21 August 2018

Burn out, fade away

The Coalition has two choices going forward, and both depend on the Labor Party. This means that the leader of the Labor Party, Bill Shorten, is more powerful than the current Prime Minister and more powerful than any Liberal who might replace him (Dutton, Abbott, Bishop, Morrison, take your pick).

Shorten's first option

Turnbull could reach out to Labor to pass a bipartisan NEG. It is possible that Shorten would play a cat-and-mouse game with him, and send Turnbull back to his party room with a deal he cannot sell, but this is not consistent with our experience of him. Shorten's behaviour as a union leader and as a minister under Rudd-Gillard-Rudd suggests that he will surprise observers not by demanding his opponents meet him halfway, but by offering the other side pretty much everything they want and then getting his side to back the eventual compromise. If you accept the idea that a Labor victory at the next election enables Shorten to reshape or abolish the NEG, then he loses almost nothing by giving Turnbull what he said he wanted last week. He even looks like the guy putting some steel into the spine of a weak leader, buttressing his claim to be a Hawke-like healer and uniter, and diminishing Liberal framing of him being a schemer and wrecker (certainly in contrast to Abbott). Whatever triumph Turnbull puts forward will never fully be his own, because Shorten will own it too.

Abbott, Dutton, and the para-Liberal right (e.g. Joyce, Bernardi, Hanson, Sky News, 2GB) will frame this compromise as selling out. As the Liberals start preselecting candidates for the coming election, the party at its grassroots will debate negotiating tactics in its deliberations over who they choose to participate in these negotiations. This debate will override any dictate from the leader's office or from a party-room vote. Turnbull has not done the work at the party's grassroots to make this debate work in his favour: he is not a grassroots politician even among Liberals, he is a politician who gets the lead players into a small room and hammers out a deal, the very outcome that will not work here. The wider Liberal Party will look like chaos, it will not be able to be contained by the party's gatekeepers, and Abbott is the Liberal Party's lord of misrule.

Turnbull cannot claim that any Liberal who supported the no-policy status quo is finished politically. The evolution of the Nationals away from being a farmers' party toward being a general non-metropolitan conservative party demonstrates this. The shadowy political support mechanisms provided by Gina Rinehart toward failed politicians Sophie Mirabella and Adam Giles, not to mention Cory Bernardi and Pauline Hanson, negate the idea that political aspirations end once the major parties are done with you.

Remember how big business groups like the BCA and Ai Group lobbied Liberal MPs to agree to something over nothing? Those people lobbied Shorten too. In times past, some leading CEO - the head of BHP, or AMP, or one of the banks - would have angrily demanded the ninnies in Canberra pull their fingers out and get on with it, and Liberals fearful of a fundraising drought would comply. Nobody in the corporate world today has that kind of political clout.

Shorten's second option

The other option is that Turnbull continues not to reach out to Labor, fearful of being seen to be too close to them and unable to differentiate the Liberal Party from them in the coming election. This means he will continue to achieve nothing rather than something, and negates his advantage as the incumbent: any opposition can develop plans and talk them up, but they suffer from not being tangible. A contest between Shorten's castles in the air and Turnbull's may see the opposition - the major party without Tony Abbott - given the benefit of the doubt.

If Shorten reaches out to Turnbull and Turnbull won't engage, they both look weak and like they're not achieving anything. The both-sides argy-bargy narrative of the press gallery will diminish them both. Even if Labor wins more than 76 seats in the next House of Representatives, both-sidesism will mean he will have to deal with an unpredictable Senate. To secure a decisive Labor win, with Labor having to deal with as few non-Labor Senators as possible to get legislation through, Shorten will have to take charge of the current political situation to an extent that neither Turnbull, nor anyone else outside Labor, can.

Having held out the olive branch, it's within his gift to drop it and move no confidence in Turnbull as Prime Minister. He needs a majority of members present to win the vote, which would make Turnbull's position untenable. There are 69 Labor MPs in the House of Representatives. It is possible that pairing arrangements will be dropped. It is possible that independents such as Rebekha Sharkie and Cathy McGowan will decline to support such a nakedly partisan motion. Even so, as I said in the previous post below, Abbott, Dutton, Joyce and Kevin Andrews may find it too tempting to finish Turnbull; with Dutton before the High Court, the Liberal Party could face a run-off between Abbott and non-Abbott (probably Morrison), and the temptation to hold a election before the Victorian election on 24 November (but outside the football season in September).

These two options show that, regardless of what Turnbull or any other Liberal may do, the government is not master of its own fate and thus cannot long be considered a viable government. No such handicap appears to beset the ALP.

Problems with Dutton

If, as this excellent journalism from Hugh Riminton and Kate Doak (why does the best political journalism come from outside the press gallery?) indicates, Peter Dutton will have to be referred to the High Court for his eligibility to sit in parliament under section 44(v) of the Constitution. Such a reference might preclude him from running for Dickson or any other seat. The prospect of a challenge may have dissuaded some Liberals from voting for him in the party room spill this morning, or they may not given that Nationals MP David Gillespie survived a similar challenge earlier this year. You will know that Turnbull is going for the death-or-glory option if he refers Dutton and puts his wife's business under public scrutiny: the right will hate him, but they hate him anyway.

Free and diverse societies benefit from relatively light governance. It is not true that light-touch governing can be done by the insouciant and the incapable, as Malcolm Turnbull has demonstrated. Surveillance technologies can give heavy-handed government the appearance of light-touch, unobtrusive government, which is made easier if you look the other way when certain people's rights are abused. Peter Dutton was on the cusp of power as an authoritarian, and press gallery journalism has played little role in describing his growing power (which tends to rebound on journalists eventually, far more than the figurative "the ABC and Guardian are dead to me"). Doing journalism on monitorial government is the hardest journalism of all, made harder by constrained misallocated resources and a defeatist idea that the public doesn't care and cannot be made to care even with committed journalism.

Now the right-wing ministers in the government are resigning, one by one, just like they did from Turnbull's opposition front bench in 2009 (naturally, nobody from the press gallery is awake to this, even the ones who actually covered those resignations then). Zed Seselja was a waste of space as Science Minister, Mukka Sukka is a waste of skin at any time, and quite why Concetta Fierravanti-Wells sought to catalogue the reasons why Turnbull should never have appointed her in the first place is one of those puzzles only she can answer. When conservatives talk about "the base", these are their champions: very base indeed.

Two parties one narrative

It is almost unfair for the country to go to an election with one side of the two-party idea so manifestly inadequate, but to insist that the election is a tight race between two equally (in)capable sides is a form of bias far less grounded in reality, more destructive and far less useful, than simple partisanship. The Liberal Party does not have a leadership problem, it has a systematic problem that goes to its very roots. Malcolm Turnbull can't solve it, nor can any other member of the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party, nor can their staff, nor can old stagers from the organisational wing like Michael Kroger or Gary Spence. Those people can barely articulate what the problem is.

Other countries don't have binary two-party systems as Australia, the US or the UK have. In 2010 the Australian electorate came close to instituting such a political system: Labor and other politicians worked with the parliament the voters gave them, while conservatives and the press gallery screamed for three years until what looked like a conventional conservative government was conjured into being. That vision has since dissipated, and the press gallery still cannot cover politicians from outside the major parties except as freaks. Other countries that might once have been showcases for multi-party democracy (e.g. Italy, India) show instead that the far right of politics have the capacity to distinguish themselves in inchoate environments, and develop an influence that goes beyond both their support base and their capacities to govern free and diverse societies.

When you have a two-party system, and one side pretty much collapses, coverage of the slightly-less-crap side collapses as journalists ingratiate themselves with the incoming government. The flaws that brought Kevin Rudd undone as Prime Minister in 2010 were well known by press gallery and Labor insiders well before 2007, but they chose not to let voters in on it until it was too late.

Institutions that cover up diminish themselves. It is no good complaining about diminishing respect for institutions after the fact of a cover-up. It is no use complaining about constrained resources after having publicly squandered them.

Both sides not

The Coalition is, with Labor, one of two major political groupings capable of forming government. It is part of standard political debate as to which of these may offer the best deal at any given election, but the following points are now beyond all but diehard partisan quibbling:
  • Electricity supply is one of the key infrastructure challenges facing Australia, given changing technologies and costs associated with delivering these; and
  • People of goodwill and good sense may have different opinions on the best way of ensuring both reliability of electrical supply at an affordable rate, and innovation in generating and delivering electricity; and
  • The Coalition is not capable of having that debate, let alone delivering any sort of solution on this crucial issue.
It would take both-sidesism to its most ridiculous extent to claim that Labor is also incapable of delivering a coherent policy capable of benefitting suppliers, distributors and consumers of electricity. Maybe they will botch it: for now, they deserve the benefit of the doubt whereas the government does not. Governments lose office when the debates of the day are considered too hard for them to solve. Consider Rudd in 2013, Howard in 2007, Keating in 1996, or any of the recently departed state premiers: it was more in sorrow than in anger that they were put out of office, but put out they were. They tended to depart office with a kind of pained dignity, leaving only partisans to gloat at their demise.

The same problem exists with the increasing push for Indigenous sovereignty. It is fair to assume this won't be a major issue at the coming election, but it will be increasingly important going forward. Again, Labor do not have all the answers, but the Coalition's default position is intransigence and bad faith.

The issue of asylum-seekers has maddeningly resisted firm assessments of its electoral significance, but it is increasingly clear that the detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru are entering their endgame (and that there has been all too little scrutiny of Christmas Island, showing how dependent political journalism is upon what has been announced). There will have to be a change of policy over the next term of government, but what might it be? Partisans can't answer this, so journalists can't and don't bother finding out what our options are.

Experienced press gallery journalists think they know how to cover election campaigns. They offer feeble, cliched critiques of supply/control mechanisms like campaign buses, food, and wi-fi, and report statements with no information other than that handed to them by the party making the announcement. They work their contacts, who tell them less and less, and therefore give us less and worse information about what's going on. Few of the big issues of our time are used to measure competing candidates and their claims.

To report accurately and fairly on the coming election would require different skills: deep knowledge of complex policies and communities, which would render the campaign/press buses as ridiculous as they are. Political journalists aren't going to do that, but other journalists and knowledge workers might. They are going to rely on quotes from people with no idea what's going on. Business-as-usual leads to a badly-informed population, which both increasingly disdains the traditional media represented in the press gallery as a reliable source of information, and makes ever worse choices from increasingly dreadful options on the ballot.

16 August 2018

Dead in the middle

Dying was nothing and he had no picture of it nor fear of it in his mind. But living was a field of grain blowing in the wind on the side of a hill. Living was a hawk in the sky ... Living was a horse between your legs and a carbine under one leg and a hill and a valley and a stream with trees along it and the far side of the valley and the hills beyond.

- Ernest Hemingway For whom the bell tolls
Turnbull is giving his all for a shemozzle of a compromise which will benefit nobody but him and Josh Frydenberg, and not very much even then. His predicament reminds me of the final days of centrist former NSW Labor Premier Morris Iemma a decade ago. Sillier press gallery observers claim that the National Energy Guarantee (NEG) puts Turnbull's fate in his own hands once more, but the opposite is true.

Why the NEG is a shemozzle

People who study this sort of thing agree that it is designed to give the appearance of solidity to a desperately unstable status quo. A national plan for a national problem that pleases nobody. The end result of a long and stupid process that put the one thing government can't deliver - lower power bills - at the centre of the debate. It will have no impact on carbon emissions. It is not worth doing, except as a political exercise, and the very emptiness of the political exercise has experienced commentators slavering when they should be sneering.

Iemma then ...

Morris Iemma succeeded Bob Carr as NSW Premier in 2005. He saw off two internal challengers in Craig Knowles and Carl Scully, and led Labor to victory in the 2007 election over a Liberal Party convulsed by a Christianist insurgency. Then it all went wrong, first gradually and then suddenly.

Iemma made the politically fatal error of departing from Carr's proven model for success: manage the daily spin cycle and forget big, long-term issues.

Increased public patronage of public transport strained aging infrastructure. You might think Labor would be good at public transport, and maybe in other jurisdictions they are, but not in NSW:
  • Jack Lang built one fucking bridge, and that was initiated by the conservatives (see below).
  • All those Labor Premiers from the 1940s, '50s, and '60s who look like they're sculpted from mashed potato bought some buses but did little else infrastructure-wise. One of them, Joe Cahill, actually used to work at the Eveleigh rail yards but is better known for his expressway and opera house.
  • Wran put colleagues he hated into that portfolio. He took credit for the risibly inadequate eastern suburbs rail line (including spiking the Woollahra station near his home) and blamed the Liberals for the Granville disaster. Even Bramstonian Labor history sucks admit transport was never a strong issue for him.
  • Carr excused his lack of action on transport on immigration. Insofar as laborism is a thing, anti-immigration is one of its worst aspects. Sydney-based journalists treat Carr as something of a sage, but on immigration and infrastructure he is pretty much Fraser Anning with some Proust shoved up his arse.
  • Right now, the NSW Opposition is furtively engaged in balancing its two historic imperatives in this area: doing absolutely nothing about what has not been done, and fucking up what has. It has a third, constant imperative, namely fooling the state's particularly dreadful press gallery (worse than the feds!). Whatever Labor takes to the March 2019 election in this area, it will be worse than what the Coalition is doing and offering. Labor voters will have to hold their noses when it comes to public transport; they have no right to hope for anything more than the completion of projects initiated by the incumbents.
Iemma, bless him, wanted to depart from all that. This put him offside with public transport unions, generally more militant than the state's right-wing, accommodationist union tradition.

He thought he could fund public transport upgrades by selling the state's electricity network. This had become a long-festering sore in NSW Labor: Carr had repeatedly made tentative moves in this area, only to realise that he couldn't solve it quickly, backed off, then repeated the whole thing a few news-cycles later. The state president of the Electrical Trades Union was also the party's state president, who with the secretary of the NSW Labor Council (now Unions NSW), John Robertson, led internal opposition to electricity privatisation. By the time Iemma faced the issue he could only either eschew it for all time or make it happen.

Following their loss in 2007 Barry O'Farrell had become leader of the Liberal Party, managing the implosion of the Christianists and uniting the party on the state level as the Howard government declined and fell. O'Farrell had, as previous Liberal leaders had, pledged to privatise the electricity network; Iemma saw in him a man with whom he could do business. In April 2008, the world economy melted down but Morris Iemma was still seen as a man who could cut a big and complex deal in NSW.

When O'Farrell declined to support Iemma's privatisation proposals, the premier was exposed and so was his party. Iemma could not deliver on that issue nor unite it on any other. On 3 May the NSW ALP voted seven to one against electricity privatisation, a personal triumph for Robertson. Two days later Iemma was gone, and so were his electricity privatisation proposals. Later that year Robertson replaced Iemma's (and Carr's) Treasurer, Michael Egan, in state parliament: Paul Keating's letter of non-congratulation rings through the ages both as a summary of the politics of the time and as prescience for Robertson's career (and, potentially, that of current NSW Opposition Leader Luke Foley).

… and Turnbull now

Those who ignore the lessons of history seem to have quite a nice time of it, breezing through life's ups and downs in all their apparent novelty. Those of us who have studied history become exasperated and the ignorance and lack of preparation, and whether we gently disagree or screech in protest we become part of the scenery past which the blithe and ignorant insouciantly glide.

Turnbull faces a united opposition under Bill Shorten, the significance of which is underestimated by a press gallery acutely alert to its absence. Turnbull's main internal opponent, Tony Abbott, has both the swashbuckling daring and sooky resentment of John Robertson, a potential leader who comes pre-tainted with strengths vastly overestimated by only the keenest partisans.

NEG has no significance as a policy. Nobody will invest a single dollar on the basis of its flimsy assumptions and unsustainable conclusions. It doesn't matter, and those in the press gallery who confused its passage through the party room with a real achievement should know better, and ought not be in the press gallery in the first place. It can safely be cut down or amended beyond recognition, with no loss to anyone but Turnbull and Frydenberg (and the latter will more likely survive than the former). It makes sense only as a talisman for Turnbull.

Shorten's support for the NEG is lukewarm and conditional, as we have seen from Labor leaders in other jurisdictions. He may have Labor vote to pass it now and amend it later. It is entirely possible that he would vote against NEG at the last minute - a protest if nobody from the Coalition votes with him, but a game-changer if they do.

At the 2016 election, the Liberal right actively undermined Turnbull. A decisive victory would have set them back and redefined what a Liberal government meant, departing from the template established by Howard. It could have forced old stagers like Abbott, Eric Abetz and Kevin Andrews from the parliament. Abetz masterminded a duff campaign in Tasmania that lost the Liberals a senator and three seats in the House. In the 2015 NSW election, former MP Jackie Kelly split the Liberal vote in the marginal seat of Penrith (within Lindsay) and preferenced Labor's Emma Husar. If Abbott and his Sancho Panza, Craig Kelly, were to cross the floor against NEG and meet a jubilant Labor caucus on the other side, it would represent a massive escalation of Liberal internal tensions for years to come. Labor has an anti-mythology for those who betrayed their party to the point where it lost office, those for whom "rat" is inadequate, but the Liberals don't.

Such a move would leave Turnbull stranded without being able to deliver on electricity policy and without much time to craft a new and credible alternative. It would leave him exposed as a leader who couldn't unite the party on anything else either, just as he is about to hit the median term of service as Prime Minister (15th out of 29), with few policy achievements to show for it.

Tony Abbott had three choices after he lost the Prime Ministership in 2015. He could have:
  • Retired; or
  • Shut up and joined the team, like Turnbull had during the 2010-13 term; Turnbull's loyalty helped cement the unity that was absent in Labor at the time, which in turn helped make the case for Coalition victory in 2013; or
  • Challenged Turnbull.
He hasn't taken the first two options: it's death-or-glory time. He invokes 2013 as though everyone but him hasn't moved on from there. If he starts referring to NEG as "a bad policy" the likely demise of this government becomes a certainty, regardless of the leadership.

One Coalition MP who has threatened to vote against Coalition policy is George Christensen. He has never done so, but has threatened to do so regularly. Abbott has been slightly more careful with his words but acted similarly with Christensen. If Abbott and Kelly are to vote down a signature Coalition policy, they will need at least some allies; it will be interesting to see how Christensen chooses.

If Shorten tried to split the Liberal Party in this fashion (particularly after the made-for-Ellinghausen moment of Frydenberg embracing Ed Husic), he would be seen as "playing politics" and a man whose word could not be trusted, particularly by stuffed shirts like Peter Hartcher. The retort to that is obvious: not only the example of Barry O'Farrell cited above, but also that of Malcolm Fraser, who had initially promised to help pass the 1975-76 budget and, six months after changing his mind, was in the Lodge with the biggest majority at any federal election.

It is possible that the Turnbull government will end in a pincer movement between Labor and Abbott-led insurgents. How likely it is takes you into a hall of mirrors and double-talk such that nobody really knows, and if the did they wouldn't tell you until after it happened.

A broken right wing

What's also at stake here is the future of the Liberal Party, which (as we have seen in right-wing meltdowns in South Africa, the US and UK) has broader implications for the operation of democratic systems. Some of you reading this might be Liberal partisans but most won't, so let me spell out why it matters from a perspective across Australia's political system.

The Liberal Party presents two potential futures, both to its members and supporters, and to those equally active political opponents who have to work around it.

One model for the Liberal Party is that it either bumbles along in government (unlikely), or goes into opposition hoping to form a credible alternative government (more likely but not certain). They might undergo the odd bit of relevance deprivation syndrome, even a bit of leadership ruction, but basically a Liberal-led opposition keeps a Labor government on its toes before eventually replacing it. This is the assumption underpinning the two-party system, and is based on much of our political history.

The other model is that it becomes an insurgency, sniping both at Labor governments and those Liberals looking for a calm, centristbipartisan return to office. This is the preferred model of Abbott, Dutton, Craig Kelly, George Christensen, Andrew Hastie and a few others, roaming across the landscape and striking real and imagined foes much like the partisan described in the Hemingway quote at the top of this article. The government says black, they say white. The government says yes, they say no. Right-wing rather than conservative. They ignore yearning for bipartisanship and figure every gripe with the new government can be turned to their advantage.

The Victorian division of the Liberal Party used to be a bulwark of the former model of the Liberal future, now it is firmly in favour of the latter. Reportage of that organisation, even by experienced commentators, is inadequate because they can only understand it as a departure from the Victorian tradition. Rarely if ever to they draw the dots to Liberal politics in NSW, Queensland or even Western Australia, from which the developments in Victoria make much more sense.

Consider the senior Victorian Liberals in the federal government, in no particular order: Kelly O'Dwyer, Josh Frydenberg, Dan Tehan, Alan Tudge. All of those people (some more conservative than others) will adhere to the idea that there's a responsible way to behave in government, and that getting (back) into government is something the Liberals should aim to do. All of them will be targeted by Abbott and his gang of lost boys, and what remains of the press gallery will love it. They will be puzzled that a party wishing only to become an insurgency will skew the country's politics, but they'll go galumphing helplessly after every partisan snipe the way a dog chases a rabbit, and then insist we listen to their sober analysis of, ah, whatever is next. Unless it is released late on Friday afternoon.

I used to wonder why the gallery loved Abbott's goofy stunts and hated Rudd and Gillard's wonkiness: now I realise, it's because Abbott is a moment-to-moment, no consequences operator, and so are they. Michelle Grattan was piling on Emma Husar as hard as anyone, and she's been in the gallery since before Husar was born. They are going to keep giving him fresh air and he's going to turn it into farts, those farts will puff the dandelions of their stories, he can't help it and neither can they.

Malcolm Turnbull does not have what it takes to knock Abbott out of Warringah: getting Craig Kelly out of Hughes will be hard enough, he'll run as an independent and preference Labor. By contrast, Shorten has already settled Labor preselections in Victoria, where the Liberals are refusing to preselect candidates until after their state election. If the Liberals were forced to a federal election by a Shorten-Abbott no-confidence motion, they would be forced into a hasty, unconvincing campaign with few resources: what Sir John Carrick called trying to fatten the pig on market day.

There should be more Queenslanders commenting on politics. Kevin Rudd, Clive Palmer, Bob Katter, Peter Dutton, and now this shithead Anning; all the seismic shocks that bamboozle federal politics come from there, and we need to hear from those who have seen these jokers coming rather than yet another theatre reviewer expressing their amazement.

Politics isn't just what happens in Canberra. That's why the press gallery can't understand the significance of party preselections and their impacts on decisions made in Canberra (the assumption behind the press gallery model is that decisions made in Canberra need to be explained to those beyond it, and they don't even do that well). They have focused on the non-story of the NEG in the hope that it might pump up the non-politician who occupies the highest political position in the land. Why they do that isn't clear. I don't know why they think it constitutes compelling content, but whatever their reason it must be really (and unintentionally) funny.

02 August 2018

How the press gallery killed Fairfax

The press gallery killed Fairfax and it will kill other traditional media organisations too. Traditional media organisations and major political parties will have to change the way they work in order to change the way politics and policy are covered, because neither will or can survive if you're content to let the press gallery keep on being the press gallery.

New readers might find the above alarmist and sensational. Regular readers will recognise it as a consistent theme of this blog. I am not trying to pour the old wine of press gallery inadequacy into the new bottles of the Fairfax takeover, and the recent coverage of federal politics and policy (well, I am, kind of, but if you read on the results more strongly support that than the idea that press gallery are just regular journos doing their best in a fast-moving world).

A reduction in diversity

In recent years there has been a trend away from diversity as a priority for media. This wasn't a result of last year's legislative changes; parliament mostly follows rather than leads public debate (and this pretty much discredits the "theatre critic" model of political coverage, but I digress).

The press gallery has led this with its governing principle that there can only ever be one story, and one narrative for reporting that story. John Howard couldn't be beaten, until the day he couldn't win. Kim Beazley was tomorrow's man, until he was yesterday's man. Barnaby Joyce was a top bloke, until he was a cad and an incompetent minister. They even boast about the conditions that create the samey-sameness of political coverage, and the inability to snap out of it; a magic land of sharing and caring, where what they think of as competition is the narcissism of minor differences.

(c) Hanna-Barbera
"Great yarn, mate! Top yarn!"

Press gallery output leads news bulletins, websites, and newspaper front pages. It mostly presents politicians' quotes without the context that might make their proposals work, or otherwise meaningful. It does not challenge their assertions, and represents any and all disagreement as "argy-bargy".

When the Walkley Awards for Australian journalism were inaugurated, there was no special category for he press gallery. Press gallery rely heavily on press releases for their stories; breaking stories about politics or policy issues, with in-depth investigation from original sources, tends to come from outside the gallery. Photographers and camera operators are more likely to hold their own in industry-nominated awards than press gallery are with proper other journalists. As a result, press gallery journalists really lifted their game lobbied for a special category only open to press gallery journalists.

While there have been reductions in press gallery numbers, they have been fewer and proportionally less than in the newsrooms. Press gallery tend to get paid better than other journalists. Now consider that these reductions have been compensated by new entrants to the press gallery, who have mostly hired press gallery veterans anyway, and the privilege of the press gallery is clear to all not within its walls. When journalists back in the newsrooms are downsized, Canberra press gallery send their thoughts and prayers in much the same way that Washington's NRA-funded legislators do with US mass shooting victims.

To get to the journalism practiced by Australia's traditional media, you have to push past press gallery output. Those who investigated dodgy financial advice practices made a real difference, and won awards too, but strangely they forgot to interview Senator Cormann who lobbied so hard for the legislative changes (among the first legislation passed by the Abbott government) that made those practices lawful. Those who investigated institutionalised child abuse and covering-up didn't bother chewing the cud of poll results. Newsroom journalists cop jeers from their peers and sneers from Media Watch for writing up product-launch press releases as news, while press gallery get away with it every day. Journalists who complained about government proposals to restrict information from government about its activities were not those who witnessed the legislation being debated and who rubbed, ah, shoulders with the perpetrators.

If traditional media outlets really believed that excellent journalism is what makes their outfit great, they would lead with it. If an editor pulling together the daily rushes finds that the single best gobbet of journalism before them is a piece about a football match, or the shoes that an actress wore to an awards ceremony, then that should go on the front page/top of the bulletin. The obscurity of inside pages should be the place for hackery: the accident blocking the busy road, the treasurer who declares opposition policy to be economically disastrous, etc.

They don't do that because they don't believe in journalism, not really. There's a formula and bad press gallery coverage is baked in. It's not news that the prime minister is criticised, but journalists can't tell whether or not the criticism is valid. They say that they'll let the reader/viewer decide, but the readers/viewers have increasingly turned off and I've decided press gallery is killing journalism.

When you talk about journalistic excellence at Fairfax, I talk about Kate McClymont, Schneiders/ McKenzie/ Baker, Michael Bachelard and Jewel Topsfield from Jakarta, Adele Ferguson or Neil Chenoweth or Michael West from the business pages, Caroline Wilson and Jacqueline Magnay from sport, and perishingly few others. None of those people are/were press gallery. Their press gallery contingent isn't worth their own weight in press releases. Whether it's the blowhard Peter Hartcher, the Owned Boys Phil Coorey, Mark Kenny or (admit it) Michael Gordon, or the prim process-over-outcome focus of Michelle Grattan, it's time to admit that Fairfax didn't put their best into the press gallery, and that the nongs they did put there have done the business no favours.

For all the fretting about Nine diminishing Fairfax journalism, the fact is Lane Calcutt's just-the-facts approach runs rings around the entire Fairfax contingent. When press gallery veteran Greg Hywood was appointed Fairfax CEO in 2011 his appointment was universally praised within the media: hooray, a real journalist, they cried as one, when his greatest investigative skill was getting on the dripfeed from Keating's office. Hiding their journalistic light under the bushel of press gallery output was one of Fairfax's biggest mistakes. NewsCorp do the same thing, with inane press gallery compounded by a further layer of cold grey drizzle of culture warriors that ward off all but the most intrepid seekers after journalism who might venture there. They will face a similar reckoning once the old man dies.

The choices we make

The press gallery, through its easily gamed One Story One Narrative policy, decided in Fairfax's final week that there would be two stories:
  • the byelections of 28 July, of which Our Malcolm would win at least one because #balance, and
  • Emma Husar
Taking the second first: I've worked for some crap bosses and I'm glad I never worked for Emma Husar. That said, in the great annals of graft and bludging in Australian politics, Husar's dog-walking and child-minding simply do not rate. And the more experience you have observing politics, the less excuse you have for slavering over every twist-and-turn in this non-story, the less credibility you have when you claim you'd love to do Serious Journalism, oh my goodness did you see what Emma Husar just did ...? Press gallery who disdained going after Barnaby Joyce (and who still regard his story as a sex scandal rather than rorting or policy incompetence) are hogwild for all things Husar.

Emma Husar's domestic incompetence recalls Queensland Labor MP Leanne Donaldson. Another unmarried mother who became a Labor MP, Donaldson hit the headlines for antics like driving a car while unregistered and not paying council rates. Anastacia Palaszczuk sacked her from the ministry and at the last state election, Donaldson lost her seat. Donaldson has spoken of her struggle with depression, and Husar may yet do likewise; but while two anecdotes do not form a pattern, it might be worth investigating whether political parties could do more to support women in politics, and that such support might be the necessary price for all that easy talk about attracting more women to public office.

In the Coalition, unmarried women are all but excluded by dint of sexism. What those parties lose in crushing the aspirations of capable young women and appealing to a broader constituency, they save themselves the embarrassment of a Husar or a Donaldson. Those women who break that rule (e.g. Marise Payne, Gladys Berejiklian, Julie Bishop) spent decades studying the factional tectonics of the party and leveraged it with overwhelming support, overriding any objections about their domestic circumstances. Bronwyn Bishop only ran for preselection after her children were adults and her marriage ended: her far-right constituency would never have backed her if her husband and children were an issue, or had she never married at all. The key is to attract candidates who aren't fixtures of the party landscape and to give them an inkling that they just might have a chance, but that key turns no lock in the Coalition. They'll endorse a man at face value but won't consider a woman they don't know intimately.

Husar isn't a member of the government. In two of the four byelections on 28 July (the two seats where the main competition came from strong Liberal candidates), the Labor candidates were women. The clear implication of the Murdoch jihad against Husar is that those candidates are just like her: a vote for the Labor woman is a vote for Gillard/Jordan Peterson chaos. As it happens, those two women are headed back to Canberra, and it is entirely possible that Husar won't. She might become another victim of a brutal system, she might lash out at her entire party and the journalists. She hasn't entered Lindy Chamberlain territory for weird and prurient media coverage, but you can see it from here.

Protesting too much

Paul Keating called Nine a lowbrow outfit. While it's hard to disagree, and hard not to welcome back an original voice into the mealy-mouthed dialogue of today, he protests too much.

When Keating was at the top of Australian politics, Nine's Sunday program was consistently excellent journalism, of a standard unknown in Australia's traditional media today. Its investigative pieces with Ross Coulthart gave Four Corners a run for its money. While Keating had the measure of most in the press gallery at the time, if anyone was going to knock him off his game it would be Laurie Oakes. In 1993, when Kerry Packer realised what Hewson's GST proposal would do to his profit margins, he sooled Nine onto the Liberals and helped Keating to his only victory as Labor leader.

Keating is the second-last Labor leader (excepting the brief summer of Rudd in 2007-8) to get anything like a fair run in the Murdoch press. Murdoch's voice was consistent throughout his organisation but that voice did not set the news agenda like it does today, thanks to Keating allowing Murdoch to take over the Herald and Weekly Times in 1987. NewsCorp definitely is a lowbrow outfit, proudly so, and don't get me started on 10 or 7 (though again, Mark Riley > the entire Fairfax press gallery contingent). Keating was wrong to play up the mote in Nine's eye to the extent that he did.

That said, Nine will quash the delicate flower of Fairfax journalism through dumbness ("what do you need that for?") rather than spite.

How late it was, how late

Both The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age were founding members of the press gallery. Before it existed, both papers led debates about whether a federal parliament should even exist, and in what form; but all parliamentary buildings in this country were built with a press gallery pre-installed, including all three that housed the federal parliament. Press gallery do not have to forage for stories like real journalists do; how this must gall sacked journalists who have to forage for an income once the traditional media paycheque is, despite their best efforts, yanked away.
Here’s a point I’m absolutely willing to concede. We spend too much time with theatre criticism … and not enough time burrowing down into the issues on which voters make their choices.
- Katharine Murphy, Political Editor, Guardian Australia
on ABC Insiders 29 July 2018
Murphy did not arrive at that concession by herself. On this blog and in my Twitter feed, I and many, many others hammered Murphy for years until all her other options fell away. Murphy does not operate from any sort of elevated place from which addressing actual policy issues might be considered a descent. Her recent work on electricity has been impressive, and the constraints on journalist numbers is worth mentioning, but it's still too much to expect this Fairfax veteran of the press gallery to become a full journalist. Press gallery play at journalism from time to time - now it's electricity, now foreign policy, now school funding - but soon enough it slumps back into the One Story One Narrative of polls and intrigues, real and imagined. Apart from the equally hopeless Barrie Cassidy, nobody else in the press gallery is even awake to the sheer enormity of the problem they have caused their fellow journalists.

I laughed when Tony Wright threatened to cover the coming election with the same dreary template the traditional media applies to all election coverage: more readers looking for answers and finding only cliches, more media executives wondering why punters aren't lapping up the argy-bargy and bleating about disenchantment. The joke's on you, fella. We can't vote you out, and the choices we make at elections are not foretold by polls, but by layers of yarns and narratives from the press gallery.

We are badly informed about politics and policy, and a people in that predicament can never be well governed. Press gallery overestimate their own cleverness by dumbing down debate to a level that makes them comfortable. They see journalists depart from the home offices and never accept their own role in creating a media environment that makes acts of journalism more random, and as far as possible from wherever they are. You'll note that among the journalist positions whittled away were the actual arts critics - theatre, film, and music critics, book critics - and yet press gallery cannot be dissuaded or deterred from covering parliament like Australia's best subsidised and lamest theatre complex.

Bad political journalism makes the country governed badly and kills good jobs in journalism. Despite all the evidence, I'm still not convinced that bad political journalism is the only coverage of policy and public affairs possible - but I've been wrong before.