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.


  1. This attack on Turnbull regarding the Republic feeds into the view he has done nothing on Refugees, nothing on the environment, nothing on same sex marriage, nothing on the NBN, nothing on Ministerial standards and nothing on budget and economic fairness. This will undermine his support within the Green/Lefty/Young inner urban demographic

    1. Your probably right , but I just cant see much undermining him at the moment it would appear he will sleep walk into winning the next election and we will suffer the consequences of having Morrison as a treasurer.Id be happy to ad least see Pyne cop some karma.
      The year hasn't started I know , hopefully things level out and it becomes a more balanced look at the state of affairs, I wouldn't hold my breath, just look what they did with Gillard and Rudd the press has managed to destroy Shorten much in the same way just day after day month after month of negativity towards him, he would not have a hope in hell against anyone, That's more a reflection on how effective the media can be when they want to be, rather than a reflection on Shortens ability.
      I think if you want to reform the political establishment you should start with the media they have been corrupting the voters for decades , and then we are left with train wrecks like Abbott .The problem is not with some idiot politician its with a complete and utter bias media.

  2. On a related matter was it coincidence that 1 day after Shorten announces $4b for Gonski, Treasury head Fraser turns up at Hendo's gin joint to warn of impending doom if spending not reigned in. Didn't see much comment except regurgitating what he said at face value without asking why this came out when it did then Mal comes out and says there won't be any big spending election promises. Seems some narrative setting going on here from the Liberals and their hired help

  3. I take your point about a Republic being divorced from other necessary areas for reform and led by politicians being unlikely to succeed. On the other hand necessary reforms do need to have the support of politicians or they get nowhere. Witness the UK where majority public support for voluntary euthanasia led to the members of House of Commons taking it upon themselves to deny the people their wishes, in the absence of any political party making it part of their platform.

  4. Turnbull would be crazy to push for a republic in the near future. His enemies in the Coalition would have a focus for their rage. Imagine Tony Abbott as Defender of the Queen? “Come on boy, sic the republicans! Go boy! Get’em! Tear their throats out!”

    I see Turnbull planning two or three election wins, and going for a republic in his last term. Long-serving PM and first President of Australia would satisfy most political egos.

    1. But first, Turnbull has to get to first base, ie. do something. He is paralysed by the ghost of Abbott, at least for now. I'd like to see him do something positive about his beliefs (we all know what they are), and all the stars tell me that's what Malcolm's all about, but we are yet to see a demonstration of his skills in that area - the skills of bringing his party along with him into the 21st century.

      It might mean removing Abbott from parliament. I'm sure Malcolm has ways of making that happen that will keep his skin clean. But it might not be required - if Abbott behaves.

      Either way 2016 will be a fascinating year.

  5. It's just another example of people believing in the fantasy Malcolm Turnbull that exists only in their heads. You know, the one that is going to get rid of all the bad policies of the government and make everything OK. Just give him a little more time... any minute now he's totally going to do it.

  6. The other current non story is:

    (Fairfax) Abbott and his rightists formulating a comeback
    (News) Abbott is not Rudd and is thoroughly decent

    - when the real story isn't a story - Abbott, Erica and Herman Munster are utterly, irreparably irrelevant.

  7. I don't blame you , I mean whats the point anyway, did you see "Insiders" this morning .. There is no debate just totalitarian media regimes . Shocking as shit is.