07 March 2016

2010 again

The 2010 election, and the parliamentary term that followed it, is seen as a freaky time in Australian politics. Minor scandals (e.g. Gillard's bathroom, Thomson's pants, Slipper's diary, Kelly's solvency) assumed seismic importance. Neither Labor nor the Coalition held a majority in their own right. Neither of them, nor the press gallery, were comfortable with this situation becoming the new normal. But it did for a while, and it will again.

Living on the edge

Every government facing re-election suffers a loss in seats. Sometimes that loss is so great it removes a government after a single term; this happened in Victoria in 2014 and in Queensland the following year, but that hasn't happened federally since 1931.

The Turnbull government might be defeated at this year's election, but it probably won't. Economist Stephen Koukoulas reckons the government will win 78 seats (in a 150-seat House, 76 is required for the barest of governing majorities). Given my record of prognostications, all I'll say is that guess is as good as any.

When the 2010 election returned neither a majority for the incumbent Labor government, nor one for the Coalition, the press gallery were pretty dirty on us voters. We had let them down by producing an ambiguous result (see the archives on this blog, or of the traditional media if they still have them up). Julia Gillard negotiated with independent MPs to cobble together a working majority for the incumbent government rather than hold another election.

The press gallery love election campaigns, and they love unambiguous mandates for major parties coming from them; stripped of the pre-fabricated narratives and cliches that traditional media needs to cover politics, they regarded Gillard's arrangement as illegitimate.

In her Earle Page College Lecture 2013 Michelle Grattan bristled at the sheer untidiness of the hung parliament:
The hung parliament is almost done. Surely we won’t see its return to the chambers.
As I explain below, she speaks too soon: results like 2010 will become the norm once the sort of parliament Grattan would like (“one where there’s a majority government with a margin that is workable but modest enough to keep arrogance in check. And with a Senate that respects clear government mandates on big issues but is an active watch dog”) is simply too much to ask of the major parties or of those who lead them.

All of those passive-voice descriptions of that parliament ("toxic") arose from media harangues, furious that they had to do investigative work for a change, have less impact already, given how comprehensively their boy Abbott has been discredited - and with him, those who did the haranguing from the press gallery.

Magickal thinking

The reason why the press gallery reported Abbott's vacuous talking points without examining them isn't because they were/are biased in favour of the Coalition (insofar as the Coalition is so consistent that it represents a fixed point for navigating the random seas of politics). It isn't even because they lacked (and still lack) policy analysis skills. It isn't simply because they're stupid and lazy.

The reason why they simply reported what Abbott said without examining it, or even considering whether he'd be a good Prime Minister, is because they wanted what he said to be true. When he said "this is a bad government", the press gallery hated the political predicament of a minority government (and no early election!), they hated Gillard's media wranglers, so they didn't question whether Abbott could do better.

They wanted to believe Abbott when he said he'd help Aborigines. They wanted to believe there was a budget emergency, and that Joe Hockey would fix it. They just wanted the ease that comes with standard coverage of a majority government, and they didn't believe Labor would deliver that.

They believed the Coalition could deliver it - but only if they overlooked decades of accumulated reality about Abbott and his would-be ministers. They pretended shit was chocolate. They were wrong to do that, and wrong to expect they deserve the benefit of the doubt going forward.

Fury road

Niki Savva has scurried around Canberra scooping up anecdotes about how awful and dysfunctional the Abbott government was.

If you're concerned about journalism for journalism's sake, or if you just want a laugh, then it's great how Senior Liberal Sources and other euphemisms now have names and faces they had lacked until this book was released.

This blog is concerned about the subject-matter of political journalism (the way we are governed). It is mystifying how experienced journalists who've seen governments come and go can look at a rabble like Abbott's inner circle and conclude that it is the only choice to govern our country. So many journalists on social media acting all shocked at events they themselves should have witnessed - it's all such bullshit.

If you believe that journalism is a real profession, then it is either negligent or fraudulent for these people to take a salary and occupy positions not open to the public, misrepresenting Abbott and co as somehow better than the rabble they replaced. It is bullshit for them to claim they could never have expected they would act completely in character, and do the limbo under any bar set for them.

It is bullshit to claim that the press gallery was obliged to keep in sweet with Abbott and Credlin, as though their career matters more than the information we need to govern our country. We must know whether particular candidates will govern us well or badly: no journalist, no editor, no media proprietor can or should claim that their interests are more important than that.

Savva's book is probably designed to cement her position as some sort of insider: it's actually an indictment against her, and every other silly press gallery journalist busy plugging her book for her, and indeed the journalistic swamp that is the press gallery.

Now consider that if Peter Costello had become Liberal leader and PM, Savva would have occupied a similar role to that Credlin occupied in the Abbott government. The petty vindictiveness, the focus on this afternoon's headlines and deadlines over the nation and its possibilities for our children and their children - it wouldn't have been that much different.

Credlin called Savva's book "scurrilous" - one of those empty, expired words that should have been interred with Dickens or Mark Twain. She should have called Savva out for being jealous. Savva was never an insider like Credlin was. This book is just the ashes in her mouth spat onto wood pulp (no I won't link to it). I'd hope Savva makes some money from it, except it seems everyone who might have bought has received a free copy.

Professional journalism and its discontents

I have no idea why you'd keen and wail about Paul Sheehan, and fail to call for his dismissal - but then just accept journalistic deception like this. Gender offers an important critique about journalism, but it is not the only valid one.

Does it matter whether Abbott and Credlin were lovers?

With every fibre of my being, I want to say: no. It does matter, on an issue that can't really be negotiated away, and will only go away when its opponents are defeated.

The whole case against same-sex marriage is that marriage, as it is currently configured, is somehow special and different and that same-sex couples can't possibly be granted admission. It is nonsense, intolerable nonsense, that the hollow facade of a heterosexual marriage is better than a genuine same-sex relationship that should be sealed with the recognition that comes with marriage.

Tony Abbott voted against same-sex marriage and he will do so again. Let us be clear that he does not do so from a position of principle, but from one of hypocrisy. Indeed, hypocrisy is his only constant: as long as he gets his, you can piss off. Any journalist - every journalist - who thought Abbott wasn't like that is a mug.

Savva is disingenuous to bell those cats and then airily claim it doesn't matter. What else is she being disingenuous about - everything?

But back to 2010

Oh yes. They were mugs then, too. Many of the same mugs involved.

In 2016 the Turnbull government will probably be re-elected with a slight majority. After the bullshit of 2013, where Abbott was ten foot tall and bulletproof, Australian politics will return to the state of 2010: neither Labor nor the Coalition embraced by a majority of the population. The media's credibility is shot. Alternatives will get more of a go than traditional media will provide - more than it is comfortable with.

Turnbull will have to develop the negotiation skills that the press gallery wrongly assumed was in his gift. Gillard and Swan had those skills to a much greater extent than Turnbull, or Abbott, or Credlin or Hockey; those skills weren't masterful but only dummies deny they existed, or cast them as dark arts. In our time the major parties can't count on much of a mandate and won't get one.

You can muck about with Senate voting rules to exclude the randoms, corralling votes into the major parties like cattle into pens. All that will do introduce US-style gridlock where the party that doesn't win government gets the Senate as a consolation prize, a check-and-balance, tit for tat.

The foreseeable future is not that some great leader will rise and save us all from petty dealmaking, leading us forward to a common destiny. The foreseeable future is that a national leader will have to be prepared to negotiate anything and everything with everyone, every day, until the office grinds them down.


  1. I'm sure Catherine Murphy would like to write a nuanced rebuttal of your Lazy Press Gallery Journalist crack but, from past experience, I'm guessing all you'll get is a snarky tweet

  2. Oops! Katharine Murphy!

  3. "as long as he gets his, you can piss off"

    A masterful précis of the Abbott persona.

  4. ..and it would be very interesting to see a hung result at this year's election, with the horse-trading that would need to take place to determine who holds government - although there probably won't be the number of independents there was in 2010. Gillard outnegotiated Abbott comprehensively in 2010; how would Turnbull far against Shorten in 2016?

  5. That last paragraph is particularly good Andrew.

  6. Savva's provided a bit of timely distraction from the leaking of classified papers but I doubt Mr Abbott is thankful. Still, if there are any adults in charge the latter issue will not go away and distractions won't save whoever did the leaking. Was it Abbott or done on his behalf or simply opportunism on his part? It does matter who but the non-disclosure of anonymous sources by journalist's is a whole issue in itself; even if the journalist involved feels bound or simply finds it convenient surely other journalists should investigate the journalist? Or is there a journalistic rule not to investigate one's peers? When leaderships are being destabilised by leakers, leaking for the sake of destabilising and not as a whistle blower with good cause - where authorities rather than journalists should be the primary recipients of the leaks - that's worthy of investigation and exposure.

    Does it matter if Abbott and Credlin had an affair? Much as I think a person's private life should remain private, hypocrisy in our leaders is fair game. Unsubstantiated allegations aren't good enough though and how does it get investigated without crossing some ethical lines? More critically there are serious issues around the running of the PM's office that aren't getting much attention in this focusing on the salacious.

  7. What an absolute shocker Abbott was, without malice you would honestly have to say that this has been the most shocking period in Australian political history for many decades if not ever .The emergence of crackpot politics and the ABC morphing into a News corp production (has been very hard to embrace). I would hope that Labor could win the election just so we can see off this bloody horrible right wing nazi faction that is dominating the Liberal party, you really don't want the likes of the IPA getting a toe hold on our political environment and the longer people like Brandis are around the more likely that is to occur. It's amazing how divided the country becomes when ever we have a conservative government and its amazing how fast it happens and along what lines it drawn usually class and race.
    I don't know what to think any more we have seen things in the political arena that we would have never seen a decade ago.