12 July 2017

Submission to the Senate Select Committee on the Future of Public Interest Journalism

The Senate established a select committee to investigate the future of public interest journalism. Its terms of reference are here. I was concerned that it would cleave too closely to the Federal Government's proposed regulatory changes to help prop up traditional media, and the recurring bludge identified most recently on Media Watch that Google and Facebook have some sort of responsibility to maintain journalists and their managers in the style to which they've become accustomed.

Here's my submission to the committee (the subheadings refer to the committee's terms of reference):

(a) the current state of public interest journalism in Australia

What is public interest journalism?

A pithy and useful definition is supplied here (http://www.mediahelpingmedia.org/training-resources/journalism-basics/360-applying-the-public-interest-test-to-journalism):
The public interest is in having a safe, healthy and fully-functioning society. In a democracy, journalism plays a central role in that. It gives people the information they need to take part in the democratic process.
I’ll use this definition when I refer to ‘public interest journalism’ in this submission.

Why public interest journalism goes beyond the products offered by media companies represented in the press gallery

The media organisations represented in the federal parliamentary press gallery have employed journalists to report on the activities of politicians in federal parliament – mostly the activities of the government of the day in executing policy, but also the activities of the opposition (as a potential alternative government), and politicians outside both the government and official opposition (in shaping policy and legislative outcomes and contributing to longer-term debates).

There is more to the public interest than what traditional media organisations deign to cover. The public interest transcends the reach, the abilities, and the wit of particular management teams of traditional media organisations. Press gallery journalists cannot offer the breadth of coverage required for public interest journalism. There are a number of reasons for this.

The weaknesses of the fourth estate

Romantic notions of “the fourth estate” aside, the press gallery is not accountable to the public as are members of parliament. The public has no role in appointing or removing members of the press gallery. Remonstrations with them have no discernible or consistent impact. The geographic and demographic composition of the press gallery is unrepresentative of the broader Australian public. Any idea that “public interest journalism” begins and ends with the press gallery is nonsense.

Most news output from the press gallery concerns government announcements – activities of government and interpretations thereof that responsible ministers are more than happy to announce, and which the press gallery transcribes and broadcasts in terms broadly similar to those announced.

There is a public interest in activities of government that are not announced, which go to questions of maladministration, incompetence, or even corruption. It can be tempting to see these non-announcements as a game one plays with journalists, rather than misinformation to the public at large; this is a mistake, one that public interest journalism should work to redress.

Media organisations represented in the press gallery rarely do the investigation necessary to bring these activities to light for the public, and almost never from within the press gallery. They sometimes did when they were better resourced than they are today.
There is no real link between any increase in funding those organisations may experience and any increase in the frequency, breadth, or complexity of investigative journalism they may deign to undertake. Investigative journalism resources required for properly effective public interest journalism does, and will continue to come from beyond traditional media organisations. Laws and policy outcomes should recognise and accommodate this.

The need for such journalism does not ebb and flow with fads or commercial decisions of traditional media organisations. The public has a right to know what its government is doing, and what the options are politically; this public interest exists independently of media operational strategy.

Are you a smart-alec?

As an engaged citizen and media consumer, I want to see, hear, and read what’s going on: preferably from those who understand what’s going on rather than merely physically present at a staged announcement, and who are simply relaying information supplied to them.
Apparently it is not reasonable to expect traditional media organisations to engage a variety of policy experts on an expanding range of topics. It is certainly not reasonable to expect that a press gallery journalist can adequately cover any and all of the complex policy issues covered by Australia’s federal government.

While the quality of online content can vary considerably, I have learned through wide and careful reading that there is no such thing as a dull subject, only dull writing and unappealing presentation of important facts. Throughout the community, there are people with deep and broad experience in many complex and important issues; it is important that we hear from them directly rather than awaiting the traditional media spotlight to fall on them.

One important example is the rise of science journalism. Fairfax, NewsCorp and the ABC recently had small numbers of specialist journalists with scientific training and the ability to explain complex, cutting-edge concepts to mainstream audiences. In recent years those organisations have downsized or abolished science reporting teams, despite the urgency in public debates for greater scientific understanding by decisions-makers and the community as a whole. Public interest journalists who focus on science provide a vital service, and raise questions about traditional media avowals of quality journalism.

The value of “insider knowledge” on complex, far-reaching public issues is often vastly overrated by politicians and traditional media. It is lazy and inadequate, as so often happens, to present a policy debate as “argy-bargy” within a party or across parties. It is irresponsible to abandon an important issue with the cop-out “the devil is in the detail”. Public interest journalism opens the possibility that complex policy issues might be engaged with and explained by knowledgeable, experienced people, who may help us all (including politicians and press gallery journalists) better understand and engage with the issues in public debate.

Statistical knowledge – not just the data and the presentation of it, but the understanding of how data may be manipulated – has never been more important in public debate. From their earliest days, newspapers carried voluminous data on shipping movements, racing form guides, and stock market movements. Popular television coverage of sporting events includes voluminous statistical information. So do popular weather reports, financial advice, and opinion poll coverage. Public interest journalists are more likely to gather and present in-depth statistical information than traditional press gallery journalists, who feel pushed for time and unable to digest official reports with rich statistical information that might inform key current debates.

The Australian community is better educated than it was. “Beer, cigs up” is not sufficient commentary on the budget. The Treasurer is scrutinised more than any other minister is because of the plethora of economics and business journalists who cover his portfolio, not all of whom are fulltime, salaried employees. Public interest journalism promises to apply similar scrutiny across all portfolios of government, far more than is possible from press gallery journalists limited to manoeuvering.

The contraction of traditional news resources goes against a growing need for more and better knowledge about how we are (and might be) governed. Salaried journalists in traditional media organisations might insist on exclusive rights and privileges over access to and dissemination of official information, and the structure of the press gallery institutionalises that view. This paradox will most likely be resolved against the interests of traditional media, as independently-operating public interest journalists will come to offer greater breadth and credibility of coverage than enfeebled traditional media. Allowance must be made for such people to come and go from places where public interest information is available, and that they may not be fulltime employees of a few large organisations.

The only way of ensuring viable, independent and diverse services would be to provide high-quality information to as many people as might want it, given appropriate safeguards for privacy and other forms of justice. Commercial organisations may worry about demand; the real question for regulators is and should be the supply of accurate and relevant information.

(b) Laws, market powers and practices

Do you really want diversity? The proposals put forward by the Minister for Communications seem to call for mergers and other anti-competitive measures in aid of traditional media organisations. Which is it: viability through competition and diversification, or by minimising them?

Consumer law and practice have little impact on media output on public issues. One regular media practice that defeats regulation of ownership is press gallery herding around One Big Story, told from much the same angle with almost identical inputs, at any given time. This practice defeats media diversity and inhibits the amount of information broadcast to voters and taxpayers about how we are (and might be) governed. I don’t know how you regulate that out of existence: a combination of public ridicule and corporate downsizing might work.

Public interest journalists know that the story is probably wherever they aren’t. They are more likely to fan out and find it, rather than timidly follow the herd. Competition and consumer laws seem somewhat beside the point. Instead, here are some laws that might be changed to foster more and better public interest journalism:

Parliamentary standing orders

There is no good reason why members of the public viewing the operations of the House and the Senate should be denied the ability to take recording devices such as notepads or cameras into the press gallery.

Public interest journalists should be able to take notes and pictures as freely as the press gallery can. Press gallery journalists are allowed into areas of the Parliament from which members of the public are denied access. There are predictable objections which may be dealt with as follows:

Media organisations have commercial interests that are protected by removing recording devices from members of the public
Would these be the same media organisations who recently sacked their photographers? Why are public resources protecting private interests?
Media organisations comply with rules about parliamentary decorum
Do they? Would they be rules that help, or hinder, public understanding of how we are governed?
Random members of the public might create security risks
Parliament represents members of the public, and public access to parliamentary proceedings are an essential part of the parliament’s operations. Security issues are for security professionals.

Parliament has its own very sophisticated systems for recording official proceedings. The idea that public interest journalism might interfere with them is absurd. Standing orders that inhibit members of the public to take recording devices into the public galleries should be amended as soon as possible, as a sign of commitment to public interest journalism.

Fair use as a defence under copyright, freedom of information, and defamation laws

Public interest journalism should not be inhibited by restrictions arising from copyright. The Public Interest Journalism Foundation has called for ‘fair use’ provisions to cover public interest journalists, similar to those covering other researchers; you should look into this.

Freedom of information laws should only apply where there are violations of personal privacy, national security, or to police operations and judicial proceedings.

Public interest journalism should be a defence against defamation, similar to the principles in the High Court’s Lange case.

Open Government and Government 2.0 initiatives

The Australian government should be an impartial provider of high-quality, relevant data. That data should be readily available online, with appropriate safeguards for privacy, justice, and national security. The Australian Bureau of Statistics should be a leader in collecting and providing this data openly but securely (including in ways that resist spoofing), so that users can be sure Australian government data can be trusted.

Government agencies, politicians, and private providers (including the media and public interest journalists) may create value from that data by presenting it as information or even commercially-appealing content. It should not be the role of politicians to second-guess how certain data may or may not be used, and to restrict access according to short-term and half-baked tactical calculations.
I wish that the principles set out in the Open Government Partnership National Action Plan were applied, so that we could see fair and appropriate use of government data applied to public benefit. The Australian government’s commitment to the themes ii. Open data and digital transformation and iii. Access to government information should be a matter for close and ongoing scrutiny, for public interest journalists and parliamentarians alike.

Whatever resources government is committing to public data provision initiatives, it isn’t enough. The fate of the 2016 census (and, perhaps, the quality of ongoing government decisions based on that data) shows it cannot be done on the cheap. Readily available data enables creation of quality public interest journalism, and enables checking of news as to whether or not it might be fake.

The Public Interest Journalism Foundation

I support calls by the Public Interest Journalism Foundation to promote a culture of philanthropy to support public interest journalism, and to review legal restrictions (such as those described above) that inhibit it.

Calls to ensure diversity through reviews, legislation or public funds are problematic. In recent years we have seen cuts to legal aid and public broadcasting, and expansions of police powers over freedoms of the public in the name of security; the very idea that scope might be opened to public interest journalism against a trend of diminishing these important and related issues is questionable.

The terms of reference specifically refer to competition and consumer law, thank you very much. Your suggestions are outside our terms of reference

Are you serious about public interest journalism or not? You could work to reform those laws if you wanted.

(c) and (e) Fake news, propaganda, search engines

“Fake news” and propaganda are not new. Two persistent examples of fake news arose from Russia:
  • 19th century Tsarist secret police fabricated a book called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which purported to provide documentary proof of a global Jewish conspiracy. Even though it has been extensively discredited, the book was a key text in Nazi Germany and is still disseminated among far-right groups today; and
  • In 1945 Soviet troops discovered that Hitler had died. Stalin had his skull brought to Moscow. Yet, Soviet propaganda held that US and British forces had allowed Hitler to escape war-torn Berlin, and that he was living in South America, plotting his return.
This is not to say that Russia is somehow prone to “fake news” and propaganda, or that information from there is unreliable. Note that both of those examples pre-date the internet. It should surprise nobody, in government or outside it, that those who place a premium on information being fast and conveniently available run the risk of that information being untrue and unreliable.

For media organisations, the pressure on journalists to produce “content” to tight and shifting deadlines exposes them to the risk of unreliable information. By broadcasting it they risk damaging their credibility as their financial position worsens – but that’s their choice, not yours. I agree with New York University academic Jay Rosen when he urges media organisations to create value by focusing on truth and reliability over the traditional media imperative to be “first with the latest”, a battle that cannot be won against free internet-based providers.

Given that most press gallery coverage of politics simply involves relaying announcements and splicing together press releases, little of value is lost when online aggregators take these stories and promulgate them with no return to the media organisations originating that coverage. Media outlets who would have writers work for little or no reward get “a taste of their own medicine” when that work in turn is freely aggregated and distributed.

(d) Public interest journalism in underserviced markets: regional areas, culturally and linguistically diverse markets

Public interest journalism has a role in extrapolating high-level activities of government (e.g. millions of dollars spent in a particular area) and exploring how they affect a particular community, whether or not a particular affect has been included in a formal announcement. Whether or not traditional media organisations regard these communities as commercially appealing markets is beside the point of public interest journalism.

The more people there are engaged in public interest journalism, the higher the chances that local communities will be better informed on matters that affect them. Communities need not be geographically defined, but by language or other specialist interest.

“All politics is local”: this is a truism known to politicians, journalists, and to members of the public. While politics might operate on that level, the practice of Australian political journalism largely doesn’t.

The weakness of centralised traditional media is evident during and after election campaigns. In NSW and Australian elections, we see facile coverage of western Sydney that is resented by those who live there, and uninformative to those who don’t. Something similar is happening in the US after last year’s election, where centralised media descends on communities in Appalachia and the Midwest that have few media resources of their own, and which are poorly served by centralised national media. By creating room for public interest journalism, you relieve pressure of traditional media that simply isn’t coping with the demands placed upon it.

Again, there are two main ways that the Australian government can boost public interest journalism to these communities:
  • The provision of reliable and relevant data online as an exemplar of, and expression of faith in, high quantity and high quality public information to inform public debate; and
  • The removal of petty and self-defeating rules restricting access to quality data and information, and the privileging of other concerns less important than public interest journalism ahead of it.
I question whether public broadcasters should maintain correspondents in media-saturated locations like the UK and the US. In theory, an Australian voice from those places provides a uniquely different perspective on events from those places. In practice it is hard to see what that difference is, and whether resources might be diverted to improve reporting in the public interest.

I hope that members of those communities will rise to these and other related challenges of the information age.

10 July 2017

Distressed assets, part 2

Following on from yesterday on Bernardi's political bottom-feeding:

What becomes of the broken-hearted

Bernardi has some capacity to make inroads into the Coalition, particularly the Liberal Party, but only after the Turnbull government has gone. Nobody, not even George Christensen, wants to do to the extant government what Jack Beasley or Vince Gair did to Labor back in the day. Bernardi may be able to lord it over the churchmice who run Family First, but there are limits to his political reach and skill.

In South Australia, losses at state and federal level will see out the Liberals. Pyne and Marshall are not strong enough to hold out for long against a concerted movement by both Bernardi and Xenophon, not even if Pyne shakes down defence contractors for campaign funds. Say what you will about Xenophon, but he's tougher, smarter, and more deft at both policy and tactics than Pyne. Every step Pyne took to the right to maintain his place under Abbott and survive all that sniping from Minchin is erased by Bernardi.

The Liberals in WA (the most right-wing division of the party) are in disarray, discredited after so long in state government and little to show for the boom but debt. WA's normally strident business community is weakened and cannot afford to antagonise the new state Labor government, nor discount the prospect of a federal one. Once Cormann is gone, and Dame Rachel Cleland dies, who will block Liberal ears to the siren call of AusCons?

Michael Kroger has almost succeeded in his life's work of ridding the Victorian Liberals of Hamerite moderates. Liberal preselections are beset by such dire candidates they make Sophie's Choice look straighforward. Whatever doubts Daniel Andrews may have are surely allayed by the unshakeable commitment by Kroger, Matthew Guy and Inga Peulich to douse their party in voter repellent. Once they lose three or four federal seats and get belted on Spring Street, they will embrace Bernardi like the old VFL used to snaffle Magarey Medallists - especially if Bernardi gets Bolt on board.

The ACT Liberals are pretty much Bernardi people anyway. Zed is one good lunch away from throwing in his lot with Bernardi, or he'll lose to the Greens and the party structure will switch to AusCons bag and baggage. The NT's CLP might take a detour via Hanson but they will end up in his camp sooner or later.

All of the above scenarios, and the ones in the preceding post, show the one thing required for Bernardi to succeed politically: a vacuum.

In Tasmania, Abetz and Lambie will see off Bernardi. As the Hodgman government fades, a conservative may appear who doesn't like Abetz and won't play second-fiddle to Lambie, and may turn to Bernardi: there are too many variables for that to even postulate now.

The Queensland LNP was formed to secure state government, keeping control in gnarled rustic hands while presenting a civil face to the urban south-east. They only succeeded once. Once. What happens if they get smashed, not just by a Labor government but one led by women! Two of them! Re-establishing the Liberal Party's Qld division and the non-national Nationals won't be an option.

Queensland is a long way from South Australia, but Bernardi can speak slowly and it isn't like he's from Sydney or Melbourne. Some LNPers may drift to AusCons if the scenarios with Katter and Hanson come off, but again there are too many variables.

This leaves NSW.

There are two factors operating in NSW. First, the Coalition is running a functioning, popular government, that is getting stuff done and solving problems. There are some right-wingers, but not enough to destroy the government with dogmatic focus on issues that don't matter and neglect of those that do. Right-wingers like Dominic Perrottet and Anthony Roberts are on a sweet wicket, and nothing Bernardi says or does will entice them away from their current roles.

The second is the current federal member for Warringah. Abbott was never a factional leader, but he's had to become a figurehead because the Liberal right in NSW are such monkeys. He can't sit around Canberra or go jogging or do whatever else he does with any confidence that his homeboys are minding the shop.

Whenever you see the press gallery insisting that Abbott is lunging for his old job, know that he's flat out securing his own preselection. Preselection (the process by which a party endorses a candidate to run for a parliamentary seat) is basic political competence, one of those fundamental skills upon which higher-order operations depend. Even the newest, lowliest backbencher has won preselection.

Murdoch TV personality Ross Cameron was the little brother Abbott never had. He spent eight years as MP for Parramatta on Abbott, like those betas who trail around behind school bullies. Cameron should be one of Abbott's chief lieutenants within the NSW Liberals, but instead he has fallen foul of a basic rule that has seen him suspended from the party for five years. Quite why Murdoch TV regard him as some sort of sage is unclear to me. Another of Abbott's posse, Jokus Ludicrous, is facing similar disciplinary action because of similarly basic stupidity. Abbott's bestie, David Gillespie, is under threat of losing his seat over yet another basic act of dumbness.

Those guys should be supporting Abbott, not putting themselves in need of support. After 23 years in Parliament, he should have a tight-knit band of professionals who head off any threat to his political survival and keep the home fires burning. Abbott fans will tell you what a great guy he is, and how his staff love him, but if the guy can't keep preselection in Warringah then he's fundamentally weak and probably even more of a prick than I think he is. Canberra is brutal at exposing and homing in on political weakness, and no weakness is more fundamental than preselection: the result of building a team in your local branches that is both loyal and effective.

Here is where the idea that Turnbull is worse than Abbott falls down. For all his limitations, Turnbull can hold his preselection against all comers. He has a loyal and effective base within his local branches. Whatever travails he may have with Dutton or Shorten or Trump, his base is sufficiently solid so that he can act on the national stage.

The idea that the government are going to elect a leader who can't be sure his own branches are behind him is stupid, an idea advanced only by people who don't understand politics and have no business reporting on it. Abbott might feel more at home in a party that consisted only of conservatives - but it wouldn't be a governing party. He fancies his chances at winning a wider constituency, and to do that you need to be in an established party with a track record of being in government - like, say, the Liberal Party as it is currently constituted.

If Bernardi offered Abbott a role within AusCons it would be a comedown for both men. Bernardi can lord it over Gichuhi or Carling-Jenkins, but Abbott is a different beast. Would Abbott be a net gain to the AusCons?

If Turnbull and Berejiklian lost office then the right would be out for revenge - but they are so stupid they would fuck that up too, and activate the party's "let's not be hasty" mindset that saw them lose state government for 16 years. There might be a few individuals and even a few Liberal branches that might defect to AusCons, but so what? The defection of, say, Walter Villatora might not be the coup Bernardi's people might want the press gallery to believe.

Follow the money

Bernardi was unsuccessful in securing money from the US right, such as the Koch brothers (the real reason for his trip to New York last year, to the point where questions should be asked about his publicly-funded trip and its impact on Australia's representation at the UN). He might be more successful if the Republicans lose Congress in 2018 and the White House in 2020, and those donors spread more of their funding internationally.

Bernardi won't be able to conduct fundraising and parliamentary business simultaneously, but who would he trust to raise the money? Where is his Santamaria? Where, apart from his wife is his sounding board?

Any liquidator will want to make sure his party's financial management is even tighter than his message discipline. Even the whiff of impropriety will repel potential and current members, and will invalidate any of the prospects described here for Bernardi's and AusCons' future. The Liberal Party will not take kindly to having its money switch with members to AusCons.

Why Bernardi can't win in the long term

When you're a liquidator/administrator, you don't have a long-term stake in the business you're taking over. The dream that inspired the business and motivated those within it is over: those people may weep as you take their security passes and send them home. You stop the bleeding and focus on the short-to-medium term interests of the stakeholders, who all have unequal importance when dividing what's left of the loot.

Bernardi's wish for an equal-but-opposite broad social base for conservatism is doomed:
  • Workers join unions to secure better wages and working conditions; there is no countervailing broad movement for less and worse, especially as the Reserve Bank and the Business Council realise the economic impacts of consumers withholding spending.
  • Progressive social movements seek to force change on politicians often unwilling to grant it; few will work as hard or as long to retain stasis.
  • Even conservative women bristle at being patronised, denied opportunities open to male counterparts, and/or subjected to violence. Countervailing forces to feminism are weak and yield when pushed or even exposed.
  • And while there is countervailing force to same-sex marriage, there appears to be no fallback option should it ever come to a vote and pass the parliament. It's hard enough to maintain one's own marriage let alone interfere in those of others.
Assuming you can't just outlaw GetUp! and the ACTU, what would happen with a broad-based activist left and a broad-based activist right? There are two possibilities:
  1. Centrist stasis, moderate liberals in ever more pointless set-piece quadrilles with Centre Unity Labor, achieving little of real import; or
  2. A hopelessly riven polity that talks past one another, as we see in the US; or
  3. There is no third option. Conservatives do black/white only. As Tony Abbott shows us, nuance is for sissies and losers.
Where is the left-wing Alan Jones? Probably arguing with the right-wing Van Badham. This kind of shit is where Bernardi's head is at. As a liquidator, and then as a politician, Bernardi's focus is short-to-medium, which is a problem for any conservative.

We live in an age of great upheaval, and conservatives are people looking for timeless continuities when everything seems nasty, brutish, and short. Bernardi says he's a conservative, and for all I know he may live a traditional life in Adelaide's more sylvan glades, but it isn't enough. As per the dot-points above, he doesn't have a long-term agenda. Where are the institutions that might buttress enduring human interests: the church? Government? Western Civ expressed through arts institutions?

Thanks to publicly-subsidised education at Sydney and Oxford, Tony Abbott can drop Western Civ references from Augustine to Zwingli - but he doesn't live those values. He can't show conservative voters how to do so, nor persuade non-conservatives why it's desirable (remember his proposal for hard-to-dissolve covenant marriages?). Bernardi can't just do old-school scolding, hoping tradition will back him up. If he gets Abbott in the tent, he cedes control, but without Abbott he runs a boutique operation beneath his ambition.

Once he assembles a ramshackle gang (with or without Abbott), Bernardi will have to keep them together and focused on some long-term goal that's bigger than all of them. There is no proof Bernardi has leadership skills. There is no proof he has a strong team outside parliament offering depth of perspective and a sounding board, as the major parties do with their executives. I've explained his lack of a long-term agenda. What he's doing is clearly working for some in the current, transitory environment; but to use a phrase much used by hippies, it's just not sustainable.

09 July 2017

Distressed assets, Part 1

Despite its both-sidesism, John Warhurst's piece on Senators Rhiannon and Bernardi is worth reading. I wish political commentary from the press gallery was half this good.

Warhurst makes some good points on Bernardi (and on Rhiannon too - balance!), and on Bernardi's wish for conservatism to become a movement that extends beyond parliament. I won't speculate on Rhiannon's wider game, but Bernardi's is interesting because it indicates a new development in Australian politics.

The pattern (from which Bernardi is departing)

The Liberal Party and the Nationals (including the Northern Territory's CLP and the LNP in Queensland) represent the enduring political institutions on the right of Australian politics. Right-wing parties operating beyond the Coalition tend to rise and fall with individuals and/or with short-term political predicaments that, when resolved, push the smaller party into oblivion.

Far-right white-supremacist parties tend to congeal around a leader: now Blair Cotrell, formerly Jim Saleam or Eric Butler or Francis de Groot. While this remains a virulent strain in Australian politics, it goes into remission without a disciplined leader, and relies heavily on the personal quirks of whomever has managed to herd those turkeys at any given time.

Slightly to the left of those guys, but mainly to the right of the Coalition, we have seen right-wing insurgencies from Pauline Hanson, Bob Katter, Brian Harradine, Fred Nile, David Leyonhjelm, Bob Day, Rob Brokenshire, Clive Palmer, and others who slip my mind at this hour. They have all built political vehicles that got them elected and re-elected, and achieved not much else (I'm not counting pissed-off Coalition MPs who lose preselection, flounce to the cross-benches, and get flushed out of the political system at the next election).

Most were flashes in the pan. Harradine served in the Senate for a generation. Fred Nile is NSW's longest-serving MP; when he was elected in 1981, the state's current Premier and Opposition Leader were in primary school. Hanson, briefly an MP in the late 1990s, has returned after a career on life support from dying commercial media - but for how much longer?

The exception that proves the rule

The one right-wing movement that endured outside the Coalition and had a real effect on the Labor-Liberal "main game" was the Democratic Labor Party. It was formed out of the Catholic Social Studies Movement, orchestrated but not led by Bartholomew Augustine (Bob) Santamaria. It sought to represent conservative working people in line with Catholic teaching on labour representation and other social policies, including anti-communism; this placed them outside the ALP, which was not communist but also not as anti-communist as the Coalition.

The DLP held the balance of power in the Senate between 1955 and 1974, mostly passing government bills put to them with few or no modifications. They won a NSW state seat from 1973-76 because a Liberal minister forgot to lodge his nomination forms. It was considered a spent force after then, except in campus elections at Victorian universities.

The party was resurrected around the turn of the century by Archbishop George Pell, who wanted a distinctively Catholic voice within Australian conservatism.

Pell ramped up the DLP, with representatives elected to the Senate and the Victorian Legislative Council. He involved the Church in the Institute of Public Affairs, which was integrated with the Liberal Party in Victoria (and which promptly dropped libertarian positions on issues like abortion or euthanasia). Chris Berg was paid to write a book extolling the virtues of Western Civilisation, and put the Church at the heart of it; but in his hands a compelling, vibrant and eventful story became a damp grey mist. Pell wrote articles for Quadrant and served on its board. Catholic schools received more government funding than at any time in Australian history.

In 2003, Peter Hollingworth resigned as Governor-General because he had mismanaged instances of child abuse within Anglican church organisations for which he had been responsible. Howard briefly considered holding a royal commission into child sexual abuse within church institutions; Pell told him he would recreate sectarian divisions by such a move. Howard's lifelong political project was to unite conservatives across sectarian lines within the Liberal Party, so (as Pell knew) his words cut deep.

The DLP won a seat in the Senate, but John Madigan left the party before losing the seat. It may not have retained its place in Victoria's upper house at the state's next election, even had Pell not himself been charged with sexual offences against children. A subsequent royal commission, called by an atheist woman PM, showed the Catholic Church could not be trusted to run aspects of its affairs and that the application of secular law to practices within the Church would prevail over internal processes. The imbroglio over government funding of schools reached a consensus that funding Catholic schools would be reduced, and that they would not spend public money contrary to government guidelines.

In short, all that Pell hoped to achieve in Australian politics from reviving the DLP lies in ruins. He has the right to remain silent - but in politics as in law, anything he does say may be taken down and used against him.

Enter Cory Bernardi (but not in That Way)

When Cory Bernardi left the Liberal Party he gave up his wish to unite broadly conservative forces within the Coalition, which had been his aim as recently as late last year. It was reasonable to assume that Bernardi would build up Australian Conservatives as just another vanity project, electing nobody but himself, and that it would die when either the voters of South Australia grew tired of him, or he of them.

Before entering parliament, Bernardi was an accountant specialising in insolvency. While standard Liberals talk about growth and opportunity, Bernardi's experience comes in once the go-getters have gotten and gone, following a very tightly regulated process. He has brought these skills to bear on distressed political assets on the right. Not since the Liberal Party was formed in 1944 has anybody bothered to do this in an ongoing, systematic way. Press gallery journalists look to shoehorn developments into clich├ęs and call it news, so it is disappointing but not surprising that they have missed this development.

Family First was the Protestants' attempt to match the DLP and get around Fred. They succeeded in electing Stephen Fielding and Bob Day to the Senate, but neither was capable of building the party beyond himself. Bernardi picked it up for a song. Having two Senators looks like momentum, like Chipp and Mason for the Democrats in 1977. It made up for his failure to secure funding from Gina Rinehart, and from the right-wing groups now reaping the billions they sowed into what is now the Trump Administration.

He did the same with the DLP, wiping both the Pell taint and the antediluvian irrelevance of Madigan. He gave Rachel Carling-Jenkins MLC with more options than a slow slide into irrelevance. He spread his wings beyond South Australia, which is more than small-l liberal Nick Xenophon could manage.

To pick Bernardi's next move, develop a nose for decay within what look like viable structures.

Bob Katter is 72 years old. Maybe he will want to keep travelling from balmy Charters Towers to chilly Canberra indefinitely, but maybe he won't; maybe the decision, one way or another, will be made for him.

Fred Nile is 83 this September. He has fought off successors within his own party, and the hacks and sycophants surrounding him now won't be able to run a chook raffle without him. If Bernardi comes calling they will hear him out at least.

Pauline Hanson won't hang around forever. For all the media opportunities created for her, she isn't exactly a media tart. She snarls at scrutiny and is awkward at stunts. These days her words are every bit as measured as the dullest major-party hack. In Parliament she does what the DLP did and basically votes with the government. One Nation's experience in WA showed she is clear about what she wants from her followers, but much less so about what she offers them in return. After all, the party is called Pauline Hanson's One Nation, not Your One Nation.

In the late 1990s she spent two-and-a-bit years as an MP. In 2004 the federal parliamentary pension scheme was closed to new entrants. Four-and-a-bit years from being elected to the Senate in 2016 she will hit the seven-year eligibility for that lucrative old-school parliamentary pension, which has always been her light-on-the-hill. On that day (in 2020/21) you won't see her for dust, gay Muslim Aboriginal wind-turbines or no. By then her boosters in commercial media will be even weaker than they are now - learning the lesson that if your product is crap, regulatory reform won't help you.

And yet, Hanson will still have a following. Bernardi will make them an offer they won't be able to refuse.

Either Danny Nalliah will give politics away, or he will sign on with Bernardi. He has no third option. Christians can't convincingly maintain the politics of turning away the stranger.

David Leyonhjelm would not give way to the slippery Helen D. His gunloser constituency in NSW overlaps with that of One Nation's Brian Burston. Either or both will give way to Bernardi when the time comes, or they will give over to Shooters & Fishers and leave Bernardi nothing to salvage.

Clive Palmer leaves no legacy, in business or politics. Jacqui Lambie was elected in her own right and works all sides of the political street, starving Hanson of oxygen in what should be a strong One Nation state. Lambie had guts and base enough to see Palmer off, and she can do the same to Bernardi.

Bernardi will be able to crystallise the supposedly large but disorganised movement of men upset with the Family Court, and against Rosie Batty's movement on domestic violence. Hanson has indicated her support for these, but as a divorced woman who had sought police protection from her exes, she is unconvincing. Were Mark Latham to throw in his lot with Bernardi (and face it, he has nowhere else to go either) it would be the biggest act of political self-abasement since Billys Hughes or Holman.


Tomorrow: will Bernardi cannibalise the Coalition? Does he have a long-term future?

04 July 2017

That old junkyard dog

I am not going anywhere.

- Tony Abbott
The traditional media are making the same mistakes with Abbott that they made when he was Opposition Leader. Almost all members of the press gallery were there when he was Prime Minister. None of them learned the lesson that Abbott talks a lot but achieves very little. All of them just did what they did in 2011, and ran his slogans verbatim.

Abbott became Prime Minister in 2013 on a promise to end the interpersonal turmoil between Rudd and Gillard, and promising to change relatively little policy-wise. When he began reneging on promises to maintain education funding, and other matters scarcely covered by the press gallery for their beyond-Canberra impact, his polling sank and stayed low. The press gallery put Abbott's decline down to the 2014 budget, but only because they continued to give him the benefit of the doubt long after wiser observers had turned away. We had seen Abbott for what he was and is.

Even those who believed in this shower of platitudes must know that Abbott can't make good on it. He can sow confusion about carbon abatement measures, but he can't pretend it is a non-issue, and the idea that he might come up with a workable solution is long proven false. And that's the most credible of his pronouncements! All the rest of it - reintroducing the 20-shilling pound, reducing costs on WestConnex by importing English convicts under a new deal with the equally desperate and incompetent May government - if press gallery experience really was worth more than I prize it at, then they would have dismissed both messenger and message long before now.

Tony Abbott is not newsworthy simply as a former PM. When tax-and-spend social democracy faded in the late 1970s - after Whitlam, and with the uninspiring examples of Callaghan and Carter and Schmidt - Billy McMahon did not start monstering the Fraser government. He was treated as a irrelevance whenever he proffered the mildest suggestion. While Whitlam himself refrained from commenting on many of the Hawke-Keating reforms, Whitlam-era relics like Tom Uren or Stewart West spoke out and were received with bemusement. Abbott's contributions should be viewed in a similar light. His slogans are slightly reworded from half-a-dozen years ago, and were stale a century before that: he has learned nothing and forgotten everything, just like the press gallery.

Some believe Abbott returning to the Prime Ministership would further ensure a Labor win at the next election, a weak-tea version of the marxist notion of 'accelerationism'. All this would mean is that the next government would be so traumatised by the ratbaggery that preceded it, that the imperative for far-reaching reform would be weakened. Areas where the current government has clearly failed, such as school funding or reducing carbon emissions, would yield half-baked compromises to "get it off the table" rather than well-considered solutions.

Weak-tea accelerationism is idle. Either go all out with buckets of blood, like the Bolsheviks did, with the risk that the blood spilt might be your own; or start planning for both the victory and what might lie beyond it.

Abbott might be disrupting the Turnbull government from its stumbling, whatever-happens agenda, but he is weak on three levels that the press gallery don't really appreciate.

First, he's weak in the administration of government. There was no link between what he promised the public and what transpired in his government. He could not get legislation through parliament: bleating about fractious politics ignores the Gillard government's successes in getting legislation through both houses in which no party had a clear majority.

Second, he's weak politically. A leader in the ascendant has his people in key positions. Abbott's people are either out of the party (e.g. Ross Cameron, Cory Bernardi) or on their way out (Jokus Ludicrous). You can't lead a party with people who aren't sure whether or not they want to be there. In parliament, his supporters are burnt-out husks (Eric Abetz, Kevin Andrews), accident-prone clowns (Michael Sukkar, Peter Dutton) or unimpressive nobodies (Craig Kelly), who don't help Abbott in his attempts to establish a new future for the party and the nation.

He's not a great judge of character. His closeness to George Pell is not the asset is was; a bit like his other friendship with Ian MacDonald from earlier in his career.

Abbott has made assertions about the Liberal Party's base, and the press gallery dumbly assumes he knows what he's talking about. They haven't twigged to the idea that he might be bluffing or lying. Take this for example:

(c) The Shovel

No similar picture exists of Abbott with, say, Trent Zimmerman, a fellow Liberal who holds an adjacent electorate to his. If you don't even like Liberals, you can't lead them.

Third, his timing is off. If he became leader now, or soon, his failure would be complete long before the 2018 budget. 2018 would see Labor dancing around a hapless Abbott, and backbenchers preparing for opposition and/or unemployment, watching those lobbying jobs recede before their eyes. Timing is crucial for a successful leader.

Timing, and loyalty. The ability of his most feared weapon, Peta Credlin, to enforce discipline would be weaker than it was in the first half of this decade. She and Abbott had commanded loyalty and discipline by demonstrating it, but that's gone now. Had Abbott been quiet and dutiful, busying himself with the quotidian concerns of Warringah, his outbursts might have more impact. They have shown the utility of disloyalty, and there would be pushback if they tried to reintroduce the permission-to-breathe environment they had established previously. I pity the first Liberal who tells Credlin to just fuck off, but life will be easier for those who follow.

No press gallery journalist is awake to the possibility that Abbott has been paid for his speeches, to 2GB and to the IPA and CIS. He has not declared any such speaking fees, but he is probably not too proud to seek them, outside of the Liberal Party's standard (and regulated) processes for accepting donations. C'mon press gallery, let's see some journalism from you.

Dickhead claims the Abbott-Turnbull disagreement is about policy, when clearly it isn't. The merest whiff of policyness is more than enough to overwhelm his argy-bargy detection skills. The gallery does not do policy, it cannot use policy to assess political disagreements. This is also why Bernard Keane (no I won't link to him) was so risible: if Abbott was ever going to be challenged on policy it would've happened long before now.

Where is the journalist challenging any minister in this government on policy? Scott Morrison made a long, dreary, focus-group-ridden speech about how we're all bored with politics. No mention of his own role in that, and no fingering the media whose crap reporting is largely responsible for creating that anomie either; little wonder the gallery loved it.

The press gallery added together and cubed has no more knowledge of policy, and no ability to call him on it, than Abbott does himself. His rise to the Prime Ministership the blind leading the blind: the gallery are still blind to policy, though in fairness there isn't much to see in their limited purview. Coorey and Keane and the rest of the gang are still hankering to be (mis)led and the sucking vacuum Abbott creates draws them on, helplessly.

The press gallery serves the nation badly when all policy discussion is "argy-bargy", and when statements about policy mask underlying tensions that have nothing to do with philosophy or policy.

To give but one example: when Senator Payne correctly points out that the Navy doesn't have the infrastructure to support nuclear submarines, journalists report it as a "slap down" of Abbott rather than a simple, indisputable statement of fact. Nuclear submarines and the infrastructure necessary to support them is relatively easy to research and describe in "good old fashioned journalism" terms. If the dwindling band of journos are so keen to invoke GOFJ, they should be keen to do it; and if they don't value GOFJ, who will?

No journalist has the courage to say to Abbott: come back when you have some policy chops, not just the meat but the motion too. He might, as Captain Oates said, be some time.

A decade ago, Peter Costello wanted to be Prime Minister but couldn't explain how he'd be better than, or even different to, the foundering Howard. One sharp live interview could have burst that bubble. The leading political journalists of that time are still fossicking for fool's gold with Abbott. Labor frontbenchers write whole books that may or may not survive contact with their respective policy areas. The policy landscape is changing: even the Business Council recognise that nihilism isn't an answer on carbon or energy policy, and the plebiscite on same-sex marriage is very much less brilliant than Christopher Pyne touted it as.

The last politician to defiantly declare themselves going nowhere was Abbott's self-described political mother, Bronwyn Bishop.

The reason why northern beaches Libs kept voting for Bishop was because they thought she was a heavyweight. The reporting from Canberra certainly described her in that light - they all knew how she loved a freebie, and how she'd monster public servants over relative trifles without anything like an overarching vision, but day after day they still put her in the thick of the action. All the tales came out after she'd lost preselection; sitting on them had been a mistake, in both journalistic and political terms. Had the press gallery done some GOFJ on Bronwyn Bishop, her embarrassed local branches would have dumped her years ago.

The more the press gallery pumps up Abbott as A Former Prime Minister, One Who Has Supped With Kings And Presidents And Deserves Hectares Of Media Space, the more prone they will be to give him another go. That doesn't mean press gallery should start sledging him - it just means that a simple application of GOFJ on things like his donations, and the fact that coal is subsidised to billy-o, and how his indiscipline is repellent to leadership rather than a guarantor of it. He doesn't have any answers on jobs. He doesn't have any answers on his own job, or the one he held less than two years ago, or on those of the journalists far beyond the press gallery.

He described himself as a junkyard dog in 1994, and that's all he'll ever be. He doesn't have any teeth any more, but he still goes around gumming people who have better things to do. You can be humane about it, but it's time for those responsible to put him down, and for the rest of us to turn away.

If he wants his stuff run, make him buy ad space: he can go on junkets after he retires. Abbott has access to the money, and goodness knows traditional media could use it. They're not going anywhere either.