30 May 2016

We could lose 95 percent of the journalists

Here’s a note to all the news directors around the country: Do you want to save some money? Well then bring home your journalists following Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard, because they are not doing anything of any worth except having a round-the-country twitter and booze tour.

It is a sad thing to say but we could lose 95 percent of the journalists following both leaders and the nation would be none the poorer for it. In fact we would probably be better off because it would leave the 5 percent who have some intelligence and are not there to run their own narrative a chance to ask some decent questions of the leaders. Some questions which might actually reveal who would be the better leader of this country.

- Greg Jericho, 30 July 2010
If there was ever going to be a blog post that had the same lasting impact as the very best journalism, that post was it. Personal without oversharing, precisely targeted in its anger and overly generous toward the media, it shamed the better journalists. The then Managing Director of the ABC, Mark Scott, referenced Jericho's lament that he couldn't find out about disability policy from the media, and vowed to do better in reporting the news rather than second-guessing tactics.

Nothing came of it. Take Gillard's name from the above quote and you could run it today. "Campaign trail" journalism is bullshit journalism through and through, thoroughly debunked by Tim Crouse in 1972 and never bettered, or redeemed. Yet still this waste of resources persists. When parliament is sitting and actual government is underway, the press gallery wishes it was on the campaign trail, and now that they are they realise they are boring themselves and actually shunning readers/ viewers/ listeners with the sheer vacuity, the exhaustion of everything they find thrilling and compelling about their "work".

The abyss stares back at you

Australia's struggling television networks declined to show last night's "leaders' debate" between Turnbull and Shorten because they knew their standard fare was more compelling: cooking shows, the festering saga of media ethics failure that was 60 Minutes, etc.

They were right: the show was not a "debate" because there was no actual engagement with ideas. It was a joint press conference. The press gallery began by asking Turnbull about "the real Malcolm", a concoction they made up and homogenised after quiet chats with Turnbull before he became Prime Minister, to which they cling in the conviction they could never have been gulled or scammed. We saw with Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott how the press gallery develop a picture of a leader which prevails long after they have fallen short of it, and we see the same again with "the real Malcolm".

Surely it would be easier to report on what Turnbull says (and doesn't say) and does (and doesn't), and refer o that objective reality as "the real Malcolm". Instead, the press gallery persists with cod-psychology about "the real Malcolm" and how reality falls short of their cosy image, and how they can't cope when objective reality departs from their narrative.

Press gallery journalists asked press gallery questions and got press gallery responses. Traditional media outlets fear that information is boring, but the one thing people want is tangible information. They think hype and bullshit engages people, when the fate of traditional media shows that it shuns them. The whole exercise is just a make-work scheme for media insider types, shunned by real people who vote and consume and pay taxes. I can remember journalists insisting that Kim Beazley "won" his debates with John Howard; they were pointless exercises even then.

The "leaders' debates" are modelled on US presidential elections. Being President of the United States isn't like being Prime Minister of Australia. Prime Ministers succeed or fail on whether they get their policies through a parliament that is neither fully with them nor (unlike the current US Congress) fully against them. If you're going to have a Prime Ministerial debate, have a debate:
  • Have a debate: instead of Turnbull and Shorten talking past one another, have them engage with the same ideas and even pursue them to resolution for a change. Test what is said against objective reality (e.g. a Prime Minister with a commitment to science would boost the CSIRO rather than cut it).
  • People who will only ever have one shot at asking a question of the actual/potential Prime Minister ask better questions than those who question him every day. We see this with Community Cabinet meetings run by other governments, which have a far lower Bloody Stupid Question ratio than your average transcript of a doorstop/ press release/ other press gallery thing.
  • A debate needs to involve the non-government parties. OK, so the Greens or Family First don't govern, but they do skew what government does and the nature of that skew is one of the great deficits of political coverage. The way that a major party leader relates to them is going to tell us a lot about how they are going to govern. Telling us about how we are governed is the point of the exercise: if you can make it genuinely entertaining, then that would be a great departure from decades of failure.
  • Press conferences are boring. There is no reason to assume a joint press conference with added pomposity would be any less boring, or enlightening - no proof, no positive example to justify perpetuating this exhausted format. Make this "leaders' debate" the last. There is no point going on.

The election with no theme

People just want what people want. Different people want different things. It's possible for different people to see different things and want different things from the same event. We see this in elections: different people want different things from election campaigns, and politicians respond in different ways to those wants. It isn't true that an election campaign must have one overarching theme.

Waleed Aly disagrees. He's a commentator and an academic: he wants the overarching theme so that anyone who departs from it must be wrong. If you don't give a damn about (say) negative gearing, or whether Donald Trump would be a terrible US president, then that's a departure from the official narrative: you must be wrong.

What was the grand narrative of the 2013 election - that Everybody Hates Julia? What was it in 2010? What was the narrative of the 1993 election - a chocolate cake? Grand narratives aren't detectable at the time and they are even difficult in retrospect. Our politics is in transition. The support bases of our major parties have eroded (as Aly has examined in-depth elsewhere) and nothing has yet taken their places. It's silly to be impatient in wishing forward a time when that which is unsettled might become settled.

It's silly to assume status-quo responses like "leaders' debates" might do in the meantime. It's effete to assume genuine concerns about job security or affordability must be "manufactured"; bogus scare campaigns fail if they're not tethered to reality, but they can't fail if they're not bogus (or not tethered to something real).

Michael Lind writes well about his country's emerging political realignment; nobody on the press gallery today could do half as good a job on the similar forces at work on our own country's politics.

Turnbull was never a transformative figure, and everyone who thought he was - everyone, regardless of their experience in politics - was wrong. Shorten isn't a transformative figure either. What definitely does have to transform is the way we cover politics, from the set-piece "debates" to the daily doorstop.


You know who desperately needs to save money? Fairfax. You know which media organisation desperately needs to connect with its audience, rather than cast shade on them/us? Fairfax.

Take this:
Malcolm Turnbull's media minders will plot a course through a supermarket right down to which aisle the Prime Minister will walk down. It rarely involves the fresh fruit and veg section.

Such is the fear that raw onions can strike in an Australian political leader in 2016.

The mastication of a single brown onion was one of the most bizarre moments of Tony Abbott's prime ministership, perhaps even less fathomable than the knighting of Prince Philip.

So Brisbane's wholesale fresh food markets was not without its dangers for Turnbull on day one of the campaign, with its pallets of onions.
There is no evidence that Turnbull, or any other political leader, is afraid of onions. There is no evidence that they might be tempted to eat one. Why would journalists choose to juxtapose a non-Abbott politician against pictures of onions? It makes no sense, except as the perpetuation of some self-pleasuring exercise on the part of the press gallery.

The press gallery had seen Tony Abbott up close for decades. They knew he was weird, but they pretended in 2010 and '13 that not only was he a regular guy but that he'd be a better Prime Minister than Rudd and Gillard put together. When he ate that onion, the gallery wrote it off as "Tony being Tony". Same with the knighting of Prince Philip. It was social media that pointed out how bizarre this was, and eventually even the press gallery fell into line. That realisation hasn't improved the quality of their reporting, though.

Let's indulge risible terms like "fear" and "danger" in this context: the journalist won't and can't admit it, but the press gallery would rather gibber on about onions than discuss policies and other government actions that might affect us in our lives. That's a self-realising fear: even if you avoid the onions, journalists will talk about them at the exclusion of anything else. Why connect with your audience and offer something of value, when you can be snide about an event to which you were invited, and whose point you seem to have missed (yes, the Brisbane produce market is in a marginal electorate. Is that all? Anything else? What do you mean, you weren't taking notice?). Dumb, easily distracted journalists are the "danger" - dangerous to politicians, dangerous to those they represent, dangerous to those who have no information other than rubbish from dumb, easily distracted journalists.

Let's not indulge journalists when they complain about the long campaign. The campaign never ends. When the parliament reconvenes and starts work, these same journalists will largely ignore what goes on in front of them and wish they were back on the bus, gaffe-hunting and giggling at memes.

Then there's this:
Convergence is the new black with more essential agreement on border protection, taxation, superannuation, and even health, than at any time in living memory.

Elections however require difference, real or claimed, so that's where all the attention will be. That, and personality.
Elections don't require anything of the sort. Elections require clear explanations of what each of the parties is likely to do, and not do. Sometimes it is sufficient to simply quote politicians, as most press gallery journalists do: sometimes it is not sufficient, as per this example.

A journalist who can't tell the difference between "real" or "claimed" is not worth their salt. They are not worth your time or mine in reading them, and their employers should have the sense to reassess their ongoing value.

At the last election - well within "living memory" - differences between the major parties in those areas were minor, but beaten up relentlessly by Kenny and other hype-merchants. Didn't do Fairfax any good. Didn't do the audience any good, in terms of telling us what our options were for government.

There is no value in describing convergence or divergence, and even less in fatuous terminology like "the new black". Spare us all the cod-psychology from easily impressed journalists (or, in Shorten's case, those who wrote him off for so long and who are now trying to avoid failing to get on the good side of a Shorten Government).

It shouldn't be my job to tell the Chief Political Correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald what his job is, but I've been doing it for years and the perceptions and analysis excreted by that poor silly bastard have not improved even slightly. He gives us a rundown of the clichés he is going to flog for the next two months, which should deter any sensible reader from bothering to consult him for the rest of this financial year. He can't even remember the last election. He has learned nothing. His perspective and experience add no value - not to readers, not to Fairfax, but seemingly only to this individual's salary and other perks.

There are other examples, so many others. There will be plenty more because Fairfax is a stupid organisation led badly. You know who should know better than to dump this crap on us under the misapprehension it is informing and/or entertaining? Fairfax.

Fairfax owns two media outlets, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, which are the only media outlets represented in the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery since its formation in 1901. You'd think they'd know a thing or two about this journalistic sub-discipline by now, but still they lace their copy with voter-repellent cliché and self-indulgence.

Fairfax has sacked about two and a half thousand journalists since 2011. They have sacked journalists from regional areas and suburban papers, even though those places are where this election will be decided: not the Brisbane produce market, or wherever today's picfac is.

They have sacked journalists with in-depth experience in policy areas who can do what almost nobody from the press gallery (5 percent of them at most) can do: explain complex policy in a straightforward and engaging way. Not a hype-ridden or clichéd way, but one that assumes the reader is as intelligent as the journalist, but who needs information rather than hype and bullshit. For Fairfax, this is the real tragedy: they have sacked the very journalists who might have added value for readers in this campaign, while retaining those who add no value and who ultimately have no future.

Under the Abbott government, there were two examples where journalists held the government to account to the point where a minister's job was on the line. In neither case did the press gallery lead the story:
  • Arthur Sinodinos was stood down from the ministry because of revelations from ICAC about his dual roles at Australian Water Holdings and the NSW Division of the Liberal Party. Press gallery followed this story, it did not lead it; terrible, clichéd reporting meant the press gallery initially couldn't believe Sinodinos could lose his job, and when he did the temptation to seen-it-all-before proved too great.
  • It was Amy Corderoy, specialist Health reporter, who noticed that the government had pulled a website rating processed foods. She pursued the story to the point where it threatened the careers of then Assistant Health Minister, Fiona Nash. Press gallery followed this story, it did not lead it; terrible, clichéd reporting (combined with fobbing-off from Abbott's office) meant the press gallery initially couldn't believe Nash could lose her job. When her chief of staff resigned instead it opened questions about the role of staffers in ministerial accountability; unable to think about this, let alone write in an engaging way, the gallery squibbed the story. Corderoy wasn't even nominated for a Walkley, and has since left journalism.
There are 250 members of the press gallery. It doesn't take 250 people to all fall upon the same (non-)story and all report it from pretty much the same angle. Mass departures and a realignment of political reporting might be eye-watering for some, but hardly unexpected.

The good news

The good news is that political staffers are actively working to render the press gallery redundant. Politicians need a relationship with voters: the media offered to provide the conduit, but it has let both politicians and public down rather badly. When Abbott hired his own photographer, press gallery photographers were all put out: didn't make a difference, and thanks to modern mobile phones anyone can take a picture. Even a press gallery journalist can notice Turnbull's staff doing what journalists used to do, but of course they get the diagnosis wrong: they aren't imitating you, they are replacing you. It doesn't matter that journalists are acting all upset, they should have seen it coming:
  • Did they really think the rolling transcontinental bludge that is campaign trail journalism would go on forever?
  • Who can make the better value proposition for having people photograph and question the leader: the leader's own office, or a failing media organisation?
  • If an editor can get content supplied to their office for free by politicians' offices and by social media users, why do they need to send one (or more, so many more) of their own expensive employees hither and yon?
  • If you can't foresee developments in your own field of work, how are you going to explain tax policy or coral bleaching or schools funding?
Greg Jericho was right in 2010: we could lose 95 percent of political coverage without any loss in understanding how we are governed, and how we might be governed. He's right now, and he'll keep being right until budget pressures force news organisations to put policy at the centre of election coverage. Without policy, election coverage makes no sense.

22 May 2016

What the dead cat tells us

I still think Turnbull is running this campaign as one long validated learning exercise. It might not do him any good, but if there is any method behind the madness I'd suggest that is it.

US campaigns run for more than a year; political consultants from there struggle with our relatively compressed campaigns, and with compulsory voting. The last election campaign pretty much ran from Gillard's announcement in January 2013 until September, and within weeks it was all invalidated as Abbott negated the no-cuts pronouncements that got him elected. The last short, sharp election campaign we had was in 2010, upon which nobody from the major parties will look back fondly.

Long campaigns could well become the norm in Australia, especially in an environment where so many long-accepted verities are biting the dust. There are three things we've learned, and no doubt many more we are yet to learn:

Can't count, don't count

Had Peter Dutton's comments about illiterate, innumerate refugees taking our jobs and welfare simultaneously been delivered in the final week of the campaign, with the government well behind in the polls, it would be easy to pile on with all the other commentary that the government is desperately panicking, or panicking desperately. It is quintessentially conservative to go back to what once worked for you regardless of prevailing circumstances now.

But we're not in the final week of the campaign, are we? Polls are fairly even. If it wasn't for social media it might be difficult to find anyone who cares much about this election. We're all in a position to have learned something from Dutton's statement - hardly new or groundbreaking, was it? Dutton isn't pleading with the uncommitted, he's not engaging with Labor policy, he hasn't exacerbated the already dreadful conditions asylum-seekers under our care suffer now. It isn't as though he has trashed his brand: it's exactly the sort of pig-ignorant, nasty stuff he has said throughout his career. There's none of the classical allusions from Enoch Powell, nor the smart-alec lines from Morrison.

We've often been told that I am, you are, we're all terrible racists who vote accordingly. Pauline Hanson was a one-term MP who only won her seat in parliament by accident 20 years ago and has lost every race she ran in since. Tampa was not that big a deal in the 2001 election, neither a spike nor a dip in a trajectory that took Kim Beazley from Tomorrow's Man to Yesterday's Man that year without him ever having his day. But if a week is a long time in politics, surely fifteen years is epochal?

Labor doesn't really offer much difference in policy terms from the Coalition. Only partisans regard Dutton or Morrison or Ruddock as more intrinsically evil than the Labor ministers who held the portfolio. Labor's current immigration spokesperson, Richard Marles, is exactly the sort of bloodless functionary who whimpers "I was just following orders" when it all finally catches up with them. Pre-polling won't open for another month (you there, stop weeping).

Dutton's remarks can be said to dogwhistle dumb racists - the Hildebrand constituency, if you will - but in another way they signalled to another constituency altogether. Those who instantly spotted the contradictions of what Dutton said (we all know fine people who fled murderous regimes and contributed greatly to this country, and how can anyone steal my job while being too lazy to work?) are the very people who will play down the significance of asylum-seekers or racism generally as real issues: red meat tossed at the excitable lower orders, talked down and away by all thinking people such as we.

Personally, the only animosity I've ever felt towards boat people is these guys; if the various vessels being built in South Australia can fend them off it will be money well spent.

There could not be a better time to let Dutton off the leash, with plenty of time to adjust based upon evidence. The nbn raid rather complicates things, but generally we can expect one of four outcomes:
  • Polls will go heavily (4%+) in the Coalition's way: Asylum Seekers Took My Baby schlock reinforced as an issue.
  • Polls don't change: asylum-seeker policy seen as a non-issue.
  • Polls go heavily for Labor: a) Asylum Seekers Took My Baby schlock reinforced as an issue, but Coalition won't know what to do with it and Labor won't believe their luck, and/or b) nbn raid really takes centre stage.
  • Polls don't change much (-/=3%) either way: signal to Coalition will be unclear, but there will be a tsunami of media hype out of all proportion to what the issue really means.
The follow-up polling with Hildebrands will be fascinating. Racists are always called upon to redirect their attention to social services or other class-based issues, and they almost always jeer at the call. Whatever happens, it will be a teachable moment about the reach and appeal of this kind of scare campaign.

Jeez, mate!

Here is yet another dreary piece whining about what evil genius/es CrosbyTextor are/is. Toward the end of the piece there is a mention of how the evil geniuses failed in the London mayoral election, which rather blunts the thrust of the piece. So too does CT's patchy record at state level: since the 1990s Labor has not allowed itself to be outflanked on being seen as "tough on crime", which is pretty much CT's entire gamut of advice at this level.

Read the quote from Johnson again: it is not the consultant, nor the party that is their client, who is to blame for getting their message across. They are doing their job. The 'dead cat' messaging strategy works because the journalists covering it are - despite their much-vaunted experience - not clever enough to anticipate the 'dead cat'. They lack the guts and the sense to call it for the distraction that it is, and to keep their focus on issues of greater currency and relevance.

With 250 members of the Canberra press gallery, supposedly intelligent, diverse, and competitive to a man/woman, you'd think the very essence of savvy would lie in their ability to recognise and resist a blatant and predictable digression.

The very idea that they are helpless (as kittens?) before a 'dead cat' tactic is an indictment of the media, of the value of their experience and nous, and of CrosbyTextor's brothers-and-sisters-from-other-mothers within Labor and other organisations. It is those people who aren't doing their jobs. Digressions and diversions are covered extensively by Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, Clausewitz, and other strategists who long predate Crosby, Textor, Johnson, and all those who whine about them.

No journalist has any excuse for not being awake to the 'dead cat' manoeuvre. No journalist has any excuse for being sucked in, or doing another piece on how brilliant it is (you don't have to be brilliant to play a press gallery journalists for mugs). Any journalist who thinks they've done their job by describing the dead cat and not looking for the distraction is a fool. Any editor who confuses the 'dead cat' with the story of the day should be boiled in their own piss and then deported. The shame of it is not in planning and executing the manoeuvre, but in the hapless, helpless, and hopeless others who don't know what to do when the inevitable happens.

The real leader of the Liberal Party

Here's what happened: Dutton made his remarks, then however much you may have expected of an earlier version of Malcolm Turnbull, the fact is he endorsed the remarks and Dutton himself. Then, after that, for some reason, Mark Textor came out and backed Dutton.

What would motivate Textor even to comment on an operational campaign matter? Is he wired up to the media through the campaign, like a V8 Supercar driver or a Twenty20 cricketer? He doesn't have a formal role in the Liberal campaign, like Federal Director Tony Nutt. What happened after he spoke, however, was that the debate over Dutton's comments ended. The endorsement of the Prime Minister, the elected leader of the Liberal Party, didn't have that effect. Once Textor had spoken, chatter about whether Dutton had gone too far/not far enough simply stopped. Dutton's remarks were no longer 'a gaffe', but an intrinsic part of the Coalition campaign: tangible and undeniable as a corflute.

Katharine Murphy noted the events but got the analysis the wrong way around:
Presumably my question [about the propriety of Dutton's remarks in the context of the campaign] was impossible to answer before the prime minister set the tone. Given Malcolm Turnbull has backed in Dutton, Textor will now express a view in public.
Turnbull didn't set the tone, he was just another voice among many and the debate continued around him. Textor had the final, closing word in that debate, as a leader does.

A consultant should never make themselves the story - except when they do, and they silence the debate to an extent that neither Dutton or Turnbull can, clearly there is something else going on which Murphy and others have missed.

Former press gallery journalist, Hewson adviser and now ANU academic Norman Abjorensen, notes that neither Abbott nor Turnbull have dominated the Liberal Party as Menzies or Howard had. Crosby and Textor play that core role in the Liberal Party. They determine its strategy, its priorities, and its policy positions in the ways that used to be reserved for party members and/or leaders.

In 2007, John Howard had been a Liberal for half a century, in Parliament for a third of century, and at or near national leadership roles for a quarter of a century - yet he still put his fate in the hands of Crosby and Textor.

Whenever other elements in the Coalition disagree with Crosby and/or Textor, the latter prevail - that wouldn't be the case if they were mere back-office hirelings. Leaders have come and gone in the party organisation and the parliamentary party over the past twenty years, but those guys prevailed amid all the turmoil. No matter who won at any particular time or jurisdiction, they all took advice from Crosby and Textor. They cannot be sacked or backstabbed or shafted or dumped; no politician is so invulnerable. That's power. Turnbull and Dutton and Morrison and the rest of them are in office, but Crosby and Textor are in power.

The Liberal Party has outsourced its core function, which is why it has no compunction doing so to government services.

14 May 2016

Ahead of time

Starting a company is like throwing yourself off the cliff and assembling an airplane on the way down.

- Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn
The reason why Malcolm Turnbull opted for such a long campaign is because he has to build his campaign team from scratch.

The team that took the Liberal Party from defeat in 2007 through coming close to winning in 2010 and then regaining office in 2013 has largely remained loyal to Abbott. Most of those who weren't personally loyal to Abbott are just old-school campaign junkies who confuse action with progress, people who get rewarded with staffer jobs but who suck at actual slow-and-steady government.

The Nationals have experienced less of a turnover, but their ranks are full of people who were perfectly happy with Warren Truss, less so with Joyce. Backroom boys and girls always have a tough time with those who see themselves as having the common touch, and who back their own judgments over those of the data-wranglers and those who've watched The West Wing a little too ardently.

Turnbull has always had clever people around him, but there are different kinds of cleverness - people who crunch data on social issues and/or can boil down a fat academic tome on cities or defence into a snappy precis, and engage on the issues just enough with his sharp and well-honed mind. Turnbull uses this to impress journalists and others just how clever he is, which is why the entire press gallery fell so hard for him:
Malcolm Turnbull's standing as the Coalition's great communicator has taken a second hit ...
Well, Michael Gordon, you will keep setting up these straw men. I can see why people thought Hawke was a great communicator, but Turnbull? Where is the proof? He failed at the republic and was unconvincing as both minister for Murray-Darling water and for the national telecommunications system. He's good at close quarters but can't work a crowd, because when has he ever gotten anything from a crowd?
Crowds are noisy, unreasonable and impatient. They can trample you easier than a single person can. And a crowd will never buy you lunch. 
- P.J. O'Rourke Parliament of Whores
Turnbull's people aren't scrappers. They haven't had to fight for much, and being uncouth has counted against them rather than been rewarding, as it was for the Abbotts or Rudds of this world. They aren't particularly loyal to the Liberal Party per se (which is why they are using that Turnbull Australia livery: it means more to their team, such as it is, than that not-quite-retro 1970s-stylised blue 'L'). They don't have any of that 'romance of the road' that enables people to tolerate substandard conditions and upheaval day after day, all those flights and buses and cars and hotels/motels and late nights/early mornings and now Adelaide, now Queensland, now Westensinnyyyyyyyyyyyy ...

That leaves the Liberal Party with Tony Nutt, former Liberal State Director in about four states. Nutt is tough and shrewd; very hard to put anything over him. Nutt is fascinated by marginal seats and targeted campaigning and all that jazz in the way that Turnbull isn't - Abbott wasn't either, but he knew he needed it so he outsourced it to Credlin and Loughnane. Nutt could've been a great minister or a very good CEO. What he can't do is run a national campaign on his lonesome. Nobody can. Turnbull's people are the sort who'd bring plastic cutlery to a knife fight; Nutt would bring a chainsaw, but he can only do so much.

He could commandeer people from the states:
  • There are some good people with impressive track records from NSW who aren't sulking with Abbott, but not many;
  • Victoria is pretty much full of deadshits. It takes a village to raise a child and it takes a village of idiots to overlook or cover up for someone like Damian Mantach. The IPA are no good at campaigning because their ideas fail on actual contact with humans. Most other operators have had a run-in with Kroger or one of the sub-sub-factional warriors to which he franchises out the hard and dirty work of on-the-ground campaigning, leaving that state run by numbskulls with good people ostracised or confined to the sidelines. Kroger will scream blue murder if a) the second-raters close to him are snaffled by the feds and cruelly exposed in the far provinces beyond Murray's northern bank, or b) those who have incurred his disfavour get opportunities from the feds that he would deny them.
  • Queensland. I mean, I ask you. Blowing the biggest electoral majority this side of Iran in three years really is apocalyptically stupid (even worse than Victoria above). None of those people have much to offer their local municipality, let alone the nation; the few exceptions are rusted onto Barnaby, even though he has racked off to NSW. That places more weight than is wise upon James McGrath, the man who went to London and ensured that Boris Johnson left no political legacy whatsoever - and who would do the same to Turnbull, vastly overestimating coded appeals to racism and other lame shit like that.
  • South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania, the Territories? No, no, no, no, no. Everyone with ambition and capability has gotten the hell out of there.
Turnbull would have crashed with a traditional thirtysomething-day election campaign. It doesn't matter that he cancelled a street walk in Penrith, or lunched at a gentlemen's club in Melbourne, and no amount of traditional media hype can make it matter seven weeks from now.

Note what happened to Labor in 2010 after Rudd's 2007 campaign team fragmented. Some sat out the usurper (as Abbott's people are doing now), some took the mining industry's lolly; others couldn't quite believe it would be that bad for their side and never lifted beyond second gear, unprepared for Abbott's ferocity. A longer campaign gives the Turnbull government more time for a team to be assembled, and to gel in that mysterious way management theorists and sport coaches wax lyrical about but rarely deliver.

It is not so long that people lose focus. The second of July will be upon us all soon, regardless of our different involvement in this campaign, and the imperative will be on all to make the best of it. Turnbull is backing himself, and others will back him too - whether those people are those the Coalition needs is an open question. Shorten is backing himself, and momentum is as important within campaign teams as it is to the public beyond them.

Everyone's agile and innovative when they've got a rocket up them - or they flame out. Now you can see why the Liberals are like that with regard to workplace relations.

Peta Credlin was a member of Turnbull's staff in 2008, and it's fair to say that her efforts then and since have put Turnbull where he is today. If Nutt and Turnbull manage to build a team that comes together and fires at the right time, she will be both nasty and pathetic at the same time, like the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz after being doused with water*. If not, she'll simply sigh at the Coalition's stumbles and diagnose every problem with "not enough Tony".

This is why "campaign trail journalism" is so lame and such bullshit:
  • Firstly, Tim Crouse belled that cat in 1972, and since then this sub-genre has never been bettered or redeemed.
  • Secondly, Australian journalists do not have the feel for local communities that older-style US journalists had. Regional and suburban journalism has been all but wiped out in Australia, and it was rarely a first step for national journalists as it was in the US or UK. Campaign-trail journalists waft in off the bus and make half-witted, shallow observations about communities, which discredits those media outlets for paying customers who live in them ("if they're wrong about our community, what else are they wrong about? Why are we watching this?"), to which news directors respond by making each successive campaign more and more vacuous.
  • Thirdly, who appointed the media the "on message" police? When Duncan Storrar or Melinda ask about educational and employment opportunities, they're not going "off message" - they're trying to relate life in Australia as they know it to life in Australia as politicians would describe it. Politicians need to relate to voters, and vice versa: the media are meant to be the conduit for this, not to get in the way or pretend the dialogue is about something else. Party hacks have an imperative to be "on message" - that's their job, not the journalists', and not members of the public who are the point of every election. To hell with "on message", and to hell with the fewer than a thousand people across the nation who overestimate its importance.
  • Fourth, cross-continental smirking while waiting for someone to gaffe is tiresome, and fatal to the engagement media organisations crave for survival and relevance. Journalists become mobile jukeboxes of cliches, idly wondering if there are enough such cliches to keep them going for two months. There aren't, of course. The reason why press gallery journalism sucks so hard is because they sit around Canberra for two-and-a-half years ignoring actual policy and governing and stuff, wishing they were on the campaign trail; and when on the campaign trail, they half-heartedly complain about the shallowness of it all, without admitting that they couldn't do policy if they tried. Their political cliches are exhausted before the writs have been issued. The engagement media organisations need for their very survival becomes swamped by the apathy they themselves have engendered.
  • Fifth, you can't explain why Shorten and Labor are competitive without reference to policy. Given that Shorten hasn't had a charisma transplant, vacuous non-policy theatre-review analysis simply can't and won't work. Coverage of policy is done better off the campaign trail than on it (wtf does "tapdance a little faster" really mean, and would anyone with more than 10 minutes' experience of politics honestly believe more hype and stunts would improve anything?).
  • Sixth, for media organisations looking to cut costs, two months of junkets to produce audience-repellent content is unsustainable. The 'romance of the road' leads to in-jokes and inability to communicate with those who weren't there at the time; which is everyone, and that defeats the very idea of journalism. Everything you had wanted, or will want, to say about the 'romance of the road' has been done in this song - thanks anyway. The major parties are increasingly creating their own content and are happy to provide it direct to the newsroom for free (no Alice, staffers are not playing journalist, they are working to replace you and you are helping them).
Turnbull needs a long campaign to build his team, which will by necessity be a different team to the one he (kind of) inherited from Abbott. If it works for Turnbull he'll have a new team for government, one that will carry on into 2019. If not, he can walk away knowing he did his best, leaving others to piece together what it means to be a Liberal in this century: a bit of Abbott rage and resentment here, a magazine cover of the royal family there, a tax cut - maybe something can be cobbled together from all those broken bits, who knows.

Shorten is a long-game player, a quality not seen since Howard or Rudd and not fully understood even by experienced journalists. Paul Kelly described Shorten as "sharper and crisper" than Turnbull, which would be great if the alternative Prime Minister was a white wine. This election can only be understood with regard to policy: Labor have more of it, and it is more consistent, than that of the government. This "out of the blocks faster" crap, or oenological metaphors, defeat the fundamental task of journalism: to explain what is going on, and why it matters. Traditional political journalism isn't good enough for this campaign. Everyone who thinks it might be is wrong, even if they've backed themselves like Turnbull and Shorten have.

Journalists could have a closer look at Labor policy, but that won't be done from the back of a hall in a marginal seat. They could have a closer look at government policy too, and Turnbull will try to work out a way to razzle-dazzle and bamboozle them as he has in the past. Having begun his working life at the feet of an old-school media mogul, he assumes vox media vox populi, which journalists of his vintage and journalism educators take as gospel. I don't think he is right about that, but when it comes to politics and the not-quite-dead press gallery I've been wrong before - or maybe just ahead of my time.

Update: credit to [$] Laura Tingle and Lenore Taylor, two of the better journalists in the press gallery, who have each come to question the ongoing value of campaign trail journalism.

* While it's true that women in public life ought not be regarded as witches as a general rule, Peta Credlin's systematically misogynistic (e.g. "ditch the witch") campaign against Julia Gillard puts her in breach of one of the iron laws of Australian politics: What's Sauce For The Goose Is Sauce For The Gander (as amended from time to time).