29 February 2016

On and off the table

I beg your pardon
I never promised you a rose garden
Along with the sunshine
There's gotta be a little rain some time ...

- Lynn Anderson (I never promised you a) Rose garden
About a year ago I wrote a thing on on the prospect of Malcolm Turnbull becoming Prime Minister. With my record of crap prognostications, nobody is more surprised at how well it stands up.

By contrast, experienced press gallery journalists are expressing befuddlement and bewilderment (but not bemusement) that Turnbull hasn't been as organised or as moderate as they had been led to believe. The whole idea of being in the press gallery, and taking up space there for a while, is that you can see the players and the plays up close. It isn't fair to say that nothing should surprise such people, but it is fair to note how regularly press gallery journalists express shock and outrage at things they should be able to foresee and explain.

Australia should have a broad-ranging debate about tax. It should be more than a narrow technocratic argument by economists or lawyers or tax boffins. It shouldn't be "pragmatic" speculation by (discredited) political insiders on what might be achievable given available time and resources. A broad-ranging debate must include questions about what we are paying for when we fund the government (and who we mean by "we"), and what trade-offs exist in raising money this way and not that.

We've had debates before. The sound and fury rarely translates to action, which discourages both public participation and careful coverage.

Malcolm Turnbull can't conduct wide-ranging debates. To be fair to him, conducting and concluding a public debate is not easy:
  • First, you have to gather interested parties together: busy people who have spent a lifetime examining complex matters in depth, and who know more about those matters than you. Then,
  • You have to persuade them that you're serious about addressing the very issues to which they have dedicated their energies, skills, and learnings, even though you've done other things with your life than join them in the trenches. Then,
  • You have to use the media and other outlets to convince people who aren't experts to think about those issues, and make a contribution (this can be tricky: experts will understandably dismiss inputs from those they don't recognise as fellow experts, but the leader has to insist that everyone's input is valuable without sounding patronising). Then,
  • You need to negotiate with political players to get the measures through the Cabinet and party room and into law, some of whom will have an incentive to make you look bad. Then,
  • After everyone's had their say, you have to weigh up different factors and make a decision.
The real leader can keep people involved and engaged after they've made a decision that, inevitably, not everyone will support. The real leader will follow the decision through without being obtuse or bloody-minded, yet clear and decisive nonetheless.

If you're an experienced press gallery journalist, if you've followed Australian politics generally and been aware of Turnbull, you'll know that he can do bits and pieces of that:
  • He can get people together.
  • He can use the media and other outlets effectively.
  • He can make decisions.
Not being press gallery journalists let's spell out the leadership qualities Turnbull doesn't have, or where he isn't strong:
  • He has trouble avoiding sounding patronising. From Sydney Grammar to Kerry Packer to Goldman Sachs, his experience is that you need only consult a small number of people who can make things happen, and if they don't want to come along with you then fuck 'em.
  • He can't negotiate with people he regards as his inferiors, yet who will determine whether his decisions fail or prevail, though he's better than he was. He could mock Abbott and Hockey as they failed to deal with the Senate cross-benchers, but he's yet to demonstrate much success there himself.
  • The nearest he came to broad-ranging public engagement was with the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, and people closely involved in that process agree it was and is flawed.
  • He has no experience managing a public debate, nor managing one through to a successful conclusion (if you want to talk about the republic, note that the ARM removed him just before the referendum - then look at the result).
The press gallery blithely assumed Turnbull would just acquire these capabilities somehow, and they were wrong about that too. They had no basis for thinking anyone, even Turnbull, just picks it up:
  • Hawke came to office as a participant in national debates, having been given credible platforms by his predecessors Whitlam and Fraser. He steered debates on economic reform without necessarily limiting them and brought people with him, using public engagement measures available in his time (I'll stop here before I go full Bramston).
  • Paul Keating tried initiating national debates about a republic, the arts, and our relationship with Indigenous people. Those issues failed as national debates and were written off as quirky preoccupations on his part.
  • Howard tried national debates about gun control, GST (not tax reform generally - just sales taxes and a GST) and a republic, but in each case he had decided on a position beforehand and steered the debate away from areas he considered "unrealistic". After five years he gave up on public engagement altogether, and because nobody else in his Cabinet developed the necessary skills he thought he was leader by default.
  • Rudd and Gillard opened big debates they couldn't resolve: their legacy is in those debates, like the treatment of disabled people (through the NDIS), the place of religion in society and what's normal in terms of sex (the royal commission into institutionalised child abuse and same-sex marriage), what it means to apologise for the Stolen Generations, carbon abatement and increasingly viable forms of energy.
  • Abbott thought public debate was bullshit, and that effective leadership was about shutting it down. He believed public engagement was about distraction from what his government did rather than helping it be more effective, and the press gallery went along with that for an indecently long period.
The Prime Ministership is a unique position for holding public debates on matters of national importance. There is no manual. Only 28 people have held the job before Turnbull, and 22 of them are dead. Of the survivors listed above, only Howard and maybe Hawke would give him the time of day.

Turnbull has been raised to believe that to engage the media is to engage public debate. He was always a social media dilettante but has cut back on it as Prime Minister. Gillard lunged for social media when the gallery closed against her, which may discourage others from betting their careers on it.

The tax debate is fragmented because the traditional media doesn't do wide-ranging debate - GST increase is on the table, then it's off. Corporate tax must be cut, yet why bother cutting when so many pay none and unemployment rises regardless? Traditional media is where you conduct narrow, unresolved debates, not wide-ranging ones in need of resolution. Social media is too, but social media will help you find source material better than traditional media will or can.

To fragment such a debate ensures that it gets sucked into technocratic solutions that journalists find hard to describe, and the whole thing becomes less than what it might have been. Turnbull has no choice but to watch his dream of managing a wide-ranging debate get sucked into technocratic sinkholes and puddles (quagmires?) of media bullshit.

I have no doubt that tax experts across the nation are working on ideas that might or might not get up this time. I have no doubt that vested interests are lobbying the government behind the scenes. With the possible exception of Laura Tingle, nobody in the press gallery will ever bring these efforts to light.

The press gallery will make wide-ranging debate look like chaos, as they do with all such debates: they deflect this failure as one of leadership by politicians. They will be presented with the decision once it is made, and will soon find those who don't like it. They will bang on about non-options that the government has rejected, and overlook real options the government has not considered (and which the opposition won't consider either, thus it disappears from horse-race journalism).

People want a wide-ranging debate with public engagement - the media will blame politicians for not giving them one, and vice versa.

Turnbull might genuinely want to host a wide-ranging debate and bring it to conclusion; he just can't do it. He isn't squibbing it, in the same way that you didn't squib the Dally M medal or a Nobel Prize. You have to work with what you have, using the skills you have; and the skills Turnbull has developed over an impressive career do not include many of the skills he now needs. His tragedy is like that of Basil Fawlty, who wanted to be a warm and generous host to a genteel clientele but instead faced snippy guests and comically inept staff.

In May there will be a budget, and it will include tax measures that will bear little resemblance to public debates (such as they are). Scott Morrison's idea of a compromise rose garden will be to present full rose bushes with the actual petals snipped off. Public debates on those measures will be limited: the government will declare this is the only option, its opponents will demur, and all the subtleties will be lost (and the fewer subtleties, the better the press gallery likes it).

Those debates will be embodied in cross-bench Senators, who then become subject to partisan abuse that in no way enlightens the impact of a tax upon the economy. Journalists who helped kill it will cry: "what happened to the tax debate?".

Traditional media will not help you (or Turnbull, or Shorten, or anyone) with the tax debate. They can't. Turnbull's failure is their failure too.

23 February 2016

Democracy and the Senate

The radio business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs.

- Hunter S. Thompson
Having seen the process by which a major party chooses its Senators, I don't share others' sympathy for the idea that minor parties are a blight on our democracy. The Liberal Party isn't quite like the Thompson quote above but its processes and standing ought not be taken at face value, as the government and the press gallery would have you do.

The government has moved far too swiftly from identifying a problem (that people get elected to the Senate with a relatively small first-preference vote) to coming up with a solution. This swiftness is definitely indicative of inept politics and bad government, and may indicate that the fix is in and being hurriedly disguised.

The government can have no confidence that it has come up with the best solution - or even the one that will work best to suit its own purposes. Nobody will laugh harder than me if when a carefully set up arrangement comes back to bite the Coalition, very hard and not at a moment of its choosing.

A laboratory of democracy

South Australia was one of the first jurisdictions to extend the vote to (non-Indigenous) women, and to abolish the property qualification for voting. If we are going to talk about democracy, let's start there.

Before he got into state parliament, Nick Xenophon worked hard at building a political base and this continued while he was in that state's upper house. When you go back through media files trying to work out why he was so popular, all you can find is a) stunts and b) criticism of stunts, which leads to c) journalists not reflecting on their own gullibility, but attributing Xenophon's popularity to stunts.

The issues journalists mention in passing - poker machines and Xenophon's opposition to them, for example - seem to have no connection to people voting for him. No, it must be all about the stunts. The stunts from which experienced journalists from the popular and vital traditional media simply cannot turn away.

By contrast, Cory Bernardi's views are supported by a much smaller proportion of South Australians than Xenophon's. The difference is that Bernardi has worked out how to make the Liberal Party act as a host organism for his views and his career. When complicated, thorny matters come before the Senate, Xenophon cuts deals while Bernardi simply blurts out "here I stand!". The deals have the greater impact on policy outcomes, but press gallery journalists can't cover those. They can, however, cover Bernardi's blurts and Xenophon's stunts.

Set aside Senate voting rules for a moment. Nobody in parliament has done more to get large Defence procurement contracts built in Adelaide than SA Liberal Senator Sean Edwards. At the coming election the SA Liberals have chosen not to make Edwards their lead candidate. The government may not have made a decision on building Defence projects in Adelaide, or it may have and is waiting for an opportune moment to announce it; Labor is in the same position (whatever that may be).

Imagine being a South Australian voter who wants large Defence procurement contracts built in Adelaide:
  • You could vote for Edwards, but he's just a backbencher who gets overruled regularly, and the Liberals may not come through with building Defence projects in Adelaide regardless of any announcement; or
  • You could vote for someone else who has less demonstrated commitment to having large Defence procurement contracts built in Adelaide, but who'd be happy to claim any credit that may more properly belong with Edwards.
Go ahead, talk to me about the people's will being expressed through the ballot box, and why that only applies to the major parties and not the minors.

You could argue that Bernardi's party better reflects the views and aspirations of South Australians than Xenophon's, and that any conflict between them must be resolved in favour of Bernardi's party. Indeed, this is what the government is arguing. Their proposals for the Senate would make the limitations of the Liberal Party (bad policy, wrong people, "here I stand!" inflexibility) the limitations of our democracy as a whole.

The whispering and the silence

I see your concerns about Ricky Muir, in the Senate having won fewer first-preference votes than many municipal councillors. He's in the Senate because there was an outpouring of preferences that gushed forth in ways that even the smart operators could not predict, and have not legislated for effectively after the fact.

As backroom political operators go, Glenn Druery or Peter Breen are just as clever and ruthless and devious as Graham Richardson or Clive Palmer or Sir Lynton Crosby. They are certainly not less principled, nor more of a danger to our democracy. All of them could scarcely be less interested in the policy outcomes of their shenanigans than the press gallery. The major party operators whose web of preference deals ended up with Muir are to blame, if that's the right word, for him being elected.

Those people, backroom operators who shun and often disdain the spotlight that comes with holding elected office, underestimate the effect their negotiations have on policy outcomes. The Victorian ALP in 2004 thought they were terribly clever in preferencing Family First, but preferences in that election saw a sitting ALP Senator (Jacinta Collins) unelected and an essentially conservative Family First Senator elected in her place. In 2013 SA Labor elected Family First's Bob Day. I don't know what Labor gets from doing all those favours for FF but I hope it's good.

There are other examples: no polling, no appeals to party principle or good government have any sway with such people.

Consider that Senators Santo Santoro and Bob Carr had each:
  • been selected by their respective parties (the Queensland LNPP and the NSW ALPP) to fill casual vacancies;
  • been appointed to ministerial office (Cabinet in Carr's case); and
  • resigned from the Senate, without having faced voters (in Carr's case, he had been elected in 2013 but chose not to sit as a Senator from 1 July 2014).
They were government ministers without having been elected to parliament. Executive government works like that in the US, Germany and Iran, but not in Australia. Never mind the efficacy of those ministers (notice I was being bipartisan! Journalism doesn't get any better than that), consider their participation in our government from a democratic point of view.

Consider also that Eric Abetz had been appointed to the Senate and elected from a major-party ticket without having been eligible under citizenship rules. Such rorts upon our democracy are not addressed by the government's current reforms. Lucky Ricky's big break isn't quite irrelevant, but it is less outrageous that it might seem.

As with Carr or Santoro, post-election justifications/criticisms of Senator Muir do not address the question of whether he should have been elected in the first place. Consider what might happen if Senator Muir had to be replaced. It is hard enough for the machinery of major parties to whirr into action, but the processes of the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Political Party (Victoria Division) is more opaque than the Victorian Liberals' processes to select a candidate for Goldstein - and that party has rules against commenting to the media.

Nonetheless, I'd argue that Senator Muir is fulfilling his mandate better than the Prime Minister who was elected to government in 2013 fulfilled his, even allowing for the paucity of legislation, regulation and expenditure on issues directly affecting the motoring enthusiast. He might be a good example of New Democracy Foundation proposals that would make government deliberations similar to the way we assemble juries today.

Context is everything

Our friends in the press gallery insist that we can't discuss political issues among ourselves, because politics is all about the context and that you have to be in Parliament, with a press pass, before you can possibly understand The Context (leaving aside the fact that they frequently miss issues that might elucidate The Context in different ways, or in ways that don't flatter their secret sources, or that they are easily distracted to the point where dull subtleties elude them even when well explained, etc.).

Not being press gallery journalists, we can wonder whether picking a fight with cross-bench Senators before a make-or-break Budget is wise, given that said Senators have stymied all but the basic supply elements of the last two Budgets, leaving people wondering what this government is about and what it might be capable of.

Not being press gallery journalists, we can wonder whether this government has the standing and the political/campaign skills to not only secure a majority in the House of Representatives, but to also secure a majority in the Senate; and should it fail to secure a Senate majority, what its fallback position might be in terms of getting legislation passed.

 Not being Phil Hudson, this blog is not gibbering on about the prospect of an early election. Not being David Crowe, one does not begin panting when Malcolm Turnbull rises to speak.

If we were press gallery journalists diarists we'd think it was terribly significant that (say) Wyatt Roy and Ed Husic appeared to be wearing similar ties. We'd chew up a lot of time and space on that, and elsewhere public servants up to no good would sigh from sheer relief that their work can continue unhindered - rather than suffer the social media pile-ons that beset our hard-working and experienced friends in the gallery.

Not being press gallery, we don't have to all focus on one perspective of one story at any given time. We can note that the government is not only messing about with Senate voting rules, it is also changing the way the beleaguered traditional media is regulated. Organisations that employ most of the press gallery - including the radio business - are in dire financial trouble, not entirely but partly because they employ such dills and tend to run the wrong stories.

Even with a favourable regulatory environment they are far from guaranteed to survive until 30 June 2020: the day Senator Muir's term is due to end, the day the term to which Bob Carr had been elected is due to end.

Two suggestions for democratic Senate reform

I agree that the current method for electing Senators (and the similar one for electing NSW MLCs, for that matter) needs work. It is not broken; broken politics is where armed mobs storm parliamentary chambers, kill their members, and set them on fire. The challenge for reform is not to demonstrate breakage, nor cause it, but to put in place preventative maintenance.

Voting for the Senate still needs work to make it more democratic than it is. The first reform would be to change the way we cast votes. The second would be to change the way we count them.

You either have a preferential system or you don't. If you only have one preference for who you'd like to represent you in parliament, mark that candidate as [1] and put your ballot paper in the box. If it "exhausts", so what? A vote is not a wager. If you place a candidate last, and that candidate wins, you haven't been robbed of democratic legitimacy.

I say this as a below-the-line voter myself. Since the NSW Liberals put Bronwyn Bishop atop their ticket in 1990 I have numbered every square. My heart sinks at the hundred or so squares on the ballot in NSW, but as I've said at each election I:
  • put the christianists, racists, goons, and various flavours of marxist equal last; then
  • put the dozen or so genuinely preferred candidates 1-n; then
  • rank the rest, usually giving up so that my ballot exhausts at about preference 65 or whatever; then
  • go back and rank particularly noxious candidates last, second last etc., until I realise I've spent far too long in the booth as it is; then
  • cast the damn ballot and go home.
The fact that I have to number 90% of squares is bullshit, as is the phrase "optional preferential".

In terms of counting votes, we should start from the top down and put more emphasis on higher-preference (that is, lower-numbered) votes.

As more than one party can run as a ticket (e.g. the Liberals and Nationals), and as individuals can aggregate their places on the ballot paper to form tickets, let's refer to parties on the ballot as Tickets. Let's consider the extraordinary possibility that an individual outside a party might be able to command a quota (or close to it) through below-the-line votes: let's designate such a phenomenon as a Ticket in themselves, for the purposes of this. A typical result for a half-Senate election in a state might look like this, with vote tallies expressed as Senate quotas:
Ticket A: 2.4
Ticket B: 1.9
Ticket C: 0.8
Ticket D: 0.6
Tickets E-Z: 0.0001 - 0.5
The way it happens now, Ticket A would have its first two candidates elected, and the top one for Ticket B. Remaining votes would then be counted, then the candidate with the fewest votes eliminated and their preferences distributed, until the remaining three quotas were filled.

I'd continue the practice of awarding candidates with whole quotas, but with what I think is a democratic difference. I'd award the remaining quotas to the candidates who had most first-preference votes, and the fewest highest-preference votes to make up a quota.

Let's apply this to the numbers above. Take out the three quotas claimed by Tickets A and B and the numbers look like this:
Ticket B: 0.9
Ticket C: 0.8
Ticket D: 0.6
Ticket E: 0.5
Ticket A: 0.4
Tickets F-Z: 0.0001 - 0.5
The onus then would be on remaining Tickets to get as many second preference votes, then third preferences, then fourth, etc., until all the quotas were filled. Tickets B, C and D would obviously have the advantage in this scenario but it would be possible for A, E, or other lower-ranked Tickets to get (extraordinary? unlikely?) levels of second-preference votes to take a quota.

The focus would be on first preferences over second preferences, second preferences over third, and respecting voters' expressed wishes over all other considerations: even the convenience of party officials and journalists.

This would obviate the problem of setting up an arbitrary threshold (5%? 10%? 3%? Should parties be deregistered if they fall below that level?) for minimum admission.

It would mean that smaller parties aggregating votes would not be able to spread their bets - and nor would major parties playing silly-buggers with their own preferences.

If, say, the Labor Political Party chose for its second preferences to go to the Family First Political Party, then they should say so and be accountable to their members. If the Greens Political Party preferenced the Liberal Political Party ahead of the Labor Political Party, then that too should be a matter of public record. Political parties lack mechanisms for calling to account the strategic allocation of votes to other parties, and for evaluating such allocations over time.

The major parties have a number of people with an obsessive focus on obscure areas of electoral law, but whose judgment in those areas is poor. They are regarded as sages by default. Major parties should not use changes to electoral law to substitute for their shortcomings.

21 February 2016

The credibility gap

There is a myth in the press gallery that Tony Abbott had a deep and abiding concern about Indigenous people. There was never any evidence of it, but it has become the stuff of unshakeable press gallery myth.

Another myth in the press gallery is that Malcolm Turnbull might be more moderate and accommodating than Abbott.

It's worth examining this to work out how these myths form, what effects they have, and how impervious they are to proof and reason - which goes to the question of what the press gallery is for, and what its members mean when they insist that they respect their audience.

Abbott and Indigenous people

Unlike Whitlam, and even Fraser, Abbott had a long record as a minister in areas affecting Indigenous people directly (Employment, then Health), where evidence of commitment to Indigenous people and issues might have been evident. Not much to see there, and a genuine surprise that none of the experienced press gallery journalists went looking for it.

Tony Abbott doesn't have a deep and abiding concern about Indigenous people. Actual Indigenous people never rated Abbott they way they did for politicians who actually listened to them and came through for them, like Gough Whitlam or Malcolm Fraser or Fred Chaney. They did not vote Coalition in greater numbers when Abbott was leader than they had when Howard was leader, and apart from Pearson there are no spontaneous outpourings of thanks or support from Indigenous people, as there might have been for someone who made a real difference or who really gave a damn and did his best.

He might have a deep and abiding concern about Noel Pearson, but that isn't quite the same thing as a commitment to Indigenous issues and people.

If The Australian had decided, say, Marcia Langton or Gary Johns rather than Pearson as the tribune of all things Indigenous, perhaps Abbott would have hung out with them instead. Pearson can churn out variations of the same article about how white elites ensure Aboriginal kids get an inferior education, and The Australian will give it a run every time; but they can neither dismiss nor laud something like his oration at Whitlam's funeral (e.g. "The Whitlam government is the textbook case of reform trumping management"). This should leave them with no option but subtle and nuanced analysis, delivered gently and respectfully; but they lack the ability to do that, and so, therefore, did Abbott. He could dismiss and he could laud, but Indigenous affairs require more and better and reward even ardent advocates with heartbreak: Abbott was nowhere to be found.

Nobody has had more of an effect on the education of Indigenous people in far northern Queensland than Noel Pearson: no education bureaucrat, no Minister, no Premier or PM. People in that area should be among the best-educated in the country: if any group of Indigenous people were to come close to non-Indigenous education levels, that's where you'd look. Sadly, statistics are hard to find, and the normally forthright culture warriors of The Australian equivocate on the issue. Tony Abbott has himself had a fine education (St Ignatius' Riverview, Universities of Sydney and Oxford), and not much of it devoted to considering Indigenous issues.

Luke Pearson outlined Abbott's record in what was to be his final days as Prime Minister, and it rewards a read. Notions like Sydney being "nothing but bush" before 1788 or the litany of what Luke Pearson calls "oddly patronising" comments (what a press gallery journalist might call "gaffes" or "Tony being Tony") reveal a mind that is simply not engaged with these issues and these people. His dismantling of Abbott's three-point slogan on Indigenous issues is masterful, the sort of thing press gallery journalists and established media outlets are meant to do.

On what basis, then, do press gallery journalists insist Abbott's interest in Indigenous issues was strong and genuine? Well, before he won government, he took a bunch of press gallery journalists (none of whom had much background in complicated Indigenous policy) deep into the bush and professed his concern for Indigenous issues. Yep, that's it. They actually took him at his word, and continue doing so.

When he didn't spend his first week as PM in an Aboriginal community, they should have been suspicious rather than tossing it onto the pile of broken promises. When he eventually spent a week near an Indigenous community not really engaging with them, engaging in vacuous picfacs and puny announceables, proper journalists would have felt insulted, and started to dig for stories.

Long after he had trashed his word and his reputation, press gallery journalists kept insisting that Abbott was a clever and sensitive man. In policy area after policy area people pointed to the desolation that comes from refusal to engage in informed and considered thinking, and eventually journalists stopped with the magical thinking about Rhodes Scholars and started seeing Abbott as a wrecker, a man who used his intellect to bamboozle and mislead rather than elucidate and lead.

In Indigenous affairs, however, they still cleave to the old fiction that Abbott really was serious, that some work of noble note might yet be done, hoping that nobody will call them on it. Luke Pearson was far too polite about it, and they have ignored him: tell me again how being polite to press gallery journalists gets your message across, go on.

As journalism seeps into history, such as in the rushed and lightweight confections of Aaron Patrick, we see Abbott's deep interest in Indigenous affairs asserted but not evidenced, let alone examined.

Turnbull and Indigenous people

Like most Australians, Malcolm Turnbull had little contact with Indigenous people. There are relatively few in his electorate, he didn't encounter many at Sydney Grammar or in Kerry Packer's office, nor at Ozemail or Goldman Sachs. On what basis, then, did a supposedly experienced press gallery journalist like Michael Gordon seem to believe Turnbull would take to Indigenous issues like a duck to water?
There was more than one gap on display when the nation's MPs gathered to hear the Prime Minister deliver his annual Closing the Gap report on Indigenous disadvantage.
As you might expect, Gordon nowhere considers his own role in this, nor that of his equally obtuse press gallery colleagues.

Look at the targets for Closing the Gap. All of them are complex issues that resist easy political measures like press releases or three-word slogans. All of them require skills in working with diverse, often rebarbative people, and getting them to focus on a common cause over more immediate priorities and prejudices. Turnbull is doing badly on Closing the Gap not only because Abbott left him with nothing to build upon, but because working with diverse and often rebarbative people is not a core Turnbull skill. Never has been. He might learn on the job, or he might not; but Gordon, amongst others, looks like a patsy for giving him the benefit of the doubt.
There was the gap between Malcolm Turnbull and a section of his backbench, who chose not to take their seats in the House of Representatives to hear their leader's first substantive speech on Indigenous affairs.

"Where is everybody?" one Liberal MP asked another, as Turnbull rose to his feet to become the first Prime Minister to begin an address to the Parliament in the language of the traditional owners of the land on which it is built.

There is a convention that when the PM addresses the chamber, his troops are there in force to demonstrate solidarity. It went by the board on Wednesday morning.

There is also a convention that when a subject of national importance that goes to questions of national identity or national security is broached by the nation's leaders, all MPs take their seats. That, too, was waived on the Coalition side.
Whenever a journalist lapses into the passive voice, they are up to no good. Why was it waived, Michael, by whom and for what purpose? As ever, some journalism from the press gallery would be nice. It would beat the hell out of cliches and puzzlement at the all-too-familiar.

Look at other occasions where that convention has been breached - and by whom. The Liberal MPs who disrespected Kevin Rudd's apology to the Stolen Generations in February 2008, Sophie Mirabella and Peter Dutton, have since proven themselves so misanthropic that it was probably for the best they were not there.
Was it lack of interest in the issue? Or lack of respect for the leader? Either way, it was conduct unbecoming.
It was to be expected. Your experience should tell us what is to be expected and why, not airless nonsense about keeping up appearances.
Then there was the gap between Turnbull and the man he replaced, Tony Abbott, whose passion for this area of policy was sadly not matched by achievement during his two years in office.
What gap? What passion? What nonsense, Michael Gordon. You want to see something that isn't there.
Abbott was there to hear Turnbull's speech, but there was no room in the Prime Minister's remarks to acknowledge the efforts of his predecessor. That was an unfortunate oversight.
There was nothing to be said, so he said nothing. For a man often accused of being verbose this must have been a relief. What did you expect him to say: "a good government had lost its way", perhaps.
Then there was the gap between the government and the opposition, with Bill Shorten backing a referendum on recognition next year, arguing the case for a new target to reduce Indigenous incarceration and asserting: "You cannot cut your way to closing the gap."

Here, the differences were ones of emphasis, not direction, with Turnbull expressing strong support for recognition, outlining action to tackle rising imprisonment rates and determined not to "sugar-coat the enormity of the job that remains".
So there's a gap between government and opposition, but it's only rhetorical? Luke Pearson said that the proposed targets on justice in Closing the Gap were important, that Labor is proposing while the government is not necessarily disposing; and Michael Gordon of The Age regards this as just a difference of emphasis?

Next year is significant because it will be 50 years since the referendum to recognise Indigenous people in the census. That referendum passed with 90% in favour. Where has all that public goodwill gone? What makes an experienced press gallery journalist think Turnbull and/or Shorten can arouse, or even tap into, that level of support?

Look at that picture of Abbott leaving the House as Shorten spoke. The bearded guy watching him leave is Senator Nigel Scullion, the Indigenous Affairs minister who owns the failures set out in the Closing the Gap report, and who's had more experience in Indigenous issues than Abbott, Turnbull, Shorten, and most of the rest of Parliament put together. Do you think Tony Abbott will ever get over himself (a necessary precondition to reaching out to people who aren't plentiful in his electorate either)?

Do you think Gordon (or anyone else in the supposedly diverse and competitive press gallery) noticed Scullion, or is calling for his job over his failings in executing his portfolio? Again, no - but still he plods along:
Turnbull's speech was replete with good intentions, empathy, optimism and commitments to engage with those who have devoted their lives to finding answers and improving the circumstances of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Just like Tony Abbott, and Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd before him.

Ten years after the closing the gap project was conceived, the voice of country's peak Indigenous body is ignored; a landmark report on empowering communities is awaiting a considered response, 12 months after it was delivered to government; racism persists and the recognition campaign desperately needs an injection of momentum.

Turnbull made an impressive start ...
Did he? Why the jaded response to his three predecessors and measures that could have been addressed over recent months, if he was genuinely "impressive"? Is empty rhetoric "impressive" now?

Why does the recognition campaign need momentum (which can't really be "injected")? Doesn't it need to be scrapped? Is it a Good Thing that needs Bipartisan Support (like, say, tax minimisation or refugee detention, or any one of a number of bad policies), or is it the waste of time many commentators see it as?

I hunt around the web for different perspectives: traditional media like The Age only hold up experienced journalists like Michael Gordon, claiming they can lead us through big complex political issues like that - but once again, all they do is rehash assumptions that simply fall apart once you examine them.
... but, when it comes to righting history's wrongs, he will be judged by the gap between his words and his actions, his intentions and what he actually delivers.
But press gallery journalists will only quote his words, and not weigh them against any actions. It's hard to tell what Turnbull's intentions are on Indigenous issues, and if he leaves office without having achieved anything in that area do you think it will bother him? Do you think anything he pulls together will be half as productive as a copper-wire NBN? It doesn't bother do-nothing Nige, it doesn't bother the press gallery.

The press gallery can't investigate government on these issues, and they can't explain why either Abbott or Turnbull deserve the benefit of the doubt they (and not actual Indigenous people) seem so willing to give them. Why am I listening to these people? Why must I accept the unexamined assumption that their experience is worth more than the pinch of conditioned air I prize it at? Michael Gordon and the press gallery disgrace themselves when they do business-as-usual reports on political and policy failures like this. You have to go beyond the press gallery to find the best reporting on policy and politics.

Once again, the whole point of the press gallery could not be less clear. Your guess is as good as theirs. Decades of experience in not doing investigative journalism counts for much less than those people might hope.

10 February 2016

A potential breach of standards

I find it hard to believe that:

  •  Stuart Robert visited China with a major Liberal donor without the imprimatur of Peta Credlin and other control freaks in the office of then-PM Abbott (including Abbott himself); and
  • Robert met with government officials in China without the knowledge, and at least the tacit approval, of then and current Foreign Minister Julie Bishop; and
  • the press gallery and the Opposition remain focused on Robert himself and "ministerial standards" without looking to those further up the line from him; and
  • Prime Minister Turnbull would, with everything else he has on his plate, divert the head of his department to a minor administrative matter; and
  • Robert is probably the most promising ministerial-quality MP the Queensland LNP sends to Canberra; and
  • almost inevitably, the press gallery and the Opposition will accept a behind-closed-doors assessment from a bureaucrat as the last word on this matter, and go galumphing off after some other non-story.

08 February 2016

Taxing debates

There is one matter on which Labor and the Coalition, Turnbull and Abbott, and every media organisation represented in the press gallery are absolutely agreed: you can have a public debate about a matter of national importance, but only if you know the result in advance. If you don't, it's all a bit shambolic. Only if the result is managed in advance can the 'debate' be managed in an orderly way. The broadcast media can praise the sheer orderliness of it all, so that when the conclusion comes everyone can say how inevitable it all was and thank everyone for having a go. The only losers are those who thought they might influence the outcome when it was all stitched up well ahead of time.

This is what happened with the latest manifestation of the tax debate.

Press gallery journalists record issues being talked up/down, but even though they have seen several rounds of these debates they cannot evaluate the options, and cannot describe what might happen if those options got up. Mouthing notions of 'respect the audience', their only comment on tax is to churn out another "here we go again!" piece on tax reform that could easily be done by an algorithm. The role of broadcast media in complex public debates is not that valuable when they lack the knowledge and wit to participate. Do they think it's cute, bringing plastic splayds to knife-fights? Are they cleaving to some ancient journo tradition, from days when the population was less educated and expected less from government (e.g. when BEER, CIGS UP sufficed as tax/budget commentary)? You have to fossick for glints on economists' blogs to piece together some idea about taxing and debt repayments, spending and investing. The traditional broadcast media simply are not helpful and have no idea, they have no idea why anyone would want to do that, and have neither the desire nor the wit to get one.

I wish Laura Tingle was not the only journalist capable of examining tax reform from an economic standpoint, and of drawing on a record of proposals over recent years (one that goes beyond "here we go again!"). I wish Jessica Irvine was not the only journalist who remembers Turnbull's tax-policy spam of 2005. I wish Dan Tehan hadn't embarrassed himself on two fronts: not only floating a sixth-rate imitation of Turnbull's raft of ideas, but resorting to two of the press gallery's biggest clowns in foisting the proposals at the public.

This dude thinks he's engaging in a tax debate ands a refugee debate at the same time. He's doing neither. He can't decide whether wages in his magic zone should be low or high. All the bad things facing asylum seekers in detention - abuse, neglect, bad/no healthcare, accommodation, education, or jobs - are present in spades in remote Top End communities. A magic tax zone that demands lots of social services? It's called "Western Australia" and the Treasurer there is an IPA dude who spends every working day having his nose rubbed in his life's works and beliefs. Thanks anyway though!

It's true, as Peter Martin points out, that Turnbull has run out of time to hold and conclude a full debate. I had known Joe Hockey when we were Young Liberals in the early 1990s and he seemed to fizz with ideas; I realise now that he liked the idea of having ideas, which explained his contempt for people who campaigned for ideas to go through to execution. He should at least have left a Green Paper (an outline of the "all options on the table"). Turnbull should still be able to have ideas about tax reform that needn't be cut and dried - a second-term agenda, if you will - rather than "hose down" or "distance himself from" or "refuse to rule out", etc.

If the Liberal Party is going to use coming preselection battles to define its future, let's have the combatants weigh in on tax policy. If Craig Kelly can't even cope with climate change, let's hear from Kent Johns or Angus Taylor or whomever else. All that North Sydney butthurt showed was what happens when those become accustomed to unearned privilege and then have it taken away from them:
  • Charlie Lynn taught Jai Rowell everything he knew about politics (because Rowell is a slow learner, it took longer than ten minutes), and Rowell went after Lynn like Dr Frankenstein's monster.
  • Ross Cameron would have been an Abbott government minister had he not tripped over his own dick. He makes Mark Latham look like a Renaissance man, he embodies what smarm would look like if it could congeal, and has ended up even more of a pointless mediocrity than his father. If I was eking out a living on welfare, and getting abused by muppets like these, I would simply point to Ross Cameron and eventually the debate about contributing to the society that sustains you would subside.
  • When sensible people wonder why Bronwyn Bishop won't just go from public life, you point to people like Jokus Ludicrous as the sort of person who keeps her there regardless.
  • You can see why they're all staunch monarchists: they love a bit of unearned privilege, but they all lack the taste, good grace, and personal security to just smile and wave.
Those three stooges hold a candle for the return of Tony Abbott to the Prime Ministership - with their skills and wit, they may as well hold out for Harold Holt. You can see why Turnbull is pretty safe. When I started writing this blog in 2006 the big press gallery beat-up was that Peter Costello was stalking John Howard for the Liberal leadership, and Abbott's pussyfooting around today is even sillier than Costello's was then. The producer of that piece, Xanthe Kleinig, is the daughter of Jan Kleinig, a moderate Liberal warrior so fierce that in 2004 she "risked expulsion from the Liberal Party" to fight for Peter King against a rightwing insurgency in Wentworth from Malcolm Turnbull.

Abbott is no closer to returning to the Prime Ministership than Peter Costello was a decade ago; any press gallery journalist who insists otherwise can wait for me in the Parliament House carpark (I'm not being belligerent - they really have nothing better to do than hang around and wait for someone who's too busy to meet with them).

Labor have one or two ideas, but they haven't undertaken a broad debate either; they have just thrown together a slightly extended press release based on the democratic processes of a vast national organisation some focus groups and a staffer having to knock something up for an announceable. You might argue that Labor may have a broad-ranging debate if they get into office, but Shorten and Bowen aren't capable even of anything so vacuous as this.

The major parties have bemoaned their inability to attract a broad base of members. It's easy to see this as a problem for them, but it becomes a problem for all of us once that party becomes the government. Jamies Briggs and Clements are symptoms of the same disease, similar pustules on different buttocks. A party organisation so small that it can be wheeled about by clueless control-freaks like John McTernan or Peta Credlin might be hell to work within, but when public debate is fed into such organisation a range of nuanced options quickly becomes burnt offerings and raw deals.

They rely utterly upon the media to have the credibility and suasion with the public parties have lacked for years. Media analysis of tax policy, as with any sort of policy, is all about the horse-race - and horse-race journalism is nobbled once a debate becomes bipartisan. Let us be in no doubt that the structural deficit of the budget is wholly bipartisan, and that neither major party can provide the leadership to guide us out of it.

When politicians and journalists sink together in credibility, politicians and public alike need engagement strategies that the press gallery can't and won't provide. This is not to abandon the importance of good journalism, but it is to abandon the unimportant, bad journalism that the press gallery insists is good enough for the likes of us.