16 February 2018

What conservative triumph looks like

Conservatives within the Coalition should be enjoying their moment of triumph. They have negated a supposedly progressive Prime Minister and tethered him to the unpopular and disastrous policies of his conservative predecessor. They have cast off all but two of those pesky state governments, with their namby-pamby health and education and human services, and have command of the high ground of the federal government. They stand poised to deliver tax cuts, to hold forth against Aboriginal claims through the Uluru Statement, and for welfare crackdowns.

This is the moment Australia's conservatives worked so hard for so long to achieve. Why, then, is everything crumbling around them? Could it be that what Donald Horne called "second-rate people" are part of our defences against tyranny?

The press gallery started the year by trumpeting a 1% rise in polls as "a strong start to the year" for the government, and we now see why that was not merely wrong but fundamentally stupid. It simply had no basis in fact. It was wishful thinking masquerading as analysis.

There Can Be Only One

Turnbull and Joyce have been at one another's throats for a week now, and today it came out into the open.

Malcolm Turnbull is the first Prime Minister since Gorton and McMahon whose parents were not married before and throughout his childhood. Keepers of the sacred flame of Leather Jacket Malcolm, closet liberal, overlook and cannot reconcile his absolutely fustilarian attitudes toward marriage and adultery. It may explain why his approach to the same-sex marriage debate convinced both sides he wasn't with either. The amendments to the ministerial code are in line with that aspect of the man: if you ever wanted an authentic response from Turnbull's heart to a public policy issue, that will have to do.

Barnaby Joyce has rallied his party around him (see below) and acts like he's invincible. In 2009, Joyce's lower-key predecessor Warren Truss helped sink Turnbull's first term as Liberal leader when he all but declared he wouldn't work with him. Joyce is trying to reprise that when he called Turnbull "inept", but the stakes in government are higher than they were back then. He has reached the stage where Nobody Tells Him What To Do, what the Greeks called hubris - and you don't need a classical education to know what comes next.

From time to time the Nationals have to stand up to the Liberals to protect their distinct identity, and to assert the interests of rural constituents. This is not one of those times. Any National who dies in a ditch defending Joyce - come to think of it, they seem awfully quiet at time of writing - gets nothing from this government. Even Christensen has retreated into the arms of his white supremacist buddies than defend the man who stuck his neck out for him.

Joyce is the minister in charge of national infrastructure. To do that job you need to operate effectively across government, and with the now-Opposition in order to give jittery financiers the bipartisan support they crave. If Joyce can't do that, they will ramp up their relationship with former minister and current shadow, Anthony Albanese, and wait out the fall of this government. A Coalition government will do absolutely anything to avoid this. Even if Turnbull backs down, the Nationals will need some way of pulling Joyce's head in now that they have forfeited the ability to do so themselves.

How am I supposed to live without you?

Barnaby Joyce first rose to prominence as a Senate candidate for the Nationals in the 2004 election, by publicly taking positions contrary to his then-leader John Anderson. Joyce's term in the Senate began the following year. For over a decade, he has been a dominant personality in the Nationals. He has shaped the public image of that party. The fact is that if you want to be a Nationals MP, you are going to have to deal with Joyce.

There are 16 Nationals in the House of Representatives and five in the Senate. Only Luke Hartsuyker and Senator Nigel Scullion entered parliament before Joyce (both in 2001): all the rest of them have entered a parliamentary party which he has shaped. Barry O'Sullivan is only in the Senate because Joyce resigned from it. Matteo Canavan was a member of Joyce's staff. Joyce has promised publicly to get George Christensen into Cabinet. It could have been different - there are Nationals preselection candidates, dedicated members of their party, who were defeated or dissuaded from running because Joyce took against them. Those who are there are largely Barnaby's people. Apart from Hanson, no other federal political party leader has that degree of control over his caucus/party room. If you pardon the expression, Joyce has made his bed and is lying in it.

Nationals MPs know that Joyce has done everything necessary to be kicked out of a leadership role. They are sincere about marriage and families. Natalie Joyce and her daughters are not abstractions, as they are for journalists or bloggers; they are people they've all known well for years. It is telling that no Nationals other than Joyce and those in his retinue, Nash and Canavan, have been affected by section 44 and its questions over citizenship: while that's partly down to membership demography, it also shows the party doesn't have a culture of playing fast and loose over constitutional validity.

The Nationals can't get rid of Joyce because they can't imagine their party or life generally without him. Liberals can and do imagine a future without Turnbull; Shorten isn't the be-all-and-end-all of Labor, either. If you can't even imagine the Nationals without Barnaby Joyce, what are your grand visions for rural Australia worth? You can see how Joyce persuaded the party to use its scarce funds to tide him over during the byelection campaign: imagine Turnbull, Shorten, or di Natale asking the same of their respective parties.

Joyce might go within the next few days or he might not. Media assertions about him "surviving" or "weathering the storm" are stupid, because we have seen this man in his flaws. Joyce does not have nerves of steel and an unconquerable will (dare to quibble with that, press gallery drones who've known him for years). Joyce is a man who has been under extreme pressure for a long time now, and the idea that he will simply carry on as before is a fantasy.

What the Nationals are doing by dithering over his future is putting it into the hands of the unknown public. In other leadership challenges, MPs invoke the public being for this candidate or against that as reasons for voting as they do. Because the press gallery denied New Englanders the necessary input into their decision on 2 December, nobody with the Nationals party room has a real clue about what people think about what has now come to light about Joyce.

What is most likely to happen is that, at some point, the Nationals will be required to take a strong public position on an issue. Joyce will not be able to make that position, because the response will be derision. This is a basic aspect of leadership, and Barnaby Joyce is not up to it. He never was, and all the glowing profiles written about him from the front bars of dusty pubs somewhere are just so much award-winning content shit. O'Sullivan's rustic imagery about the horse that jumps the fence doesn't work, because a horse can be put back on the right side of the fence and everything can carry on as before: not an option open to the Nationals. The Nationals may well decide to defer their decision, but they will be no clearer about their future than they are now.

Keep in mind that recent polling would see at least four Nationals MPs (Michelle Landry, Ken O'Dowd, Kevin Hogan and George Christensen) likely to lose their seats to Labor. O'Dowd might not be Joyce's favourite bloke right now, but their future requires them to work something out or hang separately: Joyce can't dispose of him like he did with previous party opponents. Others may come under threat from local heroes who don't think the incumbents are up to the job (e.g. in 2016 Rob Oakeshott went from a standing start to come within 5% of knocking off Luke Hartsuyker in Cowper). The Nationals have this in mind. Existential pressures such as these emphasise the need to make a decision, but do not necessarily improve the quality of the decision made.

The undead John Ruddick

Once again, the NSW Liberals have expressed a wish to broaden their base beyond their existing membership and existing pool of candidates. Once again, John Ruddick pops up and claims The Members want people like him and Abbott to run the party. Once again, the NSW Liberals vote for something more than what they have, as befits an aspirational people. Once again, Ruddick convinces himself - and then some of the more gullible journalists - that an actual vote of party members represents a kind of false consciousness.

Tony Abbott disgraces himself further by lending his name to Ruddick's quixotic cause. He gets his just reward by being shown not to be The True Champion Of The Liberal Base, The King O'er Narrabeen Lake, to all but the most dull-witted observers. If Ruddick were elected to parliament, he'd give Turnbull some minor grief and then defect to the Cory Tories; NSW Liberals know this and consistently vote against him. Trent Zimmerman beat him for NSW Young Liberal President in 1991 and will beat him again if Ruddick runs for preselection in North Sydney. After a few months, journalists will again return to Ruddick as though he were A True Voice Of The Liberal Base, regardless of the accumulated evidence.

The hill to die on

In Victoria and Queensland, the coalition has basically offered their agenda to that of the Murdoch papers. Teach Aussie values rather than fancy-pants foreign languages or computer code; but deride the teachers doing the teaching. Law and order, but no new prisons and run down lawyers and judges.

Their commitment is now total, but their success is far from assured. Matthew Guy should have resigned over the "lobster mobster" thing because he is now diminished, if not absurd. Deb Frecklington in Queensland is willing to lend her name to the daily story in The Courier Mail but in recent years success in Queensland politics has been more assured by turning away from that noisy and insubstantial publication. Could Guy and Frecklington be the last conservative leaders willing to die on the hill set for them by the Murdoch papers?

Peter Dutton's scare campaign against African gangs in Melbourne has done nothing for the conservative vote in Melbourne nor in Queensland. Could this utter lack of impact be a harbinger for his political future? Would it make any self-respecting journalist wonder if the real story was wherever Dutton wasn't? The answer to the latter question is no, of course, so that they can try to drum up interest in a dead contest ahead of, well, any other live but complex issue.

Matters of life and death

Conservatives failed at blocking same-sex marriage, though they succeeded in blocking Malcolm Turnbull in claiming any credit for it. Welfare crackdowns like the debit card and robodebts are compensation for aggrieved conservatives. They won't win the euthanasia debate but they will win concessions like more palliative care and psychotropic drugs for the terminally ill. Offshore detention is a way of penalising some, but not all, non-Anglo migrants. Conservatives wan economic growth without economic disruption: this explains why education funding and the broadband network are so limited. They've given up altogether on Indigenous people. They are failing badly in invoking the authority of religion in any area beyond the strictly theological.

Conservatives can't win the big debates about our economic future but they are doubling down on the petty measures to which they find themselves confined. This is called the culture war, and you take up arms at your own peril. It is not designed to be won, it is designed to give nobodies something to do.

The Anglosphere

Both Theresa May and Donald Trump have bitten off more than they can chew. Neither offer much help to conservatives in Australia. The NZ Nationals under Key and English provided solid examples for Australian conservatives, now both are gone. Boris Johnson is yet another British politician who seems well-disposed to Australians but offers nothing whatsoever in policy terms. Julie Bishop has been Shadow Foreign Minister and now Minister for a decade, and she seems utterly discombobulated by events in foreign policy; there is no evidence anyone else in the Coalition parties in thinking about the many moving parts in foreign policy right now. The foreign editor of The Australian, one of the great champions of the Anglosphere, is more at home with shenanigans at Young Liberal branches in northwestern Sydney than he is with actual foreigns, and his counterpart at Fairfax is obviously an algorithm that synthesises American magazines that the company hopes their readers have not read. There are no lessons CrosbyTextor can apply to Australian campaigns from the widely discredited 2017 UK election. No clues are offered, nor any picked up.

At the moment of triumph

Strong, stable leadership is easy to talk about, hard to deliver. The moment has arrived for Australian conservatives but they have nothing to show for it. It's as though conservative triumph had no moment beyond the careers of empty vessels like Abbott or Abetz. Conservatives don't do steady any more, and shirk the responsibilities that come with paternalism and/or The White Man's Burden.

The consensus for what should replace them isn't clear, but it never is. We should be at a moment of conservative triumph, and see what that belief system looks like at its finest and most effective. Even for dedicated followers such triumph seems to ring hollow; and what to celebrate, what to cast away, is no clearer than it might be in a moment of conservative defeat.

11 February 2018

Out with the bathwater 2: a change of focus

After writing the post below I had a good laugh at Katharine Murphy's effort and was reinforced in my respect for Asher Wolf when she posted this Twitter thread, with a fraction of the resources available to Murphy and the press gallery. I watched James Massola, of all people, condemn the idea of journalists running unverified rumours - and then moments later, another story under his byline consisting entirely of unverified rumours, which has pretty much been his entire "career" so far.

I may be getting soft in my old age, but after all that I re-read the Murphy piece. I felt some sympathy for this position:
So I don’t want to be the Canberra sex correspondent.
Non-press-gallery journalists Woodward and Bernstein probably didn't want to cover each and every burglary in early 1970s Washington - and if we look at their career, they didn't. Non-press-gallery journalist Andrew McGarry covered a court case in Adelaide and ended up writing the definitive book on the Snowtown murders. Sometimes in journalism, the story chooses you.

Murphy took a strategic decision not to pursue a story that is having far-reaching implications that go to policy decisions, and the very political structure of the government - a story worthy of any self-respecting political journalist, let alone a Political Editor. Regardless of how she feels, she will have to play catch-up on this story. But because the story started in a place that was (to use Jacqueline Maley's technical term) icky, Murphy chose not to lead the story while rising above the ick.

A nurse who faints at the sight of blood or shit, or people who rail against the wickedness of John Barleycorn while somehow working in a licensed establishment, are not just fools or hypocrites. They are people with no future in those jobs. So it is with a journalist who stumbles upon a real story and, when it blows up in their face, disdains it:
I’d rather think about energy policy, or whether any of us will ever get a wage rise, or whether our hospitals will be properly funded, not because I’m a buttoned up puritan, but because that’s why I think I’m here: to keep close eyes on those things for readers.
Those stories are better covered by journalists who really understand those areas and can convey ideas being given visitors' passes to the parliamentary press gallery. If journalism is to survive, those journalists (often freelancers, or writing for niche outlets with little hope of employment in the sort of media outlet represented in the press gallery) must be given more assignments. Those assignments must come at the expense of perpetuating the palpably disappointing fantasy that a press gallery journalist can turn their hand to any subject.

All of the worst stories written about these and other important issues are written by press gallery journalists whose hearts are not really in this subject matter, whose minds are simply not on the job, and who still cannot shake the herd instinct of the One Big Story that might be happening wherever they're not, and to which they contribute little if anything and thereby diminish the very idea of news.

All of the worst takes about Joyce-Campion start and end with the label sex scandal. Like most journo cliches, it's alliterative and the very name almost tells you how to write the story - slap and tickle, the distant missus keeping the home fires burning, the nu-media temptress, long lonely nights and the aphrodisiac of power - but the story has moved way beyond sex scandal, and as a result catch-up journos are going to have to dig for the story rather than have it ladled out in press releases. See for example Asher Wolf's Twitter thread above for prima facie questions arising from Joyce's post-marital accommodation, his landlord's other business interests, and how these appear to overlap with Joyce's portfolio responsibilities. Journalists who sniff about Twitter will be out of a job if they keep being shown up like this.

On 9 October 2012 Prime Minister Julia Gillard delivered her speech against misogyny. In the days that followed, press gallery journalists wrote increasingly silly pieces about why the speech did not matter, or how you got it wrong because you weren't here in the gallery with us. Nobody remembers those pieces, even though sadly many of the journalists who wrote them are still employed and unrepentant. I suspect the pieces by Murphy, Maley, and Overington will go the way of those earlier journosplain pieces - they are covering their inadequacies while overlooking more substantial and enduring issues, too much of which negates any value proposition journalism may have.

But seriously though, what would I do if I were a press gallery journalist right now, thoroughly discredited and playing catch-up? Would I be shrieking about constrained resources (as though journalists were the only people with this problem? Isn't the whole idea of traditional media to pitch news at people too time-poor to dig for it themselves)? Would I be yammering about Facegoogle or whatever? No, I would be lapsing into old-school journo solutions:
  1. I would take a sheet of paper (well, start with one) and divide it into two columns.
  2. In one column I would write down every Open Secret, every gobbet of scuttlebutt and innuendo and rumour that had reached my shell-like ears, no matter how icky.
  3. I would cross out those matters that have already been done by traditional media. I would also cross out the ones that I could prove were false (e.g. X and Y weren't even in the same country on the 29th, let alone the same bed, and here are the travel documents).
  4. Against each one, in the other column I would list the public policy implications: was public expenditure involved? Did the government choose Surprise Policy Outcome B over Expected Policy Outcome A, and could that be traced back to this?
Starting with observable outcomes, you can then work out motivations, and reverse-engineer timelines and paper trails from there. Stained sheets and video of bags of cash being exchanged come later, or can be left to others once the substantive issues are dealt with. This is proper journalism, and the press gallery are better placed to do it than anybody else. Start tomorrow after the post-lunch lacuna sets in, and continue until quarter to five when those pesky press secretaries surprise you (as they do every other day) by releasing information they would prefer was buried. Repeat until it all comes out. This beats the hell out of disdaining the icky, and failing to imagine how something so prurient can only ever be so regardless of what else comes to light. It is the sort of thing proper journalists outside the press gallery do each day.

You know what I really think of press gallery journalism? I think it would be a great idea, and it is not discredited for being tried so rarely.

08 February 2018

Out with the bathwater

The fact that Barnaby Joyce had impregnated a former staffer and NewsCorp journalist was widely known before the New England byelection on 2 December last year. It has been ridiculous, and a bit sad, watching traditional media justify itself in relation to this story.

Fucking inconvenient

Let's remind ourselves of the political situation in late 2017.

The government needs a stable majority in the 150-member House of Representatives. It had 76 members, meaning that with the Speaker above the fray the Coalition fielded 75 members against 74 Labor and others outside the Coalition.

Barnaby Joyce, as Member for New England, was a NZ citizen by descent. John Alexander, Member for Bennelong, was a UK citizen by descent. Both renounced their non-Australian citizenships and were endorsed for the byelections. Each man, we now know, had left their wives and were living with another woman beyond the family home. Both men represented, and had sought to represent again, conservative electorates with above-average rates of married couples raising children.

Had either or both lost the byelections held last December, the Turnbull government would have been forced into minority status, propped up on a contingent basis by some of the MHRs outside both the Coalition and Labor. Almost every media outlet represented in the press gallery had editorialised before the 2016 election to return the Turnbull government. They still believe in Peter FitzSimons' Fantasy Malcolm. The press gallery hated having to cover a multivariate parliament in 2010-13; they tailored their reporting to minimise the possibility that the Turnbull government would lose its majority (oh yes they did). Labor candidates in Bennelong and New England did not make their opponents' marital woes an issue, and journalists didn't either.

J'accuse: political journalists deliberately held off reporting, or even confirming, stories about Joyce's infidelity in order to maximise his chances of winning, and by extension ensure the continuation of the Turnbull government.

Delayed gratification

Yesterday's sheepish effort from Sharri Markson (no I won't link to it) was too little, too late, but the press gallery has finally given itself permission to start talking about the issue. Almost immediately, traditional media was forced by reader outrage to defend its decision to avoid the Joyce story. This is not a proud moment in Australian journalism. It is not a harbinger of a bright future, nor even one that might keep things much as they are for that beleaguered industry.

Before we go through the traditional media's sorry-not-sorry piece, there are three precedents (in terms of pollies' actions and how the media responded to them) that are relevant here. Senior members of the press gallery, and the ninnies who now occupy the ranks of editors/news directors of traditional media organs, were directly involved in these incidents:

Gareth Evans and Cheryl Kernot

Evans was Attorney General and Foreign Minister in the Hawke-Keating Labor governments, and a senior Labor frontbencher once his party went into opposition. Cheryl Kernot was a Senator and leader of the Australian Democrats. Both were married to other people when they began a sexual relationship, which (as with Joyce-Campion today) was widely known but not reported.

Laurie Oakes decided that the hypocrisy of Evans championing family values and Kernot failing to mention the affair was enough to put the story into the public domain. Then as now, the press gallery talked about the convention of private lives being private while slavering over the story. There was no social media back then.

Ross Cameron

In 2004 Ross Cameron was an up-and-coming junior minister in the Howard government, a vocal proponent of heterosexual marriage and other traditional values. While his wife was pregnant in Sydney, Cameron began a sexual relationship with a woman in Canberra. The woman shared a flat with a press gallery journalist.

Traditional media covered Cameron's infidelity in the lead-up to the 2004 election. Cameron lost his seat (at that election, Barnaby Joyce was first elected to the Senate). Then as now, the press gallery talked about the convention of private lives being private while slavering over the story. There was no social media back then.

Julia Gillard

Julia Gillard had never married but had a male partner. There were no allegations of infidelity but plenty of media speculation about her private life nonetheless; "private lives are private" be damned, and there was social media but the press gallery were only starting to become afraid of it.

I will not be lectured about media ethics by that journalist

Fairfax ran a piece by Jacqueline Maley lecturing us about the media ethics around this story (*snort!*) and NewsCorp did the same from Caroline Overington (oh come off it). There's been enough accusations about hypocrisy over this matter, so fuck it, I am just not going to do Caroline bloody Overington lecturing anyone about anything. The Maley piece is bad enough, and she has form for being a terrible journalist, but for now let it serve as the chew toy for journalistic ethics in covering political sex scandals.
Why didn’t Fairfax Media publish the story? Why would we protect Barnaby Joyce?

The reasons were less conspiratorial than they were journalistic: we couldn’t stand it up.
Oh no, they were conspiratorial all right: the press gallery believes people shouldn't judge politicians on the basis of their private lives, and have been horrified to see political careers end at the hands of voters who take a different view (see Kernot, Cameron above).

As to stand-up journalism, this can be very selective. Let's look at some of the other stories on politics Maley's colleagues have seen fit to publish:
  • This article speculating about the US Ambassador to Australia is terribly weak. First, Admiral Harris' name has been floated earlier, and the appointment has neither been officially confirmed nor denied, so it isn't really news. Any compelling force it may have is negated with tenuous links like "Fairfax Media has been told [by whom?] ...", "Mr Turnbull is also expected ...", "It is widely expected ...", "Fairfax Media understands ...", and "[Turnbull] is expected also to discuss the economy and trade with Mr Trump [no shit, really?]". How did this slip through Fairfax's iron ethical grip?
  • The idea that Anthony Albanese might challenge Bill Shorten for leadership of the ALP is one of the longest-running non-stories in Australian politics. It is no closer today than it was three years ago or at any other point since Shorten became leader, but it helps dispel the fantasy that Fairfax never runs speculative political stories.
The entire oeuvre of James Massola and half that of Kate McClymont would have to be binned if Fairfax seriously applied the put-up-or-shut-up standard Maley is trumpeting here. Apparently, as with their counterparts in North Korea, the Canberra press gallery can only report what has been formally announced.
Within our newsroom, there was debate over what resources, if any, should be devoted to confirm the rumours.

In a newsroom that is hollowed out by cost-cutting, every reporter who is assigned to cover a love child expose, is a reporter who cannot write about national energy policy (which affects far more of our readers), or about the latest factional dispute in the Labor Party, or about the citizenship crisis.
Energy policy is better covered by dedicated and knowledgeable writers (who often spend little time lounging about the newsroom) rather than gallery hacks splicing a press release to a Google search. The Labor Party aren't in government, and if you can't tie a factional spat to a policy outcome (and you can't), then forget that. Perhaps framing Joyce's family issues with the journalistic cliche of the "love child expose" is the problem here?
At the same time, we knew it would probably be broken, sooner or later, by the News Corp tabloids.
Before the New England byelection Joyce's daughters had toured Tamworth with a loudhailer, warning that if he could breach trust with his family then none of his political promises could be trusted either. Independent Australia put out not one but two articles to this effect. So did True Crime News Weekly. There is a long tradition in the Australian media of "respectable papers" waiting for "the yellow press" to break an unsavoury story, and then appear to pick it up reluctantly: any of these events would have given traditional media the impetus to run the story, on 3 December if not earlier.

The ABC is doing this hold-your-nose-and-report-the-story thing tonight too, and it's risible. Joyce would normally retreat to the conservative redoubt of Sky, but nobody watches that crap outside of what bushies call the SCAM triangle (Sydney, Canberra And Melbourne). Leigh Sales has, like Joyce, undergone a recent marriage breakdown, which may explain why she has gone so easy on him and is treating him like the victim here.

You'll always have an excuse not to do your job. And when it comes to political journalism, you can count on Jacqueline Maley to not do it well at all.

Maley exceeds herself by lapsing into what-if:
If it had been published in full, could the story have changed the crucial byelection result in New England?

During the campaign it was reported the Deputy Prime Minister had broken up with his wife and was living with his sister. Rumours about an extra-marital affair and a pregnant “mistress” (terrible word!) were widely known throughout the electorate. His long-time nemesis, former New England MP Tony Windsor, frequently tweeted about it. At one point Joyce was hounded by a man who harangued him about his family situation in a pub.

None of it affected his popularity. Joyce won the byelection with a huge swing to him of 7.21 per cent.
For starters, the candidates at the byelection were different to those at the general election. Here's what would have happened if traditional media brought their imprimatur to this story:
  • Candidates who might not have stood against Joyce may well have done so, affecting the result;
  • The local gossips might have borne less of the burden for the story, and so too those stout defenders of the Deputy Prime Minister ("what a terrible thing to say! I know Barnaby and his family! That would never happen!") might have looked a lot less silly. The authority of trusted media helps clarify matters both for those who want to believe the news, and those who don't.
  • The idea that journalists at major outlets call it as they see it without fear or favour would be reinforced, and not diminished as it has been. When Jacqueline Maley calls on you to subscribe to Fairfax and to help with the campaign against proposed laws that might send journalists to prison, she might've been able to point to a recent example where fearless reporting outed a family-values hypocrite and a crap Agriculture minister, rather than misrepresenting a political liability as the nation's choice.
If you're going to trash your reputation for fearlessness in gathering and disseminating information, be it on your head. This is why it's silly to stake your reputation covering for Joyce: five years from now he'll be gone from politics, will you be gone from journalism by then?
Joyce, a Jesuit-educated Catholic, has long proclaimed the sanctity of traditional marriage. He has often spoken of his conservative “family” values.

During the debate on same-sex marriage Joyce advocated against it, saying he believed marriage was a heterosexual institution that had “stood the test of time” and was “a special relationship between a man and a woman, predominantly for the purpose of bringing children into the world”. He then abstained from the same-sex marriage vote, perhaps because he realised how untenable and hypocritical his position was.

Joyce is a leader, not just a regular MP, so his character is part of his political brand. Voters are now free to judge him on it.
Voters are always free to judge him on it. Always. On 2 December you should have provided voters with the information they would need to make such a judgment, and you chose not to do so, diminishing your value as a provider of information.

Joyce's decision on the same-sex marriage vote is less important than the decisions cast by people who sincerely believed the Deputy Prime Minister, and who believed that his words were quoted in the appropriate context by Fairfax outlets. They weren't, and it doesn't matter whether or not Joyce's office and/or the Fairfax newsrooms were festooned with knowing smirks as his words were quoted without that vital context: that he could not imagine any same-sex couple might fulfil the rights and obligations of marriage at least as well as he had (this is where the blithe "love child expose" bullshit falls down).
Then there is the human factor of the story. Who can look at the photo of Vikki Campion, surprised by a photographer outside her Canberra home, heavily pregnant and wearing gym gear, and not feel a little icky about it?

It is such a huge invasion of her privacy, not to mention the privacy of the unborn child, at a time when a woman is at her most vulnerable (and prone to emotional distress).
Can I direct you to your highly ethical coverage of Lindy Chamberlain, or Stormy Daniels, and ask you to shut the hell up about icky.

Here's icky for ya: Vikki Campion is a former NewsCorp employee. That invasion of privacy, the slut-shaming and all the rest of it, was done by people whom Campion personally knows and worked with. You'd think there would be some "honour among thieves" among Caroline Overington and the Murdoch people, but clearly not. Jacqueline Maley's newsroom is full of former and prospective NewsCorp employees: there but for the grace of God and Rupert Murdoch go we all.
Some readers will remember the huge scrutiny and nasty sexual innuendo Julia Gillard copped over her personal life and suspect a double standard is at play.
No suspicion: the contrary case simply cannot be made. Contrast with the treatment of the current Prime Minister of New Zealand, and start preparing lists of press gallery journalists who need to be replaced as soon as possible.
The scandal is unlikely to be a career-ender for Joyce.
Only people who don't understand politics would say this. Anyone who's seen politicians come and go knows that Joyce has more past than future. His Cabinet picks showed the overreach of a man on his way out. We know not the date or the time (unless the press gallery are holding out on us again), but only a fool would be shocked at the prospect of a new father suddenly wanting to spend more time with his little one - particularly if the youngest Joyce proves to be a boy. Watch as the very same photographer snaps pictures of Barnaby being a doting dad!
Finally, there are Joyce’s four daughters and wife to consider.
You should have considered them when Joyce trotted them out for staged pictures that made it look like he could manage a long-distance family life on top of everything else. You could have used some journo skills to show that he was a sham and a joke at that, too. We'd be better informed, and you'd be the respected news outlet that nobody in the newsroom dares admit you no longer are.
The families of politicians are generally considered off-limits for good reason: they didn’t sign up for public scrutiny ...
Driving down the main street denouncing one's father, the Deputy Prime Minister, deserved some scrutiny; Fairfax diminished itself as a reliable news outlet by failing to provide even that.

Imagine the impact on Australian politics of a Deputy Prime Minister felled by the feisty women of his broken household, who weren't going to put up with his shit any more. Some allies you are, Jacqueline Maley and Caroline Overington and all the rest of you arse-covering swine. Barnaby fucked up, and so did all those newsroom heroes: you haven't exactly made a strong case for more resources and loyal readers, have you?

02 February 2018

Constant Constance Face

NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance should be a politician at the top of his game. He is the steward of several large transformative infrastructure projects, and a former state Treasurer: all that, and not yet 45. In his current predicament he is more like someone at the top of that slow initial climb of a roller-coaster, just before plunging and being jerked this way and that before eventually being returned to where he started.

Transport is one portfolio that resists nimble, blithe solutions. Decisions made 50 years ago limit the options available to decision-makers today, and those made today limit those going forward. This article gives a good summary of why the problems with Sydney's passenger rail system are so intractable and multi-dimensional; they also show why Constance, a politician largely focused on the current news cycle, is so badly placed to deal with them.

History is a nightmare from which Andrew Constance is trying to awaken. No minister ever gets a blank slate and unlimited resources, yet Constance has no sense of historical continuum and his place within it: you can't appeal to him on that basis in the same way you can't argue with your cat about rugby league. For him, there is no history, and no future beyond the next news cycle or election, there is only now.

Whether it's the tram tracks to Sydney's inner-west being of a different gauge to the proposed tram line through the inner-east, or arguments over proposed routes of tram and train lines that haven't been well managed, or now train timetabling that stretches human and physical resources beyond safe and sustainable usage - Constance isn't good at addressing issues with complex long-term causes and where the few options available are all controversial.

The decision to hold a public contest to name a ferry and claim 'Ferry McFerryface' was the popular choice (even though it wasn't) shows some important political lessons, and not just the ones about lying:
  • The UK contest in 2016 that would have named a government research vessel 'Boaty McBoatface' was a clear expression of contempt by those who voted against their government and political class. Constance's "captain's pick" in favour of 'Ferry McFerryface' shows that contempt returned in full measure, with interest.
  • The contest overseen by Constance returned 'Ian Kiernan' as the popular choice for the ferry. Kiernan was a property developer and a recreational yachtsman who is best known for having founded Clean Up Australia. Unlike most property developers/yachtsmen, Kiernan was never beholden to the Liberals. He organised a broad, well-regarded social movement that is the envy of any political party. In the past, a Liberal Transport Minister might have gritted teeth and done a grip-and-grin with Kiernan in front of the new ferry bearing his name, but Constance has used the more basic tools of PR to deflect onto May Gibbs (there are those who admire this sort of thing, many of them journalists covering politics).
  • Constance's attempts to raise the bogeyman of unionism are absurd. Previous leaders of the union covering train drivers, like Bernie Willingale or Michael Costa, were bloody-minded negotiators who happily inconvenienced the public at the slightest provocation. Constance can and does stick to a script, lacking the wit to realise that underlying assumptions have changed and confusing persistence with commitment. He is going to have more trouble going forward in that portfolio rather than less.
Constance has no experience of having to negotiate with workers to keep an enterprise running, and nor does he come from the IPA/CIS wing that militates against union privileges. The fact that the union was quickly shut down by the Fair Work Commission in its attempt to strike undercuts the scare campaign. De-fanging the union movement makes them look like benign workers' self-help societies. For a government focused on the future, with infrastructure projects and Gonski-level education funding, carrying on about unions is a throwback to an earlier time.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian is someone with a sense of history and future, and has set many of the directions within which Constance has to work. She has put him in a portfolio she knows well, and she backs him because she sympathises with the limits which he faces. There are, however, limits on her ability to indulge Constance indefinitely. There will be a state election on the last Saturday in March 2019, which means 2018 will be a year of clearing niggling controversies. Given that Constance is a fuckup ongoing source of controversy in a high-profile portfolio, he can't last as Transport Minister. She is loyal - she and Constance go back more than 20 years together - but she is not overly sentimental.

The ongoing war within the NSW between the far right and the relative moderates means the right will be out for blood. They are not going to take on Berejiklian directly, and nor will they take on sitting federal MPs. Berejiklian will be able to toss them the severed head of Andrew Constance and appoint one of their mouth-breathers as Assistant Minister for Whatever. Factionalism aside, it is hard to see where Berejiklian will find someone with the requisite depth of skills and understanding to be a useful Transport Minister, unless she deprives another equally important and complex portfolio of its minister.

There were rumours that he might switch to federal politics. Safe Liberal seats in NSW are largely held by his contemporaries, bar one - Warringah - but he doesn't have the political skills or momentum to knock off a former Prime Minister. Constance holds the state seat of Bega; I'll defer to others who know the politics of that area, but I note as Treasurer and now Transport Minister he hasn't been that successful in improving the road that holds that electorate together, the Princes Highway. Two federal electorates cover that area:
  • Eden Monaro is increasingly safe for Labor due to demographic overspill from the ACT, and the formidable incumbent Mike Kelly.
  • Gilmore is represented by the hapless Ann Sudmalis; if the Court of Disputed Returns found against Sudmalis, or if she trips over her own shoelaces again, it is entirely possible Constance would fly the Liberal flag (with Turnbull offering one of those Assistant Minister for Whatever roles). However, Gilmore is one of those seats standing between Labor and federal government. If the polls are as indicative as their sponsors hope, I don't fancy his chances.
This is not to say that Constance is finished altogether. He might make a solid Minister for Tourism, state or federal; those who thought more highly of him, including himself, have been shown up. People who like him and those who don't agree that he can be warm and engaging in person. When they concede that, his various political opponents should be forgiven by their respective bases.

He was always going to graduate to one of those roles post-politics that involve lunching and golfing and opening doors for one's lunch/golf companions. It's just that the moment has arrived 15 or so years earlier than he might have planned. He is older than Nick Greiner, Nathan Rees, Kristina Keneally, Mike Baird, and Gladys Berejiklian when each became Premier; older than John Howard or Peter Costello when each became federal Treasurer. He doesn't have the sort of resume that makes the private sector create board seats for him (and aren't the boards of corporate Australia crying out for more mediocre white men). Sydney lacks Melbourne's parallel power structures of gentlemen's clubs and AFL clubs.

The great political-class fantasy is that you can get into politics at a young age and bypass all those worker ants climbing the corporate ladder, landing some cushy all-care-no-responsibility corporate job that will take you through middle-to-old age. Yet, the very rhetoric of politics these days is that there are no free rides, no featherbedding, and everyone has to pull their weight. We see this in an age of mass sackings and insecure jobs, where CEO tenures last scarcely longer than fruit flies.

Very few operatives who have made their careers in politics actually make it to the sunlit uplands of non-executive directorships. They bristle at the indignities of freelance consulting, only realising post-politics the nature of the "jobs jobs jobs!" they trumpeted while in office. They often seem to be unfulfilled somehow, hanging around party head office during election campaigns but contributing little, maybe sounded out occasionally by up-and-comers or journalists desperate for a "senior party source". If they're willing to delude themselves about their own careers, you can see why they do the same to gullible journalists and their dwindling audiences.