16 February 2018

What conservative triumph looks like

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

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

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

There Can Be Only One

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

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

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

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

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

How am I supposed to live without you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The undead John Ruddick

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

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

The hill to die on

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

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

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

Matters of life and death

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

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

The Anglosphere

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

At the moment of triumph

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

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

11 February 2018

Out with the bathwater 2: a change of focus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

08 February 2018

Out with the bathwater

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

Fucking inconvenient

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

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

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

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

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

Delayed gratification

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

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

Gareth Evans and Cheryl Kernot

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

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

Ross Cameron

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

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

Julia Gillard

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

I will not be lectured about media ethics by that journalist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

02 February 2018

Constant Constance Face

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

09 January 2018

Join the queue

Recent comments by Peter Dutton on Sudanese crime in Melbourne, in support of the Victorian Liberals' attempts to court that old political tart Laura Norder, underline two failures of strategy: in his portfolio, and within the Victoria Liberals in their quest for state government this November.

The end of the line

Immigration policy in Australia was set at the turn of the century by then-Immigration Minister Phillip Ruddock, backed by John Howard and his government and only ever tweaked by successive governments since then.

The first thing to say about immigration to Australia overall is that it has increased significantly this century. Where the crackdown has come, and the headlines, is in the refugee and asylum-seeker intakes.

Ruddock developed the idea of a 'queue' for refugees - yes, the world was full of desperate people fleeing war and persecution, but all that was required for such people to enter Australia was to "join the queue", fill out some forms and applications would be processed in due course. People who paid people-smugglers and arrived in Australia by boat without visas were "queue jumpers", denying places on the small (and successively reduced) quota for refugee intake to those who did all the right things and waited patiently.

Here's where Dutton has torpedoed that policy, and made himself look silly: successive Immigration ministers from Ruddock to Morrison told us there were people waiting patiently in refugee camps in Africa unable to enter Australia because bad people from the Middle East tried to jump the queue by coming here on boats. None of the people on Nauru or Manus are from South Sudan. They are people who have come here through the very vetting systems that Dutton now oversees.

If you agree with Dutton that Sudanese gangs are terrifying Melbourne, then it follows that he has failed to vet these people properly. You can't believe that Dutton, with his inflated powers as Home Affairs Minister, is keeping Australia safe if you also accept that he has waved through the very people apparently causing this mayhem. Say what you will about Daniel Andrews, his government simply has no role in immigration vetting. Why detain people at Nauru, Manus, Woodville or anywhere else when you are clearly so careless? Dutton is undermining his own narrative:
"But the short answer is that, if people haven't integrated, if they are not abiding by our laws, if they don't adhere to our culture, then they are not welcome here."
Bit late for that champ.

No journalist has called him on it. Credulous dickheads like this one simply hung a whole story on a radio transcript. He even took to social media to insist - without evidence, like the gun journalist that he is - that somewhere in Yarraside there is so a homebody who uses fear of Sudanese gangs as an excuse to hide quivering within their dank little abode.

In 2018, we know that a quote - even a direct, exclusive one - is no basis for a story. Politicians say things, in the same way that the sun rises in the east or bears shit in the woods; it is not news in itself. The fact that a press gallery exists as a make-work scheme for journalists gathering and disseminating quotes is actually a reason against supporting the Australian media, at least until they realise what a low-value proposition it is.

Hearts and minds

Victoria isn't the place for a Laura Norder campaign, despite the self-defeating willingness of Matthew Guy to give it his very best shot.

The last three Liberal Premiers to win office by beating Labor - Ted Baillieu, Jeff Kennett, and Henry Bolte - all did so without a heavy focus on Laura Norder (the latter two won because Labor had collapsed internally). The last Coalition government of 2010-14 (in which Matthew Guy was a minister, and many of his frontbenchers were also ministers) reduced police numbers and experienced a decrease in crime overall. Guy might call out Sudanese gang activity, but it isn't clear what he proposes to do about it, or whether those proposals might actually decrease criminal activity to warrant a change of government.

Victoria is the state with both the highest proportion of residents born outside Australia. It also records the lowest aggregate vote for One Nation and its anti-immigration ilk. When Pauline Hanson was setting up in the late 1990s, the only senior politician who really called her out was not Kim Beazley, but then-Premier Jeff Kennett. Racial demonisation is not unknown in Victorian politics, but Matthew Guy is going to have to work harder than he thinks to make it work for him.

If you don't believe in Victorian exceptionalism, consider how Laura Norder failed the Coalition in NSW. In the late 1990s, Labor held office under Bob Carr, and the Coalition under successive leaders was unshakeable in its conviction that Laura Norder could force Carr out. Carr simply never let the Coalition get to the right of him on those issues. Whenever a crime hit the front page of the Murdoch papers, Carr would introduce a new bill to parliament to reiterate opposition to, say, murder or sexual assault, and would happily match the Coalition in lengthening sentences or criticising judicial officers based on little more than half-baked reporting of complex legal cases.

In Queensland, the Newman government retreated into Laura Norder once its election promises for an economic bonanza proved elusive. Again, Labor simply matched them on sentencing or whatever, and where Labor wouldn't match (e.g. the appointment of magistrate Tim Carmody as Chief Justice, or the weird pink jumpsuit thing with bikies) Newman had lost more votes than he won. In Western Australia, the economic performance of the government rendered Laura Norder moot. In the Northern Territory, the CLP ended up with the brutality of Don Dale and nowhere else to go. In South Australia, the ACT, and Tasmania, the Liberals shrieked about Laura Norder for the entire time they'd been out of government, and so what?

Laura Norder is a dead loss as a strategy for the Coalition to win government. In Victoria and elsewhere, it has to be part - a small one - of a wider strategy to highlight Labor's internal political collapse. Getting Labor to collapse internally from the outside can be tricky and waiting for it to happen can be boring, but it happens nonetheless from time to time.

The deaf leading the deaf

So, a tone-deaf federal Coalition government is going all in to help a tone-deaf Coalition opposition in Melbourne execute a dud strategy. Peter Dutton impresses nobody who is not already a rusted-on Liberal, and wins no votes in that state which simply do not exist to the right of the Coalition. The federal government's dumping of Gippsland's Darren Chester from Cabinet makes it perfectly clear how it values Victoria and Victorians.

The fact that he lectures Victorians from far beyond the Murray - further even than Canberra or Sydney - is more of an issue than cosmopolitan Melburnians dare admit. Queensland is where Victorians go for sun and recreation, not for advice on how to run their state. With the restaurants of Melbourne doing a roaring trade, Dutton isn't merely wrong but downright foolish. An authoritarian who looks foolish loses everything.

Dutton, and similar comments from Turnbull, aren't helping bring about a Guy government. Given the precarious numbers of their own government, can they be said to buttress their own government's standing in Victoria? A seat won is a seat won, whether in Queensland or Victoria, yeah?

Maybe Laura Norder will help Jason Wood in La Trobe. But then Wood is a former police officer, and every problem is a nail when your only tool is a hammer. The Coalition seemed happy to drop him in 2010, an election in which La Trobe was one of the few seats Labor won from the Coalition. La Trobe aside, it is hard to see where the federal Coalition government will gain votes in Victoria from its contribution to wooing Laura Norder.

Keep in mind that the Victorian state electoral boundaries are due to be redrawn before the next election. When they were redrawn on the state level in 2013* they disadvantaged the Coalition. This is not because of political bias but geography: Melbourne has expanded to the north and west in recent years. It is likely that new seats will be created there, at the expense of rural seats or those in Melbourne's south-eastern suburbs, once the bulwark of the Liberal Party. The Coalition parties have no base or infrastructure to speak of to the north and west of Melbourne.

Polling trends indicate the Coalition is unlikely to win new seats, and that any new seats will almost certainly be beyond their reach. It will struggle to hold marginals like Chisholm, even if its boundaries change relatively little. It did surprisingly well in Melbourne Ports in 2016, but this is unlikely to be repeated given the government's insensitive handling of same-sex marriage, and given a likely state election campaign going hard on Laura Norder and failing. This will intensify pressure on the party's safest seats for party renewal. Of the safest Coalition seats in Victoria, only one (Kevin Andrews in Menzies) is held by someone aged over 60 with more past than future, and the party can't get rid of him: its battles for party renewal will not be expansionary, they will be internalised, and bloody.

Oh, but scare campaigns sell papers

No they don't. They have no effect at all on relentlessly declining sales. And even if this were true, do Matthew Guy and Peter Dutton have some sort of obligation to help Murdoch sell papers at the expense of winning elections?

There is no such thing as great tabloid journalism, it's all patronising shit. Murdoch has withdrawn his rags from official circulation audits because he's so embarrassed, and because he runs them for reasons other than profit-making business. Here's proof that anyone can do it:
African gang attacks Australia shock
(c) www.thesocialite.co.za


* In searching for information to link to in support of this piece, I searched for Antony Green's detailed commentary on the Victorian redistribution, but it would appear that the ABC has dumped that content.

26 November 2017

The end of Peter Dutton

For much of the past 12 months, the press gallery has agreed that the power of Peter Dutton has grown within the government, possibly to the point where he could challenge Turnbull for the Liberal leadership and hence become Prime Minister. It's time to call bullshit on that, and to point out that the more enthusiastic advocates for Dutton (or those most hungry for stink) aren't helping us understand how the government works.

Dutton solves none of the problems facing the country. Think about the big issues (go on, dare to do so despite our appalling national leadership and inadequate media):
  • Maintaining stable electrical power supplies (and gas for that matter) in the face of changing technologies - that is, to take on the political risk that all state governments but WA and Queensland have shirked;
  • An economy that creates jobs within a sustainable environment;
  • A relationship with Indigenous people that goes beyond the tokenistic, but which does not negate non-Indigenous Australia to the extent we tried to negate them;
  • The ability to encourage people to come to our country, as visitors and migrants, but not to the point where we fear the loss of who we are (see above); and
  • [insert your big issue here].
Dutton offers answers to none of these questions.

Dutton offers no answers to questions of good government, he has fucked up every portfolio he's held (including the current one, see below). He offers no political answers either: he's not more popular than Turnbull, and any regional variations in relative popularity for one is offset elsewhere.

The proof of this is in the Queensland election. Had Dutton been a political go-getter, if he had half the ambition of Howard or Abbott or Turnbull or even Sam Dastyari, Dutton would have been at the side of every LNP candidate in every winnable seat up and down the state. Were he a potent political threat Palaszczuk should be cursing him by name, piling on to the outrage about Manus, but she rightly regards him as irrelevant. Maybe he's raised heaps of money for the LNP behind the scenes, but I doubt it.

Turnbull's main political weakness is his lack of judgment: when to push open a door ajar, and when to walk by it. Dutton has the same weakness. He was right not to throw himself into the 2015 Queensland election, when Campbell Newman threw away one of the biggest majorities ever, and at the next Queensland election it will be too late.

Dutton is too stupid to know Manus has reached its endgame. As a junior policeman he was removed from situations requiring subtlety and deftness, but as a senior politician he has been let loose by a weak leadership and goaded by right-wingers thirsty for some impact (yes, the government of Australia is less well run than the Queensland Police). All cruelty requires prizing toughness over all other considerations, and Dutton has shielded himself from those considerations for too long.

UN and non-government agencies have long criticised Australia's mandatory detention system, and so have journalists from outside the press gallery (recent converts to the idea that the system is appallingly inhumane, like Paul Bongiorno and Michael Gordon, do not count). Dutton assumes that recent criticism, accompanied by video, is more of the same and can either be ignored or fed into culture wars.

When a boatload of asylum-seekers foundered on the rocks at Christmas Island in 2012, with accompanying video, Australians were appalled. The out-of-sight-out-of-mind approach to offshore detention was exposed. So too was the nation's entire political class, which were heavily invested in "strong on border security" and could not easily or deftly change course. Michael Keenan and Joe Hockey shed tears of self-pity and the sheer impossibility of changing course: and so too did the press gallery, which from then until now took the Coalition at its word on these matters.

The solution then largely consisted of media management: restricting access to Christmas Island, redefining what a "boat arrival" meant, harsh words to dwindling media proprietors and threats of outsiderdom to press gallery insiders. The press gallery responded to this not with defiance, as journalists might, but by insisting then-Immigration Minister Scott Morrison was a genius for his ability to bamboozle the press gallery. Morrison is less effective in bamboozling economists outside the press gallery in his current role, but that respect has transferred to Dutton for his continuation and expansion of limits of media access to content sources beyond official statements.

Now we know that official statements are in disgrace, and bear no relation to reality: moving people from one settlement to another violently, cutting off water and medical aid, and doing it all in a media environment that can't be controlled exposes Manus to its Australian sponsors. NZ's offer to take some refugees, denied again, makes it look as though the government doesn't want the problem solved, or is so obstinate that it overlooks obvious solutions (a common feature of all governments nearing their end). The double game of Australia taking credit but blaming the locals is over: all the gallery's faithful stenography to that end was always wasted, but is now irrelevant.

Dutton has batted away politically-correct lefties before, and is doing so again, not realising it's too late for that. The combination of images from Manus going global, combined with the policy being shunned by all but the farthest right (even Trump blanched at it: "you're worse than I am"); along with a reputation for ripping off backpackers, and now being lumped in with human rights abuses in Myanmar in terms of callousness to asylum-seekers, it's too late for cosy chats with Ray Hadley trying to discourage listeners from believing their lying eyes.

With Trump's US and Brexit UK shunning clever and ambitious migrants, we see now that there is no plan for Australia to offer an attractive destination. We see nothing for tourism and education beyond the lazy assumption that more Chinese will ramp up numbers for us. Nobody has any right to assume that the Immigration Minister would even want to play a long game on this front: this government has a vacuous leader, nobody from the press gallery went looking for evidence of long-term national-interest thinking, and the Opposition dares not engage in any product differentiation on this issue. And so, an absurdly inadequate minister is off the hook.

Had Labor been re-elected federally in 2010 to a greater extent than it was, it is entirely likely that Dutton's career would have ended then. Dutton's seat, Dickson, between northern Brisbane and the southern Sunshine Coast, is almost entirely represented by Labor in state parliament. Dutton's mate Dan Purdie won a state seat, but so what? The LNP machine is not exactly the killer outfit it was five years ago, and whatever the answers might be to the LNP's malaise almost none reside in that potato head of his. Contrast that with the way John Howard rebuilt the Liberal Party from the ground up in 1995-96.

When skittish politicians get worried about an unpopular leader, they try to imagine that leader in their local community shaking hands with local worthies and randoms. This is the political equivalent of picturing what your house looks like from the kerb; nobody pretends it's all-important but it isn't unimportant either. Those who were unimpressed with John Howard underestimated his ability to walk among ordinary people, chat with them and appear to be listening; those who love the guy rave about his ability to do that, a quality pretty much absent in your standard political-class drone.

It was hard to imagine gimlet-eyed obsessive Abbott in actual communities with actual voters, but he waddled around the country doing passable imitations of political gladhanding. Then, he spent two years returning to Canberra screwing the people whose hands he'd shaken. Liberals found this dissonance puzzling, until Peta Credlin and the passage of time helped them realise Abbott was really like that. As he became both less popular and less effective, it was easy to imagine Turnbull gladhanding the way back to popularity. No Liberal, not even those in safe seats, wants Dutton anywhere near voters who like their local MP but have their doubts. Again, you'll notice he played scant role in Queensland, and he's not doing much heavy lifting in the success story of immigration that is Bennelong.

Dutton doesn't look like the stereotype of a Queenslander, like Bob Katter does; Abbott looks more like a copper than he does. For all his aggregation of power over federal intelligence and law enforcement capabilities, Dutton has played no role in shaping public debates in the area. He hasn't brought in much experience from his own experience as a police officer (oddly cut short just before he became eligible for considerable benefits). Maybe the guy just doesn't believe in public debate. Maybe he just isn't a leader to anyone outside the Liberal right. He's probably not the right person to dissuade people from their growing inclination to chuck out the incumbent government.

With his bald pate and deadpan features, Dutton looks like a public servant who says no, like a banker foreclosing on busted small businesses. Howard had that look too, but he could do sunny optimism better than Dutton. Dutton goes hard in Question Time, but Labor seem to have his measure after his lacklustre opposition to Nicola Roxon and Catherine King's painstaking work in Health when he was minister (besides, who gives a fuck about Question Time?). He is such a cold fish that this experienced (non-gallery) journalist was moved to tears at a simple display of humanity before some children. He is not a steady hand in an uncertain future. Anyone who thinks leaks and backbench rebellions would cease under a Dutton leadership is kidding themselves.

Shorten will look like a model of calm forward thinking in contrast to the darkly foreboding Dutton. If you were a Liberal MP in a marginal seat, or a Liberal candidate in a Labor one, Peter Dutton is lead in your saddlebags. You'd risk chucking Turnbull for someone with more of the common touch, but you'd no more choose Dutton than Kevin Andrews or Peta Credlin. His biggest fans are the people who also insist we can have lve new coal-fired power stations and no same-sex marriage. He offers empty threats and petty bullying, maybe not even that. Dutton embodies the Liberal predicament - frustration without resolution - but it is wishful thinking to insist he's got what it takes to fix it.

15 November 2017

So close, and yet so far

There was a time when to be the best male Australian tennis player was to be the best at that sport, to be able to beat any man in the world anywhere in the world. Rod Laver, Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, and John Newcombe, along with supporting players like Ken Emmerson or Tony Roche, dominated the sport as it transitioned from an amateur era to a professional one. This dominance lasted over a decade, which hadn't happened in Australian sport before or since: in swimming or cricket there were seasons of Australian dominance in fits and starts, even with uniquely talented individuals like Bradman or Dawn Fraser. Even in women's tennis, Margaret Smith Court was a freak sui generis; Evonne Goolagong Cawley did not breeze past her contemporaries as Smith did. Both those women left tennis to raise families, while Newcombe and Roche in particular tried to keep alight the mystic flame of Australian men's tennis.

John Alexander was fated to be the leading Australian male tennis player behind Newcombe. Later in their careers, Newcombe and Rosewall held off the brash and aggressive American Jimmy Connors, but Alexander in his prime could not. The 1970s saw the Europeans adopt Australian coaching techniques: Ilie Nastase from Romania, Bjorn Borg from Sweden, Guillermo Vilas from Argentina, Connors, and others all showed that there was nothing in our water, nor in Vegemite or Milo, nor in any other way essentially Australian about the skill and focus necessary to win big-time singles tennis tournaments. Alexander was a very good singles tennis player, but not a great one. He wasn't lucky, like Gosford's Mark Edmonson winning the 1976 Australian Open. He didn't have a heart-rending back-story and an oafish foil, like Jelena Dokic. The recent parallel would be Andy Roddick, the US male succeeding Sampras and Agassi and Courier, but fated to be creamed regularly by Nadal and Federer and Djokovic. John Alexander showed us the important lesson that sometimes guts and determination just aren't enough.

Alexander won the Australian Open twice as half of separate doubles pairings. He didn't bond with one other player to form a memorable killer team like like MacNamara/McNamee or Woodforde/Woodbridge, and he had a reputation for being short-tempered. Other tennis players had this reputation too - but in the 1950s and '60s the optics were all of Gentlemanly Behaviour and Good Sportsmanship. Winners are grinners, and the image of Laver or Newcombe grinning so often holding up trophies smoothed any jagged edges in their reputations. In their later years, Connors and Nastase freely admitted to having been pricks, assessments not contradicted by observers at the time. Not so Alexander: when Connors or Nastase threw their racquets around, intimidated ball boys, talked back to umpires, or snarled at interviewers, this Bad Sportsmanship somehow underlined their foreignness. When Alexander did the same, it confirmed him as a sore loser and UnAustralian and Surely There's Another Talented Young Australian We Can All Get Behind?

I was a kid in the 1970s. My Dad's family were all big on tennis, playing and watching. They made it clear to me, my brother, and my cousins, that we were not to carry on like John Alexander. Better to do your best and lose gracefully than to end up like that guy.

I've said before in this blog that I used to live in Bennelong, and that I observed a number of times how awkward he is with actual humans whom he has represented in parliament. He seems to be attentive only to people he knows well, or who are important, or both; seven years representing the community has not defrosted him. One thing the left always underestimated about Howard was his preparedness to engage with locals, to talk sincerely about vandalism in West Ryde or schools in Gladesville at the same time as he was dealing with Iraq or the economy. Alexander still can't fake genuine interest in the small stuff. Alexander is a tall man (I'm 183cm and he's a head taller than me), and often such people have to work hard not to appear aloof - but he always looks pained when approached by randoms, always on the lookout for someone else to talk to or somewhere else to be. He has mastered the ability to turn up to an event just before pictures are taken and leave immediately afterwards, with local papers happy to create the impression of warm engagement on his behalf.

Once he beat Maxine McKew in 2010 the massed dim lights of Australian political journalism went off him, and he seems to like it that way. He increased his margin out of that limelight, confirming his political instincts. In the past two elections he has faced an authentic product of Labor's left-leaning local branches, Lyndal Hewison, a local teacher and a nice person; at the last election she lost the primaries to Alexander 28-51. Yes, that's right: this remote man has increased the Liberal vote in Bennelong to the point where it doesn't go to preferences, back to where it was early in Howard's prime ministership despite the massive demographic changes in the area since. The swing against the Coalition that saw so many Liberals lose their seats last July saw Alexander hold steady.

I kept looking around Bennelong for an example of Alexander's legacy, and I think I found it. Behind Eastwood Library, there's a kids' playground and a public toilet and an oval that shows up in old maps as a lake. In that area is a green, wooden table-tennis table: Alexander had it placed there, a nod to Eastwood's Chinese community, who all seem far too busy to use it. It's also a nod to Alexander's tennis career but he's too busy to use it too. Like the local real estate market, it isn't a level playing field. Only the die-hards come forth with bats and a ball and a cloth to wipe the birdshit; they don't stay for long.

It's almost fitting that Labor have passed over Hewison for the byelection, or promising local mayor Jerome Laxale, in favour of Kristina Keneally. She's warm and engaging where Alexander is aloof and awkward. Like Alexander, she lives in another part of town, and in the 1970s and '80s spent quite a bit of time in the United States. Also like Alexander, she knows what it is to step up just as a winning streak is ending, and to cop the blame for that.

Her media experience counts for nothing. The total audience for Sky News is so small, and perishingly so in Bennelong, that she may as well have spent the past six years getting drunk. Her former co-host Ross Cameron is politically just as dead today as he was in 2004. The idea that she'll be a media darling like former press gallery journalist Maxine McKew - and that this will count for something - is bullshit.

Toward the end of his career, John Watkins was Deputy Premier and State MP for Ryde (the state electorate that takes up much of Bennelong). When Watkins retired in 2008 Ryde swung heavily to the Liberals. That byelection may have been the last time Keneally set foot in the electorate until the last day or so. That byelection was a precursor for the 2011 state election, and so too Federal Labor is hoping for a dramatic result that works against the incumbent government. Like it or not, Keneally is associated with a flailing and failed government, one that casts a shadow over a government that is yet to come.

What are the possibilities for this byelection, and what are the consequences more broadly?
  • Alexander wins handsomely, like he has at the past two general elections. This (along with the likely re-election of Barnaby Joyce in New England) would confirm Turnbull and the government and they will blunder on. Surely the performance of the government will give rise to a protest vote.
  • Keneally wins Bennelong. This is unlikely but it would panic the Liberals into wounding Turnbull and generally running around with their hair on fire while trying to convince Sharkie and McGowan that they really are a stable and responsible government.
  • Keneally gets a swing toward Labor but doesn't win. This will be the kind of result that anyone can read anything into, producing the kind of inconclusive and fatuous jabber that is "political debate" and "insider commentary" in the Australian media. This is the most likely result.
Keneally will wander the streets saying "你 好" to people and getting "G'day" in return. Alexander will be out and about wincing at people for the cameras and it will make no difference at all. Turnbull will condescend to petty locals in their petty lives and people will vote for him with gritted teeth. Shorten will turn up and create surprise at being a regular guy, who may be up for consideration next time. Labor's NSW head office will be confirmed in its view that the best way to win in Bennelong is to override the local branches.

It will be quite the blessing that the press gallery will mostly be on holidays, and that The Daily Telly won't lose one of its few presenters who doesn't just nod along with Paul Murray or Chris Kenny. The sheer witlessness of Australian political journalism will not be affected in any way by this byelection. The Australian media has in its archives all of that stuff about Alexander's sporting and political career, and Keneally's: and yet the sheer wasteland of drivel on this topic (no I won't link to it) stretches out before us once again, with no useful information and no respite.