Nationals (I hope the ABC can dig up that episode; it must look pretty funny right now). Howard made him a minister and, like all ministers in the latter part of that government, he built his reputation on shelling public money at those who already had plenty in the name of incentives.

The press gallery regarded Macfarlane as a "straight shooter" because history shows they are suckers for that rustic schtick.

At every point in Australia's political history, in every jurisdiction, there has been at least one MP from the backblocks who turns up to Parliament with grass-seeds in his eyebrows. He is patronised unrelentingly by the urban press because this visage affirms their half-arsed stereotypes about The Bush. That politician proves a master at diverting money earned in the cities to pet projects in his electorate, and those of his growing number of vassals. As that politician rises in the ranks - rarely to the head of government, but close enough to escape scrutiny while getting his demands met - he continues to be patronised by the same media who puzzle at his success in getting things done and in securing largesse for voters in the back-of-beyond. A six-lane sealed highway from Kickatinalong to Wheelabarrowback. An irrigation channel where the water evaporates before it reaches the neighbouring electorate.

Such politicians deliver nothing whatsoever for local indigenous communities, nor for those who claim the local Bishop is too lax in enforcing rules against ... that which must not be spoken; but such absences, silences, and negatives are achievements in themselves for representatives of this type.

In recent times Macfarlane, Barnaby Joyce, Ron Boswell, and Bill Heffernan have pulled this rustic schtick over the press gallery. Labor does it to a lesser extent as they hold fewer rural seats (e.g. Dick Adams and Warren Snowdon; Joel Fitzgibbon looks stupid when he tries). Old hands who can remember Peter Nixon, Ian Sinclair or even 'Black Jack' McEwen have should be awake to it, and in theory an journalist who is fooled greatly for a long period has let down their profession as well as the public. Press gallery journalism is different to other journalism because experienced journalists show themselves over and over to be willingly gulled by pretty much anyone who tries it on.

Pantomime rustics wear press gallery scorn lightly, and relish the relative freedom from scrutiny that urban pollies don't have and can't get. Bill Heffernan can make rampantly sexist and homophobic remarks and even bring a weapon into Parliament: the press gallery just roll their eyes, that's Bill being Bill! If Mal Brough spoke and carried himself like Bob Katter or Doug Anthony, he'd have succeeded in shrugging off the Slipper-Ashby thing and made Mark Dreyfus look like a whinger. Lawrence Springborg gets another shot at state leader of the LNP over some new face (or someone urban like Langbroek) from the southeast, where the party needs to win seats to regain office.

Cut forward to late 2009

... and Malcolm Turnbull was, as the journos say, beleaguered. For all the media coverage at the time showing the frontbench deserting Turnbull en masse, the Liberal Party was evenly divided over keeping Turnbull as leader - certainly if the alternative was Abbott. By then the Nationals had realised their traditional base was no longer capable of keeping them in the manner to which they had become accustomed. There was no conflict between mining an farming interests so long as miners kept their operations well away from farmlands (e.g. the deserts and semi-deserts, and the Barrier Reef), or maintained the sorts of mine-farm balances seen in communities like the Upper Hunter or Gippsland, where rural workers even out the ups and downs of agriculture with steadier incomes from the mines. At the time they thought climate change was an issue that could simply be voted down. The Nationals were showing their donors that they could deliver, and currying favour with the rise of conservative Liberals who promised a closer Coalition than had been seen for decades.

Abbott went to Brisbane to court LNP powerbrokers. Turnbull phoned individuals, who mostly ended up voting as the powerbrokers told them to. Abbott's defeat of Turnbull in 2009 was more like Gillard's defeat of Rudd the following year than either side dares admit; more than the press gallery, who saw it all up close, could comprehend.

The formation of the LNP in Queensland was a takeover of the Coalition in that state by the Nationals, with the purpose of securing the powers of state government to benefit Nationals constituencies. They resented the fact that the federal Coalition got involved in what they saw as internal Queensland matters; they agreed to Howard's demands to maintain a separate Liberal/National presence (including maintaining individuals like Macfarlane, or Brandis) in Canberra in return for letting the merger go ahead at state level. The powerbrokers who formed the LNP, like Bruce McIver, were the successors to Joh Bjelke-Petersen and Bob Sparkes: they arrogantly pushed aside their political opponents, scorned irrelevances in far-off Canberra (and the nerds who wanted to go there) and did pretty much what they wished. In 2009, the Nats who ran the LNP could happily sacrifice one Sydneysider leading the Liberal Party for another if it meant they'd be left alone.

One of the core motivations behind Abbott's leadership of the Liberal Party was the idea that Labor's victory in 2007 was illegitimate and some sort of mistake. They thought they were entitled to take up where they left off. Ian Macfarlane was no more, and no less, entitled than anyone.

Why 2015 is different to 2009

  1. Macfarlane has, as Turnbull said in September, had a good go at being a minister. At the time Macfarlane seemed to agree - even in the face of the ignominy at being replaced by Christopher Pyne.
  2. The LNP powerbrokers have been knocked on their arses. They fooled some of the people some of the time in southeastern Queensland, but this region proved so hard to govern and chewed up so much state government time that the Nationals' traditional plunder-to-the-regions never took off. That old Bjelke-Sparkes arrogance has been knocked out of them by Labor, and by the realisation that shafting Turnbull again would take them further backwards.
  3. The LNP powerbrokers have knocked both their current leader (Warren Truss) and the likely next one (Barnaby Joyce) on their arses. If those guys can't win the LNP executive, what good are they? Their credibility is shot, and not only with Turnbull.
  4. Consider this, Nationals voters: the Infrastructure Minister and the Agriculture Minister have buggered their own credibility. This is fine if you think Infrastructure and Agriculture policies don't matter.
  5. The Treasurer, who is not out of favour with the PM, is looking to cut subsidies. The government as a whole is under no obligation to make Truss or Joyce look good. While these guys are deciding whether or not they'll retire, Infrastructure and Agriculture bureaucrats will have to start putting budget proposals together, not knowing who the relevant minister will be. Now tell me again what the point of the Nationals is, and why you think their vote will hold up.
  6. Shenhua Coal have an approved mining permit to dig up much of the Liverpool Plains and affect the watercourses on the rest of it. The Liverpool Plains includes some of Australia's best farmland, and it's within Joyce's electorate. If Shenhua pulls out of the Liverpool Plains through sustained political pressure, Joyce will be a big winner in the local electorate - if not, he won't. Joyce's bargaining position is weakened rather than strengthened after his part in The Macfarlane Affair/ Maccagate.
  7. Joyce tried to rope Scott Buchholz (from the electorate adjacent to Groom) into a Lib-Nat switch. Buchholz used to work for Joyce, but Joyce has made him look like a patsy. Like Macfarlane, Buchholz looks more like a Nat than a Lib anyway.
  8. Turnbull's representative on the LNP executive was Peter Dutton. Had Macfarlane joined the Nats and been their candidate to displace a Liberal from Cabinet, Dutton would have been the Liberal displaced. Dutton is the weakest link in Turnbull's Cabinet (with the possible exception of Scott Morrison) and was, in effect, arguing for his own job. Macfarlane would have deserved the administrative clusterfuck and moral swamp that is Immigration.

The value of press gallery experience

Michelle Grattan, Paul Bongiorno and Laurie Oakes have all recounted Macfarlane's tale in traditional horse-race terms, as though it were disconnected from the Nationals-Turnbull relationship in 2009 or the coming Budget. Michael Gordon deserves special mention for a piece that is particularly vapid even by the low standards he sets.

Katharine Murphy has developed a strong reputation for describing game-playing across politics while being coy about the press gallery and its role in political manoeuvrings. Sure, Macfarlane is throwing a tantrum - but consider the role played by Murphy and her colleagues in building Macfarlane up as a "straight shooter", someone with unmatched largesse-shovelling skills, etc. She's been a sucker for the pantomime rustic routine, and now is piling onto the poor hapless bastard ... presumably so she can write another one of her hand-wringing pieces about piling onto poor hapless bastards. Murphy writing about cynicism in politics is like Abbott beating up Islamic extremism: be the problem you denounce, rinse and repeat.

Mark Kenny, the Official Bunny of this blog, proffered two gobbets of analysis on this matter:
Macfarlane's rejection has left his career in the wilderness - with only his credibility for company.
Snappy line, that.
But whatever is done with him, it is pretty clear his party backers are too. Done with him that is ... Now Macfarlane is hinting he might look at something in the resources sector after his stint as Australia's longest-serving minerals energy and resources minister.

The cynicism of such manoeuvring apparently knows no limit. Having failed to secure personal advancement through skulduggery, the risk is he could take the corporate knowledge of national service and deploy it for private corporate gain.
You can't look at something that isn't there. Macfarlane should know that by now.

In challenging times, the mining industry needs all the friends it can get in Canberra - why would they hire someone with no credibility? Former Labor minister Martin Ferguson would probably have better standing with the current minister, Josh Frydenberg, than Macfarlane could ever muster. Do you reckon Clive Palmer would want him involved with Queensland Nickel? You see the problem here, provided you aren't as shortsighted as Mark Kenny.

Nobody in the press gallery is prepared for a post-Joyce environment.

Plenty of journos out there will tell you political journalism doesn't - can't - get any better than those people.

Update 24 December: Tony Windsor's piece on Macfarlane a superior article to the one I had written, so I disavow the above to the extent that it departs from Windsor's analysis. As you can see I placed too much reliance on gallery interpretations (e.g. Macfarlane as turncoat). My post would have been improved with more of the dreary cynicism of which I am so regularly accused.