11 February 2017

King of the castle

Smiling as the shit comes down
You can tell a man from what he has to say
Everything gets turned around
And I will risk my neck again, again

- Crowded House Four seasons in one day
In theory, Parliament is the forum for the great debates on where the nation is headed. In practice, debates on where the nation is headed are had behind closed doors; what is put on show is bad drama badly acted, in Australia's best-subsidised and best-equipped theatre, where it is reviewed by the Australian media's last contingent of professional paid drama critics.

Legislation and policy lags public debate by its very nature, where deliberations about good ideas, measurements of political forces alive in the community beyond Canberra, and how new initiatives fit with wider strategies like the budget or the PR imperatives of the incumbent government. It's complex and best described by people far from Canberra who focus on one aspect of it. I am so being fair and broadly accurate when I say those who cover politics up close, day after year after parliamentary term, do an important job very, very badly.

Press gallery journalists know nothing about policy and governance - some of the more conscientious ones will do a quick Google search on the topic at hand, as though they don't realise we all have Google. What value is there in consuming traditional media once you've had to do your own googling? What time is there? Does anyone wonder why traditional media is going out of business? Have they really chosen the best journalists available to cover federal politics?

But let's not have your standard rant about the press gallery, and what buffoons they mostly are. Instead, let's go to source materials and work outward from there.

This brings us to Wednesday's wide-ranging debate in parliament, ostensibly a motion on Centrelink payments. The motion itself is on pages 59-60 of this transcript; Shorten's much-vaunted speech is at pp. 60-61, with Turnbull's response at 61-63.

Shorten's speech was not the wonkish affair some on social media have pretended, as though Turnbull had mugged him on the way home from the library. It begins with the epithet "Mr Harbourside Mansion"; Shorten is trying to make the case Turnbull is out of touch, but he hasn't made the case adequately or directly and starting the speech with that phrase was arse-about - you build up to a notion like that, so the killer phrase becomes embedded and unshakeable rather than just another cliche. Just a personal attack, the sort of political news that washes off most people. It practically invited Turnbull to turn it around on Shorten which he (kind of - see below) did. Other gobbets like "this slippery fellow", the mock sympathy for Abbott, being baited by an unworthy interjector in Christian Porter, ensure that no journalist would claim this speech gives Shorten that most elusive quality of politics: Looking Prime Ministerial.

That speech, taken with his earlier one at the National Press Club, has this value: Shorten is clearly calibrating, testing, and recalibrating his message. What we learned on Wednesday is that he is getting under Turnbull's skin.

When Turnbull became Prime Minister in September 2015 he was miles ahead of Shorten in popularity, trustworthiness, and that vague but potent gallery-appointed quality of Looking Prime Ministerial. Turnbull assumed he could crush Shorten in an early election in July 2016, but didn't. It's 2017, and Shorten is still there, plugging away. He hasn't been consumed by some personal failing nor by the roiling tumult of the Labor Party. Abbott and Dutton might be irritants to Turnbull, but Shorten is a mockery.

Turnbull too started off on the wrong foot with the "sycophant" thing, which carries the tinny resonance of Pyne. Turnbull has supped with a few billionaires in his time and it would seem that's the sort of thing one has to do in order to become Prime Minister; it did not work as an opening salvo. It is unclear why Dick Pratt or other billionaires might cultivate someone who wages some sort of class war against them.

The repeated references to "sucking", the almost racist designation of "manual labour", is the only time Turnbull could be said to have failed to uphold the decorum of the Prime Ministership. Well, apart from his petulant speech in the early hours of the morning after the election - and it is unclear why anyone would regard that speech as a disaster while hailing Turnbull's 8 February effort as a triumph.
Some of the lowest paid workers in Australia, cleaners working at Cleanevent — he sold out their penalty rates. And what did they get? They got nothing. But what did the union get? Cash, money, payments.
Kathy Jackson apparently did something similar at the HSU and was lionised by Pyne and Abbott. Strange that the Heydon Royal Commission was unable to make the sort of case against Shorten that is underway against Jackson. It's funny how things turn out, really.

Energy policies are a cost of living expense, but far from the only one. This government lost that battle when the carbon price was axed with no benefit flowing through to households. Turnbull talking about Viridian or Portland Aluminium doesn't even address household power. Turnbull bagging the AWU - well, a Liberal leader would, and besides have you seen how few private-sector employees are even members of unions?

That final paragraph is how Turnbull should have begun a carefully targeted attack: the idea that Shorten is inconsistent and can't be trusted. It might be rich for Turnbull to make such a case but it didn't stop John Howard. The difference is, though, that Turnbull is not testing and recalibrating like Shorten. Turnbull has been confirmed, with backbenchers and press gallery falling over themselves to congratulate him, and we can expect to see more of this as a result.

Turnbull isn't really worried about the social climbing thing, he's aspirational himself. It does indicate a deeper vulnerability. Shorten is not aiming for wealth or for some echelon of social status, he is aiming to hold a single office: Prime Minister, the office currently occupied by Turnbull. It's a zero sum game: Shorten can only become Prime Minister if he displaces Turnbull, or whoever else might occupy the office. It might be useful for Labor publicly to denounce Turnbull as a snob, but far more useful tactically to know Shorten earnestly calibrating, testing, and recalibrating puts the wind up Turnbull.

This is why Latika Bourke's comparison of Shorten-Turnbull with Julia Gillard's 2012 misogyny speech against Abbott was particularly silly. Abbott wasn't trying to become a woman. People can become women without displacing Gillard from womanhood; gender is not a unique state, there are billions of them. In 2012 Abbott was trying to displace and replace Gillard as Prime Minister, and he was happy to use anything he could throw at her - the death of her father, various other niggles arising from Abbott's demonstrated belief that femininity is inimical to leadership. Gillard's response showed that she knew misogyny when she saw it, thought it had no legitimate role in politics, and called Abbott on it.

By contrast, you may or may not agree with Shorten's idea that Turnbull is out of touch, but the topic is within the bounds of legitimate debate in a way that anything-goes misogyny isn't. It's one thing that Bourke's judgment is so bad, but her assumption that her experience counts for more than it does is genuinely funny.

Turnbull's insecurity was on show the following day when he upbraided Adam Bandt, the sole Green MP:
As [UK PM] Theresa May said in the House of Commons, the honourable member [Bandt] is part of a protest movement. I am the leader of a nation.
This is the parliamentary equivalent of the schoolyard taunt, "I'm the king of the castle and you're the dirty rascal". May directed her remarks to the Leader of the Opposition rather than a minor party outlier. A Prime Minister should be above this. Malcolm Turnbull palpably isn't.

Turnbull's invective was surprising to the press gallery who had long been seduced by his charm. And yet, it only takes a quick review of all those profiles on him before he entered parliament to see that he really does snarl like this when he's cornered. He was snarly and superior in public when he was losing the republic referendum, blowing what seemed like a historic inevitability on his own shortcomings. It's stupid for any journalist to take someone on face value, particularly a politician; it belies the very idea of journalistic experience not to measure the man before you against the one known well by others.

What also belies the better ideas of journalism - relied upon by the press gallery for its 'fourth estate' malarkey, and the access privileges that go along with it - is the near unanimity of the theatre reviews giving the contest to Turnbull. It's one thing for some to give it to Shorten, others to Turnbull, and yet others to neither; this is what intelligent, reasonable and diverse people of goodwill and good sense would do. It would be what happened if the press gallery was as intelligent and diverse as its fans insist it is. This is what the debate on Twitter was like: broader than the press gallery and often equal or better in acuity.

Almost all of the press gallery used this event to give themselves license to write the sorts of uncritical, gushing, adverb-heavy praise they gave Turnbull in September 2015. Two exceptions were important:
  • Michelle Grattan applied her experience to place less importance on those speeches than, well, every other journalist. She talked about the government's "cost of living" message while overlooking two things: the welfare cuts that disadvantage low-income earners, and the games over electricity where cost of living (and supply reliability to South Australians) are collateral damage.
  • Katharine Murphy's theatre review recognised Turnbull came from a position of weakness rather than strength. Alone in the press gallery, Murphy recently seems to have taken to heart social media jeering at the press gallery herd and realises there's no future in passing on the same received wisdom from all outlets: mind you, this is the point where new year's resolutions tend to fall away, so we'll see if she can sustain this.
Both Grattan and Murphy do quick comparisons with Question Time players of yesteryear, but they seem to have drawn the wrong lessons. Let's look at previous governments in decline and compare them with the performance of this one:
  • 2013: Gillard and Rudd laid into Abbott, who grinned and winked at the press gallery.
  • 2007: Costello and Howard laid into Rudd, who calmly sat there taking notes.
  • 1995: Keating laid into Howard, who sat there calmly or laughed that odd mirthless laugh of his.
  • 1982: Fraser laid into Hayden and Hawke; the latter at one point fled the chamber in tears. If Shorten did that today he'd be finished.
Far from being a sign of strength, a Prime Minister laying into an Opposition Leader indicates that the government is on its way out. A secure government ignores the Leader of the Opposition. An insecure government treats that office and its holder as a mortal threat, with the focus and severity one would hope a government might bring against economic disadvantage or racist violence.

Malcolm Turnbull never wanted to be Prime Minister. Being PM involves leading an unruly party through tough and uncertain times. He wanted to be President, and only went for the Prime Ministership once that wasn't an option. Being President involves cutting ribbons, making polite and occasionally droll remarks that don't involve references to sucking or protesting, traveling around, and giving obligation-free advice to politicians. Turnbull has opted for a lesser role than he hoped, maybe even a role that is beneath him. You can see why what he offers us is less than we might have hoped, and why his policy offerings in every portfolio - and now, his parliamentary behaviour - are beneath us.