22 July 2014

The human interlude

In 2007, Labor MP Kelly Hoare propositioned a Comcar driver. Apart from this sleazy effort to smear the then rising ALP with that episode, it was largely reported in the sympathetic context of what a lonely place Canberra can be. Contrast the treatment of Hoare with that of Peter Slipper.

Then and since, lazy and disingenuous press gallery journalists have resorted to moaning about 'the political class', how they're all the same soundbite-talking drones, and gosh wouldn't it be great if we had some real people in politics who spoke their minds. In September 2013 two such made their way through the electoral system: a sawmiller, and a corporal. The major parties elected other newbies, but they went for the minor party naifs.

Since becoming a Senator at the start of the month, Jacqui Lambie has taken important positions on pricing carbon and regulating financial planning. The press gallery ignored her, treating her as a vassal of the men who cut the deals: Abetz, Palmer, Cormann. Earlier today, she was asked about what she found attractive in a man, a question not put to her peers in major parties. She answered (how refreshing!), and when a male caller leered at her she dismissed him using a device that many women use: that only an exceptional man will do, and therefore any old Joe who fancies his chances with her should stop wasting her time.

Lambie would have experienced her share of sexual harassment in the army and flicked away her interlocutor with the sort of lip that would have worked with leering soldiers. Sexism is important in coverage of female politicians, but while Ricky Muir got slimed by Mike Willessee, Liberal Senator Linda Reynolds, for example, was not questioned in this disrespectful manner.

Rather than understand Lambie and her background, the press gallery have taken to treating her like a freak. She will come out with serious policy positions, and only the freakiest angle of these will be reported. If she fails - breaking a heel off a shoe, say - this will become headline news and drain press gallery attention away from actual actions of government. This is The Narrative for how Lambie is reported, and will be reported for the rest of her life (or as long as the press gallery persists, whichever is the longer): being an unimaginative bunch the press gallery are powerless to escape the Narrative they have built for themselves. Anything Lambie does outside the Narrative will be ignored by the press gallery.

The issue here is the press gallery's different treatment of the established major parties (with which the press gallery is familiar) versus other parties (which the press gallery has not bothered to understand over the past ten months, and will not do so over the next ten months, nor at all, really). The press gallery is doing to the minor parties what it did to the Gillard government. Parties other than the Coalition and the ALP will have their achievements ignored and their drawbacks magnified until we all vote as the press gallery would have us vote: two-party-preferred.

After years of stumblebum politics, the basic competence of the Abbott government in addressing the recovery of Australian bodies and the 'black box' flight recorder from MH017 was refreshing, surprising even.


Don't hate me for being right.

It couldn't last, and it didn't. This afternoon Abbott overreached his statesmanlike pose by reducing a complex situation to a silly slogan (Operation Bring Them Home), brought on from reading too much Murdoch press (We Warn Mr Putin). Abbott will invite himself to family funerals and attempt to milk the tragedy for more than it could possibly bear. His overreach is all too human, and typical of both the man himself and the echo chamber surrounding him.

Dispatching Julie Bishop to New York was a masterstroke: by the time she arrived the professional diplomats had pretty much done all the hard work, cut all the deals and crafted the wording, as this piece hints at but diplomatically evades. Bishop turned up and put the issue squarely within the context of this government's foreign policy, which is: we're here for what we consider to be rightfully ours, and bugger the rest of youse.

John Brumby was not re-elected Premier of Victoria for his calm in the 2009 Victorian bushfires, and Anna Bligh's warm and capable handling of the 2011 Queensland floods did not save her, either. Neither Brumby nor Bligh were held in the low esteem that Abbott is now. Basic competence at crucial moments is an entitlement that will never pass.

John Howard was opportunistic in seizing upon Tampa and September 11 in 2001, but had Kim Beazley proposed ways of dealing with these phenomena that didn't trash basic rights he would have become Prime Minister: his failure rewarded dreadful people like Howard and Textor by default, a key moment lost for the nation and luck confused with skill by the victors.

MH017 is not an issue over the rights of living people - even the libertarians don't quibble that Australian bodies will be repatriated at public rather than private expense - and even people who dislike Howard agree that he had a humanity that Abbott lacks. Abbott has years, not weeks, until the next election, and only mugs find hope for the Coalition in that.

Abbott could only profit from this were the opposition to try being as shameless as he has been, and for all their flaws they aren't doing that. Even Clive Palmer isn't doing that. The budget hasn't even passed through parliament, so the idea that the as-yet-unenforced cutbacks have somehow passed from public consciousness is nothing more than wishful thinking from Coalition partisans, and from the press gallery in unguarded moments.

The press gallery is insecure and seize upon decisiveness, or the appearance of it, wherever they can find it - and nobody would accuse them of looking hard. This mentality leads them to all agree on a Story Of The Day as well as ongoing Narratives for individual MPs and parties. They succeeded in framing the Gillard government out of existence and they are having a good go at the motley Senate in the hope of a similar outcome. A Senate is not a government and nor is it a press gallery; historically, third parties do well when there is a press gallery consensus in favour of a government.

I had almost finished this when I stumbled upon this piece by Simon Copland. I broadly agree with it and commend it to you, with exceptions:
It’s odd: we want our politicians to be "real people". Yet, when they act like it, we hate it. When they talk about sex, or swear on TV, we get outraged. When they stuff something up – "make a gaffe" – we’re quick to jump on their backs, and say they’re not taking their job seriously enough ...
Who does Copland mean by "we"? Has Copland made the press gallery error of confusing his preoccupations with those of the populace as a whole? It's unfair to lump a press gallery trope onto the rest of us.
... I don’t think she deserves to be criticised or attacked for being "unpolished", or even at times quite crass.
Look, ah, Tony Abbott, ah, it has to be said, ah, can be quite crass, and, ah, well, the press gallery cover, ah, cover up for that quite well, I think.

In covering 'human' moments like these, it can be easy to be patronising. Robotic statements from the major parties are quoted unchallenged; there is no mulling over what it means to be human, not with asylum seekers or health or education or any other government policy that affects actual humans. There is only "tough" or "soft", "singing from the same songsheet" or "chaotic disunity", apparently. The human moments will soon pass, with oligopoly media covering oligopoly politics (i.e. 'normal service') soon to return ...

20 July 2014

Brand positioning

Clive Palmer has sold down the carbon tax, the mining tax, and consumers of financial planning for no net benefit - not to anyone, not even himself.

For a while there, he had all the makings of a sustainable niche in Australian politics. The carbon and mining taxes have gone - but household expenses and unemployment will go up, not down. He'll try a bit of product differentiation but it won't be enough any more. Having pretty much caved into the government, if Palmer seeks to amend a government initiative and fails, he will look ineffective; if he seeks to amend a government initiative and succeeds, the government gets the credit.

The best profile on Palmer is this one. Gilmore invokes Palmer as the 'holy fool' who keeps serious matters light but who gets away with telling truths that bring official displeasure upon more earnest courtiers. Shakespeare was big on holy fools. The press gallery would have applauded King Lear for his "message discipline" in dispatching Kent and Cordelia decisively and early, but that was where his problems began rather than ended.

Palmer could have survived if he differentiates himself sufficiently from government, but like the Democrats following the GST Palmer has tarnished his once fresh and irreverent brand.

To read this piece, you'd think Palmer was the first politician to say one thing before an election and do another afterward (I mean, when has that ever happened?). Abbott's inability to dish out this treatment to a government but not be able to handle it once in government is the issue here, with Matthewson too invested in the government to notice. Apparently Palmer is to be condemned because he ran for parliament and voted in his own interests - had he simply funded an ad campaign, as mining companies did in 2010, or had he operated in the shadows with fundraising and lobbyists (like Gina Rinehart and Rio Tinto are doing), this would be better than operating in clear sight of journalists.

Brand differentiation is Palmer's problem (and Matthewson's, from other press gallery hacks). Our problem is that we need information on how we are governed, and to use that information ahead of elections. In this piece, Lenore Taylor pursues the parlous, arse-covering assumption that the parlous state of Coalition climate policy comes as a surprise:
What a complete and catastrophic failure of the political system.
The failure derives from the press gallery refusing to think through Coalition policy pronouncements, presuming instead that anyone who criticised Gillard should get a free pass - which is what Taylor and her press gallery colleagues did throughout Abbott's Liberal leadership. Other aspects of system failure are downstream of this. It's a failure of misinformed voters, which means that all those responsible for misinforming the voters attract - and deserve - resentment from the misgoverned.
After climate policy helped dispatch three prime ministers and two opposition leaders, and dominated three election campaigns and eight years of polarising political debate, it has come to this: we have no national climate policy.
What Taylor is describing is a failure of the political class to act in the nation's best interest. A vote for Abbott was always a vote for no climate policy to speak of. The press gallery knew this, and at the time they pretended it didn't matter. They blamed Gillard and Rudd for "not being able to sell", whatever that meant, too busy listening to Joel Fitzgibbon snickering about polls and not working through what Abbott's pronouncements might mean.

Don't blame voters for making misinformed choices. The press gallery exists for no reason other than to inform voters who want to be informed. If voters are misinformed, this is a professional failure on the part of the press gallery; it is not an excuse for the press gallery to rail at those they have misinformed.
After all that vitriol and hyperbolic attack and all those reports and modelling and studies, and all last week’s drama, we are back to exactly where we were before John Howard reluctantly said he would introduce an emissions trading scheme in 2007. (He later said he did it only because of political pressure, and never really believed in the idea.)

We know more than ever before that global warming requires urgent international action, and we still know that a market mechanism is the most efficient way to respond. But we appear to be politically incapable of doing anything about it, other than watch people yell at each other.
Yes, we do. But we know all that by going around the press gallery, because all they ever covered was "all that vitriol and hyperbolic attack and ... last week’s drama". We got the other stuff by going beyond the press gallery.

John Howard lost in part because his insincerity on this issue was palpable, obvious to everyone outside the press gallery, whose focus was on nothing but quoting his words accurately.
It is, of course, possible to reduce emissions by means other than a carbon price. Tough regulations or carefully targeted and rigorously assessed government incentives can also do the job.
Yes, but any and all debate on those issues was simply reported as 'Labor disunity' rather than as substantive issues that go beyond the antics of Capital Hill, or even the Labor Party. All press gallery journalists including Lenore Taylor reported those issues in that way, pursuing that essentially dishonest objective of selling the sizzle rather than the steak.
But the government’s alternative “Direct Action”, as it stands, is no such viable alternative.
This was obvious well before last September. It's too late to point this out now. If this point had been made before last September, one of two things might have happened:
  • The Coalition might have set to work on a better policy; or
  • As in 2004, a vigorous but clueless opposition might have cooled its heels a little longer, leaving a flawed government in place until a better option (from either side) presented itself.
Either of those outcomes would have been better for the country than the predicament in which we find ourselves, the predicament the press gallery helped bring about.
The legislation that gives it any rigour may or may not pass the Senate.
That applies to any legislation, really.
And there is evidence Direct Action – which hands out competitive grants to those volunteering to reduce emissions, but imposes no overall limits on greenhouse pollution – will cost far more to achieve far less than the carbon price would have, with the cost being levied on taxpayers rather than on polluting industries.
Should've pointed that out well before last September, and framed your coverage of Coalition claims and counter-claims accordingly.
It is possible the amendments being negotiated with the government by independent senator Nick Xenophon might make the scheme slightly more credible, but not by much.
Should've pointed that out, too. Too late now.
The government did win an election promising to “axe the tax”. But did the voters who backed the slogan really intend that Australia be left with no climate change policy at all?

Did they really think they would be $550 a year better off?
Yes we did, because experienced political journalists like Lenore Taylor simply quoted Abbott's words to that effect, and never really questioned what they might mean - or whether there might be some sort of difference between what Abbott says and what he brings about, as happens with other politicians.
That lamb roast didn’t get any more expensive when the tax was imposed in 2012 and it won’t be getting any cheaper today. So many doorstops, so little substance.
I always thought it was crap, but the press gallery just quoted that clueless yokel without qualification. Where is he now - oh, he's in Cabinet? Still doing those doorstops, are you?
As eight years’ work by thousands of people disappears with the Senate’s vote, many may have cause for regrets.
The press gallery must be full of such people, gnashing their teeth and rending their garments. At long last, from the ashes of political calamity, we can pull press gallery credibility out of the wreckage, yeah?
Labor deliberately ... The Greens must surely ... And those in the Coalition ...
Sadly, no. It's everyone else's fault, including yours - never the press gallery.
... the absence of any credible policy is the big and pressing question for the future.
It has always been the big and pressing question. It has always been much more important than watch Tony gut fish, watch Tony drive a truck, listen to Joel giggle about Newspoll, watch Lenore land a new job despite her professional failure, etc.
Whatever happens, Direct Action will probably only matter for a short time – because even if it manages to reduce Australia’s emissions for a few years, its cost will quickly become prohibitive as Australia is required to reduce its emissions further. That point was made repeatedly by Malcolm Turnbull back when he still talked about these things, and has been repeatedly borne out by modelling (done by third parties because the government hasn’t done any, preferring as prime minister Tony Abbott said during the election campaign, to just “have a crack”).
It need not have mattered at all, if only the traditional media had seriously investigated what an Abbott government might mean in the same way they investigated the prospect of a Latham government.
Which means those concerned about climate change, and the need for Australia to do its fair share of the international task of reducing emissions, need to regroup and re-prosecute the case for some kind of market mechanism or some other effective policy.
Do you seriously think that "those concerned about climate change" had not been doing this? Why would they get any more attention now?
A good place to start would be the widely accepted, but misguided, idea that the point of comparison for our efforts on this issue vis a vis other countries is whether or not they have an ETS. No, the point of comparison is the target by which each country agrees to reduce their emissions.
Honestly, this is what the previous government was saying in response to Abbott - but you simply took Abbott at face value and dismissed the then government as a rabble. It was the press gallery who were the rabble (and, in the face of so little turnover despite this collective failure of judgment and reporting, they remain so).
Clive Palmer’s alternative emissions trading scheme is now delayed and looking increasingly meaningless. It would put the existing architecture into a kind of zero-price “sleeping beauty style” hibernation, with the independent Climate Change Authority getting a last-minute stay of execution so it can advise on when it should be re-awoken. But the conditions for reawakening are becoming so onerous, it is unlikely to matter.
That should have been reported ahead of time rather than afterward.
Those concerned about climate change will have to re-prosecute the case over time, as international action accelerates and Direct Action is found to be wanting.
If the Prime Minister slips back into his hi-vis again, how will you resist the opportunity to re-suspend your judgment? The credibility of climate action advocates is not at issue here, it's the buyer's remorse of the press gallery. Taylor and her colleagues should have known better, done more investigation into Coalition policy, and put a better brief to the public than they did.
Perhaps the last word should go to those well-known job-destroying, economy-hating, green-left anarchists in the federal treasury ...
That would be the entity that is being decapitated because it is offering advice like that, and which lumped all of its long-held wishlist items into the most recent budget to the point where its political masters can't get the Budget through parliament after two months. Experienced press gallery journalists should have identified that, too.

Let's be clear: the press gallery is the problem here. Unlike Lenore Taylor, I'm not being smart after the event or pretending this government's policy and tactical failures weren't foreseeable - go ahead, look at this blog's archives and compare it to the skip-bin of history that is the collective legacy of the Canberra press gallery. Taylor isn't the worst of the press gallery, but as one of its senior members and ever eager to defend the institution she will not escape the scorn that is its due.

The task of holding government to account extends to would-be governments before an election. The press gallery has failed in that task, which meant that voters were misinformed about their choices at the last election. The idea that the press gallery did its job while other aspects of the political system - including the voters - failed at theirs, is ridiculous. It enables the press gallery to persist in its failure and frustrates any hope that better policy and government might even be recognised, let alone come about.

The press gallery in general, and Lenore Taylor in particular, are "still wasting time, and the cost continues to climb".

---

I spent last Thursday and Friday not in the press gallery or lurking outside the Senate chamber, but attending this workshop, watching a new academic discipline emerge from the limitations of political science and marketing, with a combination of candour and rigidly framed skiting on the part of practitioners. Next year's conference should be interesting, but to what extent is what they call 'earned media' worth examining in that context? Does this blog have a more academic future, or is its future academic? Comments are welcome on this as ever, but let's make like the press gallery and save any predictions until after the event.

16 July 2014

The future of financial advice

Maurice Newman is supposedly Chairman of the Prime Minister's Business Advisory Committee. When he aired his opinions on climate change, which ran the full gamut from the half-baked to the half-witted, people marvelled that such an ignorant man should be so trusted an advisor to the country's government.

Since then, you would have expected Newman to have been very busy. Keep in mind that the first term of any government is when its legacy will be most firmly set in place. Yet, Newman had no role in the stunted compromise over Sydney's second airport at Badgery's Creek. When business confidence crashed and the Business Council of Australia joined in trashing the budget, Newman was not having gentle chats with the chaps in Collins Street and Martin Place to persuade them of its merits. Future eructations from Newman should be cast in the dim light of this inaction.

Newman was a stockbroker. You cannot buy or sell shares and other financial products unless you go through a stockbroker: it's a legally-protected retailing job. Sometimes they offer financial advice, but mostly they don't need to - whether clients make money or lose it, the stockbroker does well either way. The private-sector nature of the job, and the fact that you can make out like a bandit without anything like hard work, attracts libertarians and leads them to overlook the essential regulatory underpinnings. Even the most dogmatic libertarian will die in a ditch for "brokerage fees" that add no productive value and cost Australians billions of dollars each year, and will blanch at the very idea of shares traded directly from seller to buyer like Bitcoins or organic vegetables.

Let us leave aside Newman's embarrassing foray into climate science (or even the business opportunities arising from it: no solar panel installer ever bought him lunch), and his ineffectual chairmanship of the ABC. If Newman was going to bring his business and political clout to bear on anything, surely it would be on the amendments and regulations over those who give financial advice to people and sell them financial products, or even the system that generates such products: sadly, no.

Decisions on how financial products are to be sold, and on whom the regulatory burden should fall, have been the subject of considerable debate. The most cogent debates seem to be found here rather than on Hansard, and if there's anywhere less enlightening than parliamentary debate on this issue it must be in the traditional media.

Traditional media outlets used to have a number of journalists who specialised in business matters, who seemed to subsist on sandwiches from corporate AGMs and who could get to the nub of complex issues quickly and engagingly. They tended to be the first ones out the door once traditional media began downsizing, and have not been replaced. Explaining the FoFA debates has been left to Australia's worst journalists, the press gallery, who can only ever explain developments as 'argy-bargy'.

Most traditional media outlets have more than one employee in the press gallery. Nobody in the press gallery follows any one issue for an extended period, as they all move as a herd being equally unenlightening on any issue. This is one of the better press gallery articles on the subject, but it is still presented as win/loss for the government and a series of unqualified quotes rather than what this might mean for consumers long after financial advice regulation is 'off the agenda'.

The traditional media has noted the 'argy-bargy' between Cormann and Palmer over the bill before the Senate. The traditional media has noted the report from David Murray on the regulation of the financial system, including his comments on financial advisor fees and other matters that might cast more light than heat over the FoFA debate. The traditional media has not, however, twigged to the idea that Murray's findings are not apparently shaping the way financial advice is to be regulated into the future. It shows no sign of considering that such a dislocation (along with doubts about the passage of the budget, and the fiscal strategy of the government as a whole) might indicate a lack of joined-up policy planning on the part of the government.

This isn't to advocate for (or against) Murray's findings, nor indeed for the legislation of the previous government which this one is seeking to overturn. It is to question why you'd have an inquiry into regulations that was so utterly disconnected from your regulatory agenda.

Tabloid television shows hire convicted thieves to break into houses and cars to run stories about domestic security. Organisations with large IT systems hire white-hat hackers to probe for electronic security vulnerabilities. Similarly, traditional media should hire some old scammers from Qintex, Westpoint or Storm Financial and present them with the amendments from Cormann and Palmer, and then say to them: looking at these proposed regulations, if you were out to rip off people with more money than sense today, which of these proposals makes it easier for you?

The person chairing the finance system inquiry should have been Don Nguyen, identifying his least favourite options, doing it as a community service obligation rather than for whatever Murray was paid.

Maurice Newman was of no practical assistance in the process of regulating the financial advice industry, one he knows intimately. He might have smoothed things over with Clive Palmer, businessman to businessman, but no. Clearly, being Chairman of the Prime Minister's Business Advisory Committee is a position of no practical political or policy effect, like being Miss Australia or Minister for Health.

The failure of the government in both a policy and a parliamentary sense, and the failure of the traditional media to explain what's going on at any level, leaves consumers exposed and ill-equipped to engage with the debate.

It is standard practice for a government in trouble to create a diversion, and without Newman to do it the task has fallen to Kevin Donnelly.

When the budget was in trouble, Donnelly floated introducing teaching Latin to schools. There is no budget for it, no real advocacy, just a bit of anecdotage that achieved the desired result of attracting press gallery attention away from the train-crash of fiscal policy. The move was designed to appeal to the conservative base, but it didn't work because the budget jangled the hip-pocket nerve too hard.

Before the last election, in what was probably the closest they came to actual policy development, the Coalition proposed an increase in educational exchange between countries in the Asia-Pacific. The idea of increased learning of Asian languages by Australian students is one of those ideas that enjoys great support but fails for lack of a champion. Kevin Rudd proposed it as a Queensland public servant a quarter-century ago, and was still wittering fruitlessly about it after losing the last election. Kevin Donnelly hasn't engaged with the idea at all, but he may yet do so in a future look-over-there moment.

Donnelly's latest maneuver is to talk about corporal punishment. It may appeal to the conservative base, but the threat posed to retirement savings may again displace the effectiveness of culture-war gambits such as these. Journalists should be awake to deliberate feints and distractions like this, but not so for the easily impressed Matthew 'Mark' Knott:
Kevin Donnelly, co-chair of the national curriculum review and a widely published commentator on educational issues ...
Donnelly is not widely but narrowly published, in the Murdoch press; and if you look at the placement of his columns on the page you can see his editors know he is not one of those contributors who attracts readers.
Dr Donnelly continued: "I grew up in Broadmeadows, a housing commission estate in Melbourne, and we had a Scottish phys-ed teacher.

"Whenever there were any discipline problems he would actually take the boy behind the shed and say, 'We can either talk about this or you can throw the first punch'.

"That teacher would probably lose his job now but it was very effective. He only had to do it once and the kids were pretty well behaved for the rest of the year."
Australians are one of the most obese people in the world, an indictment on the effectiveness of phys-ed teachers of whatever background. It is the mark of a mediocre teacher whose ambition and capability extends no further than sullen compliance.

What surprised me about going behind the school sheds was that they did not run into any smokers - Donnelly was hired by tobacco companies to present smoking to school students as a valid lifestyle choice, making a mockery of his other witterings against moral relativism.

The Minister for Education, Chris Pyne, believes he is helping his colleagues by having Donnelly run interference. No journalist will link Donnelly to Pyne in this fashion. No journalist will look at Pyne cutting school funding, and Donnelly cluttering the curriculum with irrelevances, and wonder whether any education minister has so failed his brief as Pyne failed his.

Pyne was responsible for the idea that Peter Costello might challenge for the Liberal leadership, a non-story that sustained the careers of many press gallery veterans. Pyne has been good to the press gallery, and they to him, but whether either is any good at their allotted roles is a question that no longer admits positive possibilities.

In all of his forays into investigative journalism (why meet Deep Throat in an underground carpark at midnight when you can get your scoopy EXCLUSIVEs by transcribing 2UE?), Knott never considered the possibility that he might be in hot pursuit of a non-story, that he might be nothing more than a willing dupe while real actual stories went begging elsewhere, or even that being a dupe is a bad thing. Neither did those who allocate his time and efforts. Note Donnelly's gutless equivocations in Knott's piece, note that Knott does not and cannot call him on them, note the fact that Donnelly's and Wilshire's report is due in a few weeks; and wonder whether it will be worth a pinch of crap, even as a distraction from some emerging crisis for this stumblebum government. A crisis that real journalists should be onto right now.

With the exception of Laura Tingle, none of the Fairfax contingent in the press gallery are worth their own weight in dog food. Their ability to tell you anything meaningful about how we are governed (including the regulation of financial advice services) is non-existent.

We have a government and a media that can't describe how our financial advice system is regulated, and can't suggest how it might be regulated better. We have a media that can't even describe either the status quo or the proposals (and I include social media here - like a 21st century Dionysius I search for the blog that can enlighten in clear strong prose what is actually going on).

Financial advice has a future - until the next catastrophic failure. Maybe then a journalist will then have the temerity to ask Cormann or Palmer about their role in such a failure, whereupon they will simply say "I reject that". The journalist will simply quote them and move on, wondering why people regard traditional media as even less relevant than politicians.

13 July 2014

Poor journalism is a crime

Greed, incompetence (and the internet) are the least of our worries when it comes to public interest journalism. The main problem contemporary mainstream journalism has lies in its choice of stories, its sources for stories, and the depth to which it will go in explaining what the story is and why it matters.

For almost a year, it has been clear that Clive Palmer will be influential in deciding what legislation passes in this parliament and what does not. Profiles of Palmer before and since the last election in traditional journalism outlets focused on:
  • His girth
  • His robotic dinosaurs
  • Whether or not he is entitled to call himself 'Professor'
  • Whether or not he is entitled to call himself a billionaire, given currency fluctuations etc
  • His proposal to build a cruise ship in China and call it Titanic II
None of that stuff is particularly relevant today, or at all really. Almost none of those stories were worth writing. None of them stand as 'first drafts of history'. None of the costs involved in writing those stories, getting those journalists to and from Coolum etc., can be recovered.

But if there's one thing journalists love more than a story, it's being distracted from it: Palmer played them all for mugs in having them write the same, bemused and faintly patronising article. They barely managed to spell 'Bjelke-Petersen' correctly let alone wondering what Palmer learned from him.

Who knows what Clive Palmer wants? Well, Darrin, isn't it extraordinary that such a mystery has made its way to the centre of Australian politics without being properly examined? Isn't it an indictment of all of the lazy fools in the press gallery that they are only now grappling with such a question?
They say you shouldn't negotiate with terrorists, but trying to bargain with an agent of chaos is proving downright impossible.
No editor should publish an article starting with "they say", an opening even more asinine than "so". Besides, Darrin, how many deaths would you say Clive Palmer is directly responsible for? I thought Maxwell Smart cleaned up all those agents of KAOS anyway. This, along with the bold-text lead-in, has all the makings of a stupid article.
It was always going to be tough, but today was the day the circus really came to town.

The town is Canberra and the game is important. The repeal of the carbon tax.
If the game is so important why be distracted by a circus? If you're really busy, like undertaking terrorism negotiations, you don't have time for circuses.

A mixed metaphor isn't just some linguistic faux pas. It's a sign that you aren't really thinking about what you're looking at, what you're reporting on, or even those to whom you're reporting. Like people who write for The Australian, Darrin has chewed up his opening paragraphs with bullshit. It's taken him a while but he has finally got to the point of his article: the price mechanism for carbon emissions.
The carbon tax was electoral poison for the previous Labor government and despite the theatrics from a fortnight ago with Clive Palmer and Al Gore, all of the signs indicated it would be repealed [last Thursday].
There's more to carbon pricing mechanisms than that, but to be fair to Darrin it has been covered elsewhere. It is a pity, however, to regard this issue in such a limited fashion.

It's been toxic for our politicians in responding to it, but Darrin is wrong to refer to it (even allowing for yet another clash of imagery) as electoral poison:
  • Two elections ago, both the ALP and the Coalition proposed taxes and other market-based penalties on carbon emissions. It is one of the great what-ifs of Australian politics were the Greens to have supported the Rudd-Turnbull ETS proposal in 2009.
  • At the 2010 election both the Coalition and the ALP sent mixed messages on carbon emissions: Abbott had failed to put up the absolute denialist position that had won him leadership of his party and Gillard failed to put a clear policy forward.
  • In 2013, Abbott again failed to put up an absolute denialist position, rendering his carbon tax repeal unconvincing, and Rudd failed to be convincing about anything, rendering the effort of putting him back into office a waste of time.
The idea that the political elites have got the policy right but the bloody electorate won't vote for its own best interests is always silly, and doesn't apply here. The only policy options presented to voters have been half-hearted and silly, reflecting backroom lobbying and other pressures about which neither our politicians nor our media have been entirely honest. That lack of honesty limits the public debate, which in turn warps the electoral verdicts that come from such a debate; any "electoral poison" proffered to this government or the one before it is a concoction of their own making.

If the 'signs' tell you one thing, and the reality went against the 'signs', then the reliability of the 'signs' should be called into question: but not in Canberra, where you can blame reality for not living down to your predictions and keep your predictive abilities intact.
However, in what can only be described as chaotic scenes, the Senate instead voted down the Government's attempt to kill-off the carbon tax once and for all, thus robbing Prime Minister Tony Abbott of a much-needed political win.
The man was elected into government with a handsome majority and enjoys the trappings of office; this remains true today. Again, can the repeal of the carbon tax only be regarded as a political win/loss for the incumbents? Was it really a 'robbery', an illegitimate denial of something to which the government was entitled? Is this the first government that has lost a vote in the Senate, or suffered some sort of political setback?

If the government will not lose office as a result of this vote, how much of a setback is it really?
The decision is a major setback for Abbott who desperately wanted to "axe the carbon tax" as one of the first decisions of the new Senate.
Actually, Abbott said it would be the first thing his government would do last September. Then it was pushed forward to the sitting of the new Senate, which took office on 1 July; it isn't clear why the government waited nine whole days until last Thursday, but now it has to wait again. Cheer up: young unemployed people will have to wait six months to receive unemployment benefits, and if the government had to wait another six months would it be so bad? Such income as it does raise will be handy for the budget deficit, and we'll see what effect it has on actually abating carbon emissions.
Government MPs were extremely keen to push the recent budget firmly into the rearview mirror.
There's a question there as to whether you have to live your life according to what government MPs are keen to bring about.

Again we have another mixed metaphor: you don't push anything into a mirror. The rearview mirror on a vehicle is not for idly watching things receding into the distance, but to identify things coming toward you that might not be visible from the front or the sides. Notice how Darrin's mixed metaphors make it harder, not easier, to understand what he's on about.
The sticking point in the end was a PUP amendment to guarantee that the savings from the carbon tax repeal by energy producers, gas producers, and electricity producers would be passed down the line to consumers.
It's stupid that the government could not have seen that coming. That was the essence of its pitch to voters. The press gallery are stunned that Palmer is holding Abbott to Abbott's own promises. The mechanism for ensuring price cuts were passed onto consumers should have been built into the bills, or kept in reserve - the fact that the government was caught unprepared is not an indictment of Palmer but of the government. It makes it looks as though consumer impacts of the carbon tax were somehow beside the point for this government, rather than the main game.
The Government couldn't buy it, citing possible constitutional problems in allowing the Senate to pass an amendment relating to taxation.
The Senate can pass amendments relating to taxation, Darrin, it just can't initiate them.
The Government's Leader in the Senate, Eric Abetz, said [last Thursday's] dramas amounted to a technical glitch.
He would say that, wouldn't he. The fact that the Coalition hasn't got this policy through is largely his fault. There is a real story to be told about Coalition activists being disappointed in Abetz, and him being less than adequate for the role he occupies - but oh no, let's focus on Palmer, given that we don't really understand him:
So instead of the next few days basking in the afterglow of a major victory, the Government will now get to spend the weekend working on a set of amended bills to present to the House of Representatives on Monday.
Aww, diddums! Have you ever had to work across a weekend to get something done for Monday, dear reader? I have, and I didn't have Darrin moaning on my behalf about how dreadfully unfair it was.
And the media chatter over the next few days will focus on the Government's tactics and therefore its competence. This is clearly a bad look for a team already struggling with form that wouldn't look out of place in a bright yellow jersey in Belo Horizonte.
Oh no, another metaphor.

The Coalition is not competing for government, in the way that the winner of the FIFA World Cup is (as yet, and at last Thursday) undecided. The Coalition does not quite have seven members on their side for every one against, but it's a far cry from the balance of the previous parliament. Even so, this government has shown itself to be the ultimate in fair-weather sailors: it cannot manage any political situation which has not been comprehensively sewn up in advance.

To continue Darrin's metaphor, Brazil will not get another crack at the Cup next week: it's over for them. Is it really over for this government? As someone who predicted this government would not get as far as it has, do I dare ...?

The form of the German team coming into the FIFA World Cup was known far better than that of Palmer and his party to last Thursday's vote. There was no nonsense about dinosaurs or academic titles or whatever: they were taken seriously, their strengths and weaknesses were analysed closely and dispassionately, and for all the journalistic blather about 'shock results' the fact is that the German team have been - and may yet be - worthy winners.

It is a failure of journalism for Clive Palmer to be so poorly understood.
And therein lies the rub. No one, including the Government, knows what Palmer wants.
The idea that the government does not understand one of its political opponents is risible. This government is either going to be blindsided every damn week, or else they are going to learn some lessons and adapt accordingly. The latter is more likely (to some extent) but the tension of watching the stuffed shirts who run this government get over themselves will be palpable.
One thing is for sure. The early signs are that this Parliament will be just as chaotic as the last.
But we know how untrustworthy those 'signs' are, right Darrin?

When Tony Abbott was puddling around in student politics, Clive Palmer worked in the office of Queensland Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen. In the lead-up to the 1983 Queensland state election, the Liberals split with the Nationals and voted with Labor to create a parliamentary Expenditure Review Committee. The National Party's campaign director at that election was Clive Palmer: he knows how to mess with Liberals.

One member of the Queensland parliamentary press gallery at that time was Malcolm Farr. He should be able to describe Palmer better than this. The government that Palmer was promoting back then was deeply corrupt and inadequate to the job of running that state, something the 'fourth estate' should have twigged to and exposed; the Fitzgerald Commission was scathing of the media for failing their public duty to the people of that state. Farr's employer, the Daily Sun, lost credibility to the point where it closed down and Farr's career should have gone down with it. Instead, he landed a job within the Murdoch realm and drifted onwards in journalism. Like Fairfax's Tony Wright, Farr has been in the Canberra press gallery too long to have any fresh ideas yet not long enough to be a 'doyen' like Paul Kelly or Laurie Oakes.
CLIVE Palmer is belting the Government around the Senate and Tony Abbott is looking vulnerable.

But far worse for him, he is looking impotent.
(The pronouns in the second paragraph refer to Abbott. Surely you don't need a subeditor to identify a subject after so long writing professionally.)
Mr Abbott is being bullied by a ragtag group of crossbench senators learning on the job but mobilised by Mr Palmer, a canny student of power politics.
Abbott is not being bullied. Stymied, maybe frustrated - not not bullied. There are ten times more Coalition Senators than PUP Senators. Where is the physical violence, the sledging (and who has the worse record of that behaviour, Palmer or Abbott)? Has Palmer alleged that Abbott's recently deceased parents died of shame? Clearly this is a silly thing to say, worthy more of Piers Akerman than the normally more measured Farr.
When the Government wins a vote in the Upper House, Mr Palmer ensures he gets some of the credit.

When the Government loses a vote, Mr Palmer makes sure the Government gets all the blame.
In less than two weeks Palmer has the measure of Abbott, while Abbott doesn't know where to start when it comes to Palmer. Both Howard and Rudd would have had their Senate leaders' guts for garters if they had stuffed up to the extent that Abetz has - Farr knows this, and yet can't bring himself to report it. The composition of the Senate has been different to that of the House for a generation, and yet experienced press gallery reporters act all surprised when the Senate votes differently. This is a structural weakness in the way our politics is reported; as a senior reporter Farr bears responsibility for that.
Voters expect Governments to get things done and could quickly decide Mr Abbott simply can’t do his job should his agenda continue to be frustrated in the Senate.
By this point in Julia Gillard's Prime Ministership, Malcolm Farr had pretty much written her off.
(Clive wore a flanno at the press conference)
No he didn't. A 'flanno' is a shirt made from flannelette; the shirt Farr refers to is a checked cotton number similar to the ones that Malcolm Farr wears on the ABC's Insiders. What else are you wrong about Malcolm?
The PUP senators and others on the cross bench will eventually vote to remove carbon pricing but the process will be messy and reflect badly on the Government.
This government will look like it is not across the details. This is because it is not across the details. After four decades at the heart of conservative politics, if the Coalition does not understand Clive Palmer then what does it understand? About as well as Malcolm Farr understands words like 'bully' and 'flanno' and 'fourth estate'.

Then there's this sorry effort. The man who made his career insisting that someone other than Julia Gillard paid for Julia Gillard's renovations twenty years ago basically admits that he's a busted flush:
"Axing the tax" applied to Labor's two most "pernicious" imposts, the carbon and mining taxes. The former worked so well it became the economy's job-killing wrecking ball and python squeeze all at once. The latter raised virtually no revenue to pay for billions in new spending justified against its projected growth.
The carbon tax was never a "job-killing wrecking ball and python squeeze all at once". This was Coalition hype swallowed only by gullible people, including those inside the press gallery. Sometimes politicians say things that aren't true, Mark - you can have that for free, and you'll only be a proper journalist once you realise that and your reporting improves accordingly.
Expected savings from dismantling a complex institutional web of carbon pricing architecture have proved illusory.

Thanks to Clive Palmer's Senate trio and his on-off bloc including the surprising motoring enthusiast Ricky Muir, major pieces of that architecture will remain.
Is it surprising that one could be enthusiastic about motoring? Is it surprising that Muir is a motoring enthusiast? Is it surprising that Muir votes with PUP sometimes and not others? Is dismantling a web, partly or wholly, costly in all sorts of ways not visible from Canberra? What a funny piece this is. it ends badly for Kenny though:
The dominant characteristic of the new Senate is unpredictability. Fault lines run in every direction. If the path of these clearly mandated changes is so contested, what can we expect in the case of budget nasties like the GP tax that were never even mentioned?
Dunno Mark, maybe ask a journalist. Kenny is like a drunken poker player at the end of a long night flopping his poor hand of cards on the table and admitting, "I've got nothing", but without the good grace to leave the table. The Sydney Morning Herald could go the way of the Brisbane Sun if its reporting continues to plumb these depths.

While Darrin Barnett has been clueless, and Malcolm Farr and Mark Kenny have been pathetic, the prize for all-out crazy goes to Harto's piss-boy, Simon Benson:
POLITICIANS like to indulge a folly that Australian voters always get it right on election night.

At the heart of this misconception is a crude and fanciful logic that the will of the majority can produce only a single outcome — which by definition has to be the right one.

This is ridiculous.

The fact is that, unless there is a hitherto unrevealed mystery behind the collective ambition of the electorate to turn the senate into a political asylum, the Australian people got it wrong last September.

Horribly wrong.
It's a folly, yet Benson fell right into it. I remember Liberal staffers of my acquaintance saying this to me, and it's bullshit - politicians and journalists don't get to second-guess the voters in a democracy, the voters are sovereign. Maybe that's what they are trying to do with polls and focus groups, keep one step ahead of the voters - but I'm yet to hear of an election where that qualifier 'usually' applies, where the voters 'got it wrong'.

The government lost a vote in the Senate. Get over it, Simon. The Democrats and Harradine used to regularly trip up better governments than this one.
Based on the theory of voters being right, what has been witnessed in just one short week suggests that Australians elected to simply transfer the chaos and insecurity of three years of minority Labor government from the lower house to the senate.
That 'theory' is what I like to call democracy, Simon. We thought Abbott could handle a bit of horse-trading - clearly he can't, and he'll have to learn or be replaced with a government that will. I don't think he can learn: the fact that Abbott spent budget night drinking with Simon rather than either/both touching base with Palmer supports that.
The crossbench of the senate, which now consists of 18 independents and minor party MPs (the 10 Greens), has asserted its new authority over the government in ways that Tony Abbott failed to anticipate and in a manner which has many in the Coalition horrified.
The election was last September, Simon. It's now July of the following year. Maybe they, too, were misled by a dumb, lazy media. Maybe they're not as good as you and your Murdoch colleagues said they were.
Not only have Palmer and his minions refused to honour commitments to support the government’s repeal of the carbon tax, they have punched a further $10 billion hole in Joe Hockey’s Budget, turning a budget emergency into a $50 billion fiscal calamity.
If you're going to all that effort to put a budget together, why not a bit of old-fashioned politics to make sure you have a majority coming with you? Isn't this basic? Why the violent imagery, Simon - doesn't that just remind everyone of Barbara Ramjan and make us resent the fact Abbott is in government at all?
At the start of the week the Coalition was confident it would be able to drop the guillotine on Labor and the Greens to ram through a vote on the repeal of the carbon tax by Tuesday lunchtime.

Tuesday came and went, as did Wednesday and Thursday.

The carbon tax remains.

Abbott hadn’t factored in the possibility that at least one of the new senators might be, in the words of one Coalition minister, “completely stark raving mad”. And they weren’t talking about Palmer.
Of course not - Palmer isn't a Senator. The fact that the government doesn't understand a senator elected almost a year ago - and thinks an insult is the way to build a relationship with that person - is telling. So too is the lack of a sense of urgency in the delightful phrase "Tuesday came and went, as did Wednesday and Thursday" - lovely if you're talking about a walk through the forest, negligent if you're talking about voting through a government's legislative program.

If I had to describe a sitting Senator as “completely stark raving mad” - and I profess to no psychological qualifications - pop-eyed and wild-tongued Eric Abetz would get my vote. Simon Benson can't see it, there's no telling him.
It should have come as little surprise that Palmer yesterday reneged on a promise of only two weeks ago to support repeal of the carbon tax.
Well Simon, a) you weren't reporting it (once again, the press gallery can only predict things after they've happened) and b) he hasn't reneged, he's said he's still open to abolish it and negotiations are continuing on that basis.
The role of the senate is to act as a house of review and a mechanism by which parliament can keep checks and balances on the government.
And this is what's happening here, no? The government has been checked in the Senate, by a man dressed in a checked shirt (not a flanno). Ben Oquist isn't on the lobbyist register for the same reason that Peta Credlin or Tim Wilson aren't, and because you don't bother name-checking lobbyists visiting ministers and other parliamentarians why even bring it up?
According to the parliament, the constitutional role of the senate is implied as thus: “The requirement for the consent of two differently constituted assemblies is a quality control on the making of laws. It is also a safeguard against misuse of the law-making power, and, in particular, against the control of one body by a political faction not properly representative of the whole community.”

We are now faced with the very outcome the constitution sought to guard against, namely one person, Clive Palmer, has control of the senate.
As opposed to Tony Abbott having control of the Senate? Have you been taking constitutional law lessons from George Brandis?
What Australians may not yet realise is that the new government is also a hung parliament — by virtue of Palmer directing senate outcomes from the lower house.
It's been ten months since we voted, Simon. Hung Senates are pretty standard in Australian politics, and it's not clear how you get to be National Political Editor without realising that.
... the senate has become a cesspit of self-interest.
Senator Muir voted against what would appear to be the interests of his party, and this somehow represents self-interest? A mining billionaire had senators vote to retain a tax that costs him millions, yet that's self-interest?

It isn't self-interest. This government lacks attention to detail. Here's another example. Start reporting what happens, rather than flying off the handle or admitting you can't do your job.

Michael Gawenda's thoughtful piece on contemporary politics and media deserves more examination than it will get here, and it doesn't even refer to Palmer. Even so, in attempting to get to the nub of this government's unpopularity Gawenda misses an important point:
The far more likely explanation for the government’s poor opinion polls and for the fact that Tony Abbott is deeply unpopular is that people feel that they have been fooled. They saw Abbott relentlessly pursue Gillard for her broken promises. They heard him say many times that he would never break a promise he made to the Australian people. They did not believe when he came to power, he would break even more promises than had Gillard.
Gawenda overlooks the fact that the Coalition was not properly scrutinised by the media. They treat the shortcomings of this government as surprising, when they were eminently foreseeable and worth investigating well before last September. Professional journalists and tough-minded editors should have been offended by Abbott's evasions and lack of detail, and the all-too-sudden conversions on key issues like education funding and the ABC, reversed once the election was over. The Abbott government holds office because the media failed to do its job. The media fooled the people about how bad the last government was, and conversely made this government out to have been better than it has proven to be.

The press gallery should have done its homework on Palmer - and Abbott's capacity to deal with him - to a much greater extent than it has. It should not be surprised that Abbott's tactical incompetence of 2010 are being repeated here - indeed, Abbott's competence in dealing with those who do not have any formal obligations to him should have been questioned pointedly and regularly. The fact that the supposedly hapless Gillard government won every vote against Coalition strategists like Abetz and Pyne should have forced a reassessment, which might have put a more nuanced choice to voters at the last election.

If the imprisonment of Peter Greste didn't make the press gallery lift their game, what will? Their risk of suffering his fate is negligible, but you'd think all their gob-taping and selfie-taking would inspire journalists to exercise what freedoms they have. Greste seemed to have done more research on the convoluted politics of Egypt than Simon Benson or Mark Kenny have done with the Australian Senate.

Do not believe the press gallery when they are suddenly surprised by events in Canberra - they are almost all dumb, lazy people failing to understand what their jobs are and doing them badly. We are all worse off for that.

01 July 2014

Paying the price

I need a photo opportunity
I want a shot at redemption
Don't want to end up a cartoon in a cartoon graveyard


- Paul Simon You can call me Al
None of the reasons why Clive Palmer went into politics seemed plausible until now.

Was he peeved at Campbell Newman? Fine, but why run candidates in Tasmania and WA?

Did he hate Labor's carbon tax, its other policies and its way of operating generally? Fine, but why not throw cash at Abbott and let him get on with it?

Palmer's big mining investments seem unsustainable in the face of a cooling Chinese economy, and like the Indians they increasingly seem to be making their own arrangements. The massive Galilee Basin proposals look set to go the way of Olympic Dam: pipe dreams of another age. At the very least, Palmer wants to hedge his bets. At most, Palmer wants politics to replace what he's losing in business.

Palmer's company won a concession from Greg Hunt to dump mining tailings onto the Barrier Reef, which will devastate the reef at that site and cast a pall far beyond it. This shows that the relationship between Palmer and the government can't be all bad. Hunt has stopped his rhetoric about devolving environmental approvals to the states: the last thing Palmer would want is for Newman to be determining the fate of his business.

In the budget, Hunt did not hack into environmental assessment capacities and force the states to pick up the slack like Pyne did with education. Hunt fails to recognise that the Reef creates more jobs as an intact ecosystem than mining ever could. Again unlike Pyne, Hunt can't simply insist black is white and deny, deny, deny any evidence to the contrary. He doesn't stand up for any kind of principle. Greg Hunt is nothing.

The fact that Palmer's company has this concession should have attracted comment from Al Gore. Hell, if there were any journalists at the Gore-Palmer press conference, they might have asked either man about the issue. Gore seems happy enough to bore it up a government that flouts his inconvenient truth, and is political enough to know the enemy of my enemy doesn't have to be an angel.

It is significant that Palmer is insisting on a carbon price mechanism. He apparently hasn't consulted with any stakeholders in the affected industries about what he's proposing, which means when their lobbyists descend on Palmer his position will essentially be reactive, and the end result could go any which way really. One thing is for sure: Palmer has insider knowledge of how he will vote that his competitors in the coal industry don't have.

The contrast with Rudd and Gillard is telling in both their extensive consultation, and the sheer absence of any credit they got for it. On social media Palmer is referred to as #Cliev, pre-empting the sort of massive betray that saw the last British PM but one referred to as "Bliar".

So the country will have a price on carbon, regardless of how it voted. The idea that we could vote climate change away was always bullshit but Abbott and the press gallery insisted otherwise: they can't recognise they've been had, let alone admit it. The political class has decided we are to have one and all else is quibbling among stakeholders. And your electricity bill is going up anyway.

For Palmer, folksiness and populism could be all he has left. For now, as with the apprehension (spellcheck almost rendered that as 'apparition'!) of his coal wealth, it's enough.

He has roped the dope that is Tony Abbott. The fact that Abbott can't deal with Palmer is a major structural weakness for his leadership of the Liberals - which is why Bolt and Jones went berserk when Turnbull demonstrated his credentials in this newly vital area.

Palmer is overshadowing Shorten as Opposition Leader, but so what? When Santamaria or the communists denounced the ALP, you didn't see Menzies wading in to defend them. Shorten's proper role is to play up the differences between Palmer and Abbott, and to avoid them forming a mutually reinforcing alliance. In his native Victoria, Labor was competitive when they took the Coalition head to head, but when they let Frankston Man have his head he gave them Napthine's.

Tony Abbott had risen through command-and-control politics. He's never had to convince anyone, just appear plausible, and powerful men came to his aid: Murdoch, Antico, Packer, Howard. The negotiation skill he had as Health Minister, always with Howard's imprimatur, has deserted him. Palmer won't be comanded or controlled. The whole Credlin operating model just doesn't work with Palmer. Palmer isn't going away and those who depend on him doing so are not the strategic geniuses they fancy themselves to be. If the Credlin operating model doesn't work, this government is finished, whether or not Abbott remains as leader.

Even so, expect disgruntled former employees of Palmer to start being interviewed about what a lousy boss he is, or worse.

Palmer started off in the command-and-control politics of Joh Bjelke-Petersen. He learned that if you dazzle journalists they don't question you, and that even if they do a homely dollop of verbal bilge will negate the point of interviewing you at all. His attitude toward his party's senators shows his understanding of discipline, but his evasion of this government shows he knows the moves well enough to give them the slip.

All of that shows up the press gallery focus on Palmer's "conspiracy" to secure a press conference. They are every bit as useless as the Queensland press gallery in the 1980s - even worse for having learned absolutely nothing since about holding government to account.

17 June 2014

Breaking news

Politics involves working out competing ideas about how public services, and the community more broadly, is run. A stable political system is one which can accommodate competing ideas without breaking down, or causing civic violence that requires a response of state violence in the short term, and dispossession of certain groups from the political system over the longer term.

Australia has a stable political system. Some people think this stability requires the absence of debate. They tend to be people who aren't interested in policy processes and outcomes, neither generally nor in particular, and how they affect people's lives, but who get their jollies from the 'horse race' aspect of politics and being 'in the thick of it'. It is hard to credibly maintain this approach at the level of municipal politics, but the scale and isolation of Canberra's press gallery create the conditions for this condition to become endemic.

There are far too many horse-race people as it is, and their presence in positions of power within our political system is to be deplored. Leading members of our political parties and pretty much every member of the press gallery operates from this toxic set of assumptions. It is a vast exercise in self-indulgence to cultivate and maintain this attitude at the public expense, and (for journalists) at the expense of their large but struggling employers.

Almost all reporting on federal politics occurs at the level of the horse-race, with no capacity or interest in explaining how this political to-and-fro leads to certain outcomes in the community. This does the community, and individual readers, a disservice. This disservice explains why disengagement from politics and from traditional media is rising sharply and in correlation (not coincidence). This cannot end well for traditional media, nor for the two-party political system, which includes the student-politics-as-training-ground political elite.

Let's take this story. It is entirely natural that a party losing government will revisit policies, particularly contentious ones like asylum-seekers and why those who come by sea are treated so differently than those who come by air. Yet, because of the limited perspectives and journalistic skills of the press gallery denizens who wrote that piece, all they can focus on is the SPLIT SHOCK aspect:
The move comes just three weeks after Labor immigration spokesman Richard Marles told the National Press Club that he fully supported offshore processing and that the Rudd government should never have dismantled the offshore centres ... The motion was due to be debated about a month ago but it is understood it was delayed so that it wouldn't clash with Mr Marles' appearance at the press club.
What this says is that there was never a good time to debate policy, before National Press Club appearances or afterwards. What the proponents of this policy are trying to do are change the minds of Marles and others in their party's decision-making systems, and hence change what they tell the National Press Club - and even what they might do in government.
"We support offshore processing at Nauru and Manus Island as a step which has saved lives," he said at the time.

But a copy of a motion cites the death of Iranian asylum seeker Reza Berati, the "inhumane, unsafe and completely unsatisfactory conditions" for asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru and a lack of independent oversight of the centres, and the lack of processing of asylum claims in both countries as justification for the move.
There is a debate to be had in the two paragraphs cited above, if only the journalists had the wit to draw it out.

It's one thing for the Australian government to decide who does (not) come into this country. It is quite another for it to decide who lives and and dies among people who are not at war with us, and who are vulnerable people not supported by the governments of the countries they came from. This is the debate being had here, apparently within the ALP's normal decision-making forums and processes.

Let us have no nonsense about priorities or time. These journalists have nothing better to do but get some perspective, and there is plenty of information available within and beyond Canberra to build that perspective. This is a debate that does not improve with repetition. Fairfax and traditional-media outlets generally do themselves and their readers no favours by pretending that differences of opinion is a story in itself.

Differences of opinion are a given, even among people of goodwill who like one another and who work well together. Surely journalists know this. Differences of opinion are not, in themselves, a story, and insistence to the contrary by lazy journalists result in them - and their beleaguered employers - being ignored.
Ms Parke and Ms Burke both declined to comment when contacted by Fairfax Media and it is understood the motion is unlikely to win majority support in the caucus room, with many Labor MPs simply unwilling to re-start debate over an issue that plagued Labor for six years in government.
Ms Parke and Ms Burke both know that Fairfax Media lies outside their party's decision-making processes. Neither want to create the impression they are grandstanding at their party's expense. If you understand politics, and respect your readers, then that's the understanding you'd convey to your readers.

If you don't understand politics, and you condescend to people using journo cliches, you end up dribbling the sort of crap Whyte and Massola have dished up. It is standard political reporting, to be sure, but a low and frankly doomed standard at that.

If you can bear it, here is more of it, this time about the Liberals. There's plenty of information out there about Australia's air defence needs and the strengths and weaknesses of the F-35, and none of the three journalists cited could be arsed going into it - even though the issue has been live for more than a decade. This article covers the cost of the JSF, but misses a number of vital elements:
  • There's more to air defence than mere dollar cost.
  • The cost of these machines does not fit with the austerity model put forward by the government on other issues.
  • Throughout the JSF project, costs have skyrocketed and cost estimates are unreliable.
  • The effectiveness of the JSF can only be judged against a knowledge of Australia's air defence needs and an understanding of other products in that market: neither are present in this coverage.
  • Yes, it is the place of Australians to judge the effectiveness of military hardware purchases.
Political parties should be able to handle discussions about policy. A party that cannot bear to bring up divisive discussions is probably a party that is not ready to return to government. Individuals who are that battle-scarred should be replaced. However, if that party is being denied the information it needs to have a debate and make decisions, and then convince others of the merits of its position, then such a position is understandable. Within political parties, and beyond them, the media cliche of SPLIT SHOCK is a prophylactic to understanding rather than a facilitator of it.

Soon, someone like Katharine Murphy will bemoan the banality of our political debate, with no insight or admission about their own role in that, and certainly no answers: their laziness in coming to grips with complex issues, and underestimating the subtlety of their audience to cover up their inadequate explanation skills.

The Conversation tries to set itself apart from the media by using academic experts rather than journalists. However, they do not engage this expertise with an understanding of political processes, using a ruse whereby journalists are given meaningless academic titles like 'Adjunct Associate Fellow' and allowed to dribble on without having learned anything about politics, or journalism, or much of anything really.

Michelle Grattan thinks politics is all about singing from the same songsheet, and deplores "untidiness and some dissent". She trips over a number of silly images on the way to her story, which fails because she won't/can't engage with issues:
In Canberra the Ides of March has recently come in June
No it hasn't. The examples Grattan cites involve very little actually being resolved as a result of the "special frisson" she describes.
Abbott, after arriving back early on Monday from his around-the-world trip, has found some of the first Senate jabs in the struggle over the budget bills coming from his own ranks, with Liberal senators Ian Macdonald and Cory Bernardi attacking the debt levy (which, however, will have an easy Senate passage courtesy of Labor).
Abbott will almost certainly have been aware of this before and during his trip overseas. Macdonald was cheesed off at Abbott because Abbott promised that all shadow ministers would become ministers, but broke his promise to Macdonald. Bernardi is a knucklehead and is in the departure lounge to leave the Liberal Party. Grattan should be awake to this and convey it to her readers: again, the mere fact of dissent is insufficient to support a story.
Abbott palmed the questions off but more generally the government says the material is out of date and what’s relevant is the future, with the budget numbers pointing to alarming trends.
Does the HILDA study address those concerns? Does some reliable third-party source of information help us decide one way or another? In politics, unlike other fields of activity, The Conversation is pretty much worthless.
Even so, the survey does suggest that, as with other aspects of the budget, the government has been somewhat over-egging the problems.
If criticism of the government is valid, you have to wonder about the journalists, and MPs outside the government (particularly the opposition) who allow Abbott to "palm off" important questions. Grattan doesn't realise that a report like this represents an admission of professional failure on her part.
Bill Shorten - who’s been riding high on the polls and is in a better political position than he would have ever dreamed
Press gallery journalists seek access over all other considerations - you know you've got access to a politician when you can access their dreams.
More immediately concerning for Shorten was a claim on Monday at the royal commission into union corruption that when he was a parliamentary secretary in 2009 he had contributed $5000 to the campaign of a candidate in the Health Services Union.

The candidate, Marco Bolano, was an ally of the union whistleblower Kathy Jackson.
Two things should be said about this, and neither should need to be said to anyone with such experience in covering politics.

First, the whole idea of the Heydon Royal Commission into certain trade unions is to get at Shorten, in the same way that the Fraser government set up the Costigan Royal Commission to go after then-ACTU President Bob Hawke. If Grattan's experience has any value, it is in drawing and testing these kinds of comparisons rather than presenting these developments breathlessly as unforeseeable instances of 'untidiness'.

Second, Jackson isn't a "whistleblower", she and her mate Bolano are part of the problem with the HSU. The idea that she was a "whistleblower" was all very well when she first went to Fairfax, hoping to throw them off her scent and play the once-great Kate McClymont for a mug, but there have been developments since then - or before then - and Grattan has no excuse not to be across them. She is being lazy here.
On yet another front, Labor figures on Monday night were grappling with a controversial motion due to be debated at caucus on Tuesday calling for the opposition to reverse its support for sending asylum seekers to Manus Island and Nauru, and to declare that these centres should be immediately closed.
Yeah, well, we examined that earlier. Grattan's snippy final paragraph contains nothing about the effects of that policy on actual asylum seekers, no qualms about morality, nor better ways of doing things. It is wholly inadequate for describing a vexed issue and how it plays out in the normal course of politics.
Even some in the left argue the motion was ill-advised, which shows how far the ALP’s thinking has changed over the years.
Not really. Detention of sea-borne asylum-seekers was initiated by the Keating government in the early 1990s. The then immigration minister, Gerry Hand, was from the left, which shows you there hasn't been as much change as Grattan would have you believe.

After four decades on the job Michelle Grattan practices a kind of goldfish journalism where every new development is a surprise and there are only ever two choices: the status quo or chaos.

Indulging one old journalist might be a mistake, but indulging two looks like carelessness. Shaun Carney, so acute on the downfall of Howard, floundered with Rudd and Gillard and was rightly let go by The Age. Former editor Andrew Jaspan, now at The Conversation, has let Carney have another go:
And yet, for all the energy attended upon them, experience suggests that budgets can generally not be expected to remain in the national conversation for long. Most years, a budget will have lost its news value by the Friday after its release ... But not this year: the 2014-15 budget is the exception that proves the rule. In political, financial and social terms, this budget has so far shown itself to be a game-changer. It has reset the political debate, sparking a community reaction full of heat.
The reason for this is because the budget was the point where all the hot air from Abbott, Hockey et al coalesced and took tangible form. It was where all that uncritical media coverage was shown to be hollow, where the entire press gallery revealed that it hadn't asked the right questions at the right time.

It's quaint that Carney regards "the national conversation" as the same as "what editors of newspapers, TV and radio stations choose to cover".

If you can't get over the SPLIT SHOCK narrative, it will have escaped your notice that Liberal Senator Ian Macdonald put more cogent questions to Finance Minister than all of the other Senators put together and cubed. The manifestation of all that anti-budget energy as heat rather than light should be recognised for what it is: a failure of journalism.
But with its first budget, the government – or more particularly, its treasurer – has presented a set of policies that attempt to redraw and redefine the role of the state. These policies challenge not just what took place under the previous Labor government but also under John Howard.
If you're going to attempt a massive reorganisation of the way the government relates to the citizenry, and vice versa, then be prepared to take the time and put the work in. This government hasn't done that, despite an easy ride from the press gallery and a more than accommodating ALP.
So the government is clearly experiencing trouble because it said one thing and now wants to do another. And yes, of course, this seems odd because of the way in which Tony Abbott successfully pursued Julia Gillard over her carbon tax reversal.
All governments say one thing in opposition and do another in government - hardly "odd". What's happened in this case is that not only have the Coalition under Abbott been deceitful (and that only blogs were alert to this, unlike the credulous traditional media). They developed a set of ideas that were ill-considered and not debated at any level within the community. They appear to be disjointed bits of policy that the US has since moved away from, like privatising the public health system, not relating to Australia and its social and economic conditions in any practical way.
Others, often more sympathetic to the government, including some Liberal MPs, offer the assessment that a good deal of the problem goes to messaging.
I was a member of the Liberal Party in NSW from 1986 to 2000. The party spent much of that time in opposition on both the federal and state levels, and tended to blame the messaging: we need to get our messaging out, if only we could get our messaging through, blah blah messaging blah. Preselection candidates boasted of their 'media experience'. It's as though all problems were technocratic rather than deeper-seated.
On climate change, the government has specifically rejected the application of a price signal.
Abbott said in Washington last week that raising fuel excise was a de facto price signal.
Distilled, the government’s message on the co-payment is that because there is a budget emergency, the impost must be introduced but not a dollar of the proceeds will go to ameliorating the emergency.
That's a stuffed-up piece of messaging right there. Keep in mind that messaging is Abbott's strength, the reason why the Coalition is in government at all. If Abbott has botched that messaging, what hope can anyone have that things will get better for this government?
Do today’s Australians, many of whom – rightly or wrongly – view their taxes as a form of downpayment on an age pension and medical care in their retirement, think that contributing 8% of their wage to the nation’s welfare bill is so bad?
Hockey complained that opposition to his budget was a throwback to the 1970s.

From 1978 to 1983, the Treasurer was John Howard. Howard's budgets were always in deficit. They trimmed welfare spending, in response to public sentiments that welfare recipients were 'bludgers' after decades of low unemployment (shamefully, this extended to less-than-generous benefits and assistance to Vietnam veterans). There was a lot of talk about 'nation building' but little to show for them. In that sense, Hockey's budget is a very 1970s document.

In a situation where half of Australian households receive welfare payments, and where nobody is living the 'welfare queen' lifestyle made popular by John Laws or Mike Carlton in their pomp - Hockey has played the "dole bludger" card but it sits on the table like a two of clubs, rather than the trump he and Abbott had intended. Messaging be damned: this is a failure of judgment pure and simple, and Carney dares not risk his few remaining contacts by calling this out.
The last time there was such sustained public antagonism to a budget was in 1993 ... That broken promise was the deal-breaker between the electorate and that government ... They were different times, of course
Of course. At least Carney is trying here to understand what has happened with this government, and stopped trying to pretend that everything is "unprecedented", "extraordinary" or otherwise using hype where it clearly does not, as the old saying had it, "sell newspapers".

Our politico-media system seems to break before it can bend.

Julia Gillard's conventional political compromise in pursuit of a price on carbon led the media to stop taking her seriously, and to take her opponents more seriously than they warranted. Hockey will need to compromise to get this budget through, and it will make or break him. The traditional media are following rather than leading new media when it comes to politics; and we will have a new politics created though a new media before the likes of Massola, Kenny, Grattan and Carney can even understand it, let alone report on it.

What they think of as strength is really a kind of brittleness, but they continue to portray flexibility and debate as a deviation from normal business rather than the business itself. For all their experience, they are constantly surprised by foreseeable, regular events. People who are surprised by foreseeable, regular events cannot provide steady and responsive leadership nor news of consistent quality. These people should neither be surprised nor snippy when people stop listening to them.