28 January 2016

Flogging a Trojan horse

Press gallery journalists continue to assert that their years of experience are valuable, and that they draw on it to the benefit of readers. It should be valuable - but the actual value of press gallery experience is one of those PolSci101 nostrums that vanishes upon closer inspection. There is simply no evidence to support it. The press gallery regularly finds itself in positions where they don't understand what is going on with people and events they have supposedly been observing closely, and blame others for their confusion. Now is one such time.

There are a number of issues here - the supposed resurgence of the Liberal right, etc., - normally I would deal with all those issues in a book-length blog post. I'll deal with that stuff as time permits over the next few days. Let's start with Turnbull and the republic.

Consistency is turmoil

On the evening of Saturday 6 November 1999 it became clear: the referendum for a republic held earlier that day was heading for defeat. Malcolm Turnbull, the former head of the Australian Republican Movement, declared the question of a republic was over for a generation - possibly not to be revisited until after Queen Elizabeth II had died.

When he ran for Liberal preselection in 2003-04, Liberals were concerned Turnbull would revisit the republic again. He reiterated that the question of a republic was over for a generation - possibly not to be revisited until after Queen Elizabeth II had died.

When he became Opposition Leader in 2008, Turnbull said that the question of a republic was over for a generation - possibly not to be revisited until after Queen Elizabeth II had died.

In January 2016, he said once again that the question of a republic was over for a generation - possibly not to be revisited until after Queen Elizabeth II had died. The Daily Telegraph was so desperate for a front page (no I won't link to it) that it presented a story almost two decades old as some hot new please-please-buy-the-paper development.

There was no intervening moment over that period where Turnbull lapsed back into revving up the republic. It looks uncannily like a consistent position on Turnbull's part.

It also looks consistent with polling - and press gallery journalists love polling. Polls in 1999 showed the referendum was bound for defeat; regular readers of this blog will not be surprised that I voted for it. Polling since then has not shown dramatic spikes in support for a republic, not even after last year's knighthood for Prince Phillip.

Experienced press gallery journalists regard Turnbull's position on the republic as a backflip, evidence of turmoil within the government. No, me neither.

Under traditional understandings of what journalism is, you'd expect journalists to report Turnbull's position as no change. Even excitable outlets like The Daily Telegraph would normally regard this sort of thing as a non-story: on par with the sun rising in the east, the Pope attending Roman Catholic Mass, bears defecating in the woods, EXCLUSIVE NUDE PIX: RANDY RUPE'S NEW BLONDE etc.

What the Australian Republican Movement learned from Turnbull and 1999

Nothing. Skip to the next subheading if you like.

The current practice of the Australian Republican Movement confirms the wisdom of Turnbull's position. They have a passionate advocate in Peter FitzSimons, who is all over the broadcast media like a hospice blanket (fewer and fewer readers, listeners, and viewers tap into the broadcast media despite the population growing and ageing since 1999).

They are courting celebrity endorsements, which count for very little. After half a century of advertising politics as another commodity, we can see that celebrity endorsements on national issues do nothing for either the endorser or the endorsee. Until a few weeks ago, you could imagine the ARM striving to secure endorsement from clean-cut and highly regarded players of popular sports: like, say, Jobe Watson or Mitchell Pearce.

They argue that a minimalist position on a republic would both change the country very little, yet also change it a lot; this places it alongside other suspicion-inducing, self-defeating political promises.

They present a republic as utterly disconnected from national issues like:
  • structural reform of different levels of government, and
  • Indigenous land issues that arose from the High Court's judgments on Mabo and Wik and have not, despite Tim Fischer's buckets, been extinguished; and
  • Half-hearted/baked alternative flags.
These are important issues (the latter one less so - until a great design changes everything, as with Canada in 1967) and can't be wished away. Clearly, they can't work with republic to produce the kind of coherent reform vision hankered for by commentators beyond the press gallery.

When state and territory leaders endorsed a republic recently it was very much not a triumph for the ARM, nor for a republic. It demonstrated that supposedly practical politicians had taken their eyes off the ball, and they better get back to work soon if they know what's good for them.

A politician that can tackle those issues as part of a coherent role is the sort of leader who can bring about a republic. Placing the republic first and insisting other reforms must work around it is arse-about. Turnbull is right to recognise that (insofar as he does).

The Australian Republican Movement today is repeating most of its mistakes from the late 1990s, even with (bipartsan! Lovely policy-goodness bipartisan!) political leadership both more potentially supportive and less wily than John Howard. I set a low bar for the ARM and FitzSimons has limboed under it. You can hope for a republic but reject the ARM in the same way people believe in God while rejecting institutional religiosity.

Turnbull would be a fool to throw in his lot with such people - which may explain why he hasn't.

The real story

Journalists, and Turnbull's enemies within the Liberal Party, insist that his consistent position on a republic is some sort of ruse. They insist their fevered imaginings of Turnbull's republican fifth column are "the real story". Turnbull's Prime Ministership definitely isn't a Trojan horse of republicanism, but neither is it a dead horse. Good journalism should allow for complexity; but then good journalism could not be more absent from the press gallery if it were illegal.

Where imaginings become "the real story" and demonstrable fact is ignored, both politics and journalism suffers.

You might say that politics is a realm where black becomes white, and yes I've read Hunter S. Thompson too. If you are representing black as white then either you don't understand what black or white are, or you're covering up for those with an interest in the difference remaining obscured - or both. Either way, you're so much less of the experienced and capable press gallery journalist you might assume yourself to be.

02 January 2016

Not ready

Not ready for a ministry

For years, Little Jimmy Briggs was touted as a rising star in the Liberal Party - particularly by journalists who've been around the press gallery long enough to know better. Just because the Liberal Party holds someone in high regard it doesn't mean they're much good: Ross Cameron, Tony Abbott, and Peter Shack, among others, got the Rising Star treatment. They, and we, are all poorer for it.

The press gallery must have known what he was like on the grog - the fractured leg and now the sexual harassment allegations couldn't be hushed up or buried on some inside page.

Firstly, there are no inside pages to hide in any more: it's all surface with mastheads these days.

Secondly, the strict demarcation between "official duties" and "personal activities" maintained by the press gallery was always bullshit. The personal always, for good or ill, intrudes into the official. To go back into history (but within the direct personal experience of some members of the press gallery), John Gorton's performance as Prime Minister is inseparable from from his personal predilections toward women and alcohol.

The onus is on the gallery to defend this pointless and destructive demarcation. We're all flawed in various ways, but where is the philanderer, the pisshead, the fraud, the broken person who is nonetheless particularly good in the execution of public duties (I don't mean someone who can hold it together so long as the media goes easy on them; I mean someone who can beat all comers from all other parties in a public contest where voters are aware of the facts).

More than a month elapsed between the incident in Hong Kong and Briggs' resignation. Canberra must have been abuzz with rumours, yet the press gallery either a) missed them, or b) knew all about it and hid it from us. How many media cycles are there in a month? There are more than two hundred "journalists" in the press gallery' every one of them has been derelict in their duties, and now that Christmas is behind us all now should show cause why they should not be dismissed.

When a scandal erupts it isn't good enough for the press gallery to say: we knew he was like that. Whenever there is any discrepancy between insider knowledge and the general awareness of the public, journalism has failed. You have to tell us, show us what they're like - and none of this Annabel Crabb confected shit either. We can handle the truth, the press gallery's job is to tell it.

This means journalists can't reasonably spend fifty years steadfast hung aloft in the press gallery, but that's OK because longevity there is drastically overrated. They still fall over surprised at things that should be foreseeable. The press gallery is not some politico-media protection racket, and it is not the media's job to protect politicians against the populace they serve.

It is not, as Terry Barnes seems to imply, the role of the public service to cover up for inadequate representatives like Briggs:
... the public servant should not have been placed in that situation, not only by Briggs and his chief of staff, but by her own managers and supervisors. From Briggs's explanation, it appears that she was a locally-based officer: her bosses should have ensured that she was not put into a position that risked compromising her. They failed her.
Note the passive voice ("she was not put into a position"), and the way Barnes relies on Briggs' word. Jennifer Wilson's piece on Briggs is particularly good at calling out excuse-makers and smoothing-over incidents like this.

Turnbull could have stood up for ol' mate Briggsy, and for the next one, and the one after that, as Abbott would have done. To squander his political capital in this way would not enable Turnbull to solve the Liberal Party's short-term problems with women voters, let alone its long-term problems in being able not only to represent women, but to be comprised of and embodied by them. Turnbull seems genuine about seeking to address structural disadvantages faced by women within the Liberal Party, and he is certainly better placed to do so than any other leader in its history.

When boofheads like Cormann, and Ewen Jones, and this blog's favourite Josh Frydenberg, start insisting that Briggs will be back, they do him no favours. They did this for (to?) Sophie Mirabella in 2013; all that insistence, plus numerous petty snubs to Cathy McGowan since, have only strengthened McGowan and weakened Mirabella's case for re-election in Indi. Rebekha Sharkie has a strong story to tell about why she can do a better job than Briggs. If voters in Mayo are as receptive to change as those in Indi were before the last election, Briggs is finished.

Why should Briggs not be finished? The last politician caught doing something similar, Andrew Bartlett, certainly was.

Are we obliged, as Crabb insists, to maintain the political class in the manner to which it has become accustomed? Could the people of Mayo not do better if they tried, and were better informed than they have been? Will Briggs spend his future on The Drum or lolling about Adelaide in some consultant/ lobbyist/ slashie role - opening and closing his mouth without saying anything, like a fish out of water?

Is the press gallery entitled to be believed when it insists that only chaos can ensue when people elect politicians from beyond the major parties? Will the SA Liberals sandbag Mayo at the expense of marginal seats in Adelaide (including that of Chris Pyne), as the Victorian Libs did for Mirabella?

Not ready for the future

The reason why we are unlikely to have an early election is not because of Briggs - nor even because of the press gallery, which brays for an early election when it cannot handle policy. The reason is because the Nationals are broken.

Tony Windsor points out what the press gallery never could - that two old men (Warren Truss and Bruce Scott) are prolonging their political careers to block Barnaby Joyce, who will inevitably be elected Nationals leader - and hence Deputy Prime Minister - if Truss retires over coming weeks.

Joyce does not get along as well with Turnbull as he did with Abbott, and he is not a capable minister. His agriculture white paper failed to address national quality branding strategies, failed to link meaningfully with recent big free trade deals, and failed to address anything but drought handouts for family farms. It is a welfare policy, not a strategic, big-thinking, ambitious long-term strategy at all.

Where is the regional electorate not held by the Coalition that the Nats might win if Joyce were leading them? Where is the Nationals-held electorate on a knife-edge margin that they will retain if Joyce were leader? The NSW election last March showed the Nationals are the only Coalition partner at risk of losing seats to the Greens. Joyce has a profile all right, and the press gallery love him - but so what?

Barnaby Joyce is already a dead loss to the parliament and government of our country, but the press gallery can't imagine their "jobs" without him.

The decline of all media organs in regional Australia bar the ABC means that every National MP could well be on the skids, and nobody in the press gallery would even know. Look at how bad the reporting out of Indi was over 2010-13; it hasn't gotten any better. Imagine if an ABC reporter detected a shift against a sitting Nationals MP, and reported on it: Senator Canavan would bellyache as only a Nat can, but neither he nor anyone in his party would have the wit to shore up the vote or get a better candidate. Maybe they have no better candidates.

Joyce is the architect of his party's funding strategy, whereby mining companies fund the Nationals. This was fine so long as farming and mining were separate - but the Shenhua mine on the Liverpool Plains within Joyce's electorate shows how the boomerang can smack you in the back of the head. Small miners (the ones with ex-MPs on their boards) have less cash to splash about these days, while drought-stricken farmers have less still.

It's understandable that Joyce faces so much resistance within the Nationals, but that resistance is so feeble - Truss and Scott are too old to credibly present much of an alternate future, and if they could have crushed Joyce they would have done so by now. The next generation of Nationals, like Darren Chester or Bridget McKenzie, are not ready for the Deputy Prime Ministership or even the future of agriculture.

The Nationals are not ready for the future of their own party. The idea that, in a few weeks, they might be ready to present a vision of the future to voters at an early election is not merely inaccurate, but crazy. Add to that:
  • the disarray within the Victorian Liberals;
  • the outright chaos within the CLP in the Northern Territory (one HoR seat and one Senate seat, but still);
  • the existential crisis within Queensland's LNP;
  • the factional wars exacerbating decay in Tasmania and WA; and
  • the fact that Tony Nutt, while a formidable campaigner, has only just gotten his feet under the desk as National Director of the Liberal Party.
Now consider all of that against the oeuvre of the press gallery journos' press gallery journo, Phillip Hudson:
  • Is the government doing well in the polls? There must be an early election.
  • Is the government not doing well in the polls? Early election.
  • How should we respond in Syria? Early election.
  • How do we balance the budget? Early election.
  • Will an early election make Australia more innovative? Whatever, early election.
  • What's your prediction for 2016? Early election.
  • Was that your prediction for 2015? Yes.
  • Is there any problem that can't be solved with an early election? No, or make one up.

Not ready for prognostication

There is something about a new year that leads one to forecast what is foreseeable but unknown, and to set aside a record of failure in doing this very thing.

This blog has often detected the decline of the Nationals, and prefers to be regarded as premature rather than flatly wrong after successive rebuttals at the hands of political reality. However, intelligence from the obviously self-interested Windsor, and the usual obtuse reporting from the press gallery, seem to indicate that this time (for sure!) the politics of the bush are in for their biggest upheaval since the Country Party was founded in 1919.

Can Labor take advantage of this chaos in Coalition ranks? Not really. Shorten has done an impressive job in stabilising his party and even tentatively generating some centrist ideas. The fact that he has gone from parity with Abbott to roadkill under Turnbull shows Shorten is not yet the master of his own fate and has not used the media to convey a strong sense of what he is about, as one expects of prospective Prime Ministers. Shorten will not be Prime Minister after the election later this year.

Maybe he was always set on a two-term strategy. Maybe it was unreasonable to expect him to win after one term - but even factoring out partisan bias, Abbott was always going to stuff up the Prime Ministership and the Libs were always going to be reluctant to blast him out.

Second-term governments often lose seats. The press gallery must know this, yet later this year it will engage in pantomime surprise that the public are rejecting Turnbull (with a disbelief that such a result endorses Shorten). It will be helpless before right-whinge Liberal claims that Abbott might have done better. Voters' rejection of the Nationals would not necessarily be a rebuttal to Turnbull, but the Liberal Party is not equipped to do anything but wring their hands at the Nationals' foreseeable shortcomings.

The press gallery will cover this year's election closely, and badly. This year's election coverage will, yet again, make a mockery of the press gallery's belief that it is better at the sizzle of elections than at the sausages of governing.