19 January 2015

Health and education

The consensus in political science and journalism for a generation has been that the major parties are converging in terms of policy and personnel-types. There's a lot to commend that theory, what with the political class and Large and Powerful Interests and so on.

The last hold-out, it seemed, was in workplace relations. Unions would not let go of the ALP, and Labor attempts to snap off the wrist of the unions look half-hearted. Yet, even that fundamental political difference has succumbed to policy inertia. Despite a ferocious pseudo-campaign over labour productivity and union corruption, the Abbott government has not proposed a single amendment to the Fair Work Act, let alone take their chances in the Senate.

This isn't to say that they won't; Eric Abetz could well throw something out there from sheer boredom as much as anything else, particularly if this government gets to a point where it knows it can't win.

It seems that the major parties do have a real cleavage on points of principle, ones that affect people day to day and which have real budgetary impacts. These differences go to big questions like what and whom is government for.

Health and education seem to be the big political cleavages that matter in Australia. Labor believes in public health; it will make changes around the edges of that, but basically can be trusted to maintain Medicare more than it can necessarily be trusted on other issues. The Coalition start from the a priori assumption that Medicare is too big and must be wound back, making healthcare confusing and expensive in some neo-Marxian attempt to make conditions so intolerable that people will overthrow the system.

It is generally agreed that the government backed down/backflipped on a decision to impose a $20 levy on GP visits, the first time the press gallery as a whole has openly accused the government in this way.

Until recently the press gallery was confused whenever Abbott backed down/backflipped. Either they would simply report the new development without any context, or it would treat the idea that a politician may say one thing but do another as though it was bewildering, some aberration that would soon pass. It isn't possible to do that with the issue of healthcare. Nobody believes the issue can be fully understood as a revenue-saving measure, or as just another he-said-he-said political football.

Even Sydney's Murdoch tabloid The Daily Telegraph has noticed price signals in medicine matter. Yet, in this piece, Richard Chirgwin shows price signals are almost beside the point: why can't specialists issue scrips? There are plenty of other savings going begging in pursuit of cut, cut, cut.

For the Opposition, this isn't just an excuse to stick it to Abbott. The last Labor government had a strong record in the area, make it difficult to support the 'chaos' narrative. They seem to be embracing public health as core business, as a way of rebuilding themselves rather than just pulling the other guys down. It's one reason Labor health spokesperson Catherine King made it atop this list, and why Labor candidates in winnable Coalition seats will want her to visit as often as possible.

Peter Dutton was technically the Coalition's health spokesperson in opposition, but he was canny enough never to challenge Nicola Roxon or Tanya Plibersek on their grasp of policy. He did no policy work and could claim no mandate for anything he did. Sussan Ley's promise to 'consult' has been universally interpreted by the press gallery as a weakness on her part, but her career suggests she is not some patsy who will do whatever the PM's office says (unlike, say, George Christensen). The consultation process may well see Ley develop and own a solution rather than play for time and await instructions from Credlin. This would demonstrate a normal functioning of government, and the press gallery will almost certainly misreport it.

That said, this is excellent. It explains complex policy and politics clearly. Taylor's admission that the Abbott government's policy incompetence was foreseeable is a breath of fresh air against those who insist Abbott still deserves the benefit of the doubt, like this or that. Read Taylor's article once, to get across the policy issues.

In a social media world where people are hyper-alert for bias, read it again to get a feel for what good just-the-facts reporting looks like. Taylor is not trying to fence-sit, measuring out faint praise and muffled criticism to 'both sides'; she is playing the cards where they lay.

Read it a third time to wonder what the value of press gallery reporting is. Good, solid research - links to ACOSS and the Grattan Institute and a paper from the parliamentary library, even the generosity to link to a Murdoch piece. You don't need a press gallery pass to do any of that. No cosy quote from a politician, no pointed press-conference exchange, no press release as primary source. That article owes little, if anything, to inside-Canberra tattle of the sort necessary(?) for something like this.

When Lenore Taylor has written lesser articles than that this blog has gone her hard. She deserves the benefit of the doubt as one of Australia's better political commentators, and will be getting it without exempting her from any criticism at all.

The idea that Labor is good at health policy kept Jay Weatherall in office in South Australia, it helped Labor win government in Victoria rather than a nice-try-but-not-this-time, and in Queensland and NSW the perception of competence has brought the party back from the dead. It's one thing for Labor to corral nurses and ambos into grass-roots campaigning; when they start running more of them as candidates in winnable seats, it will be clear they recognise the centrality of health to their identity and future. Mind you, it will also likely mean that the party operates on the basis of shared assumptions and groupthink that non-healthcare people don't have.

As manufacturing declines, watch the nursing and allied health professionals step up. Watch the scourging of Jacksonville and see whatever rises in its place - that's where Labor's future could be.

Labor have overcome their historic reluctance to embrace education as a vehicle for class mobility. Neville Wran was right about working to get out of the working class. It is the one issue that they can reliably use to connect with the people who were once their base.

Labor can't commit to Gonski-style funding and to opposing Pyne's amendments to university funding because this would bring on questions about revenue for which Labor isn't ready, questions that have killed all but a few would-be Labor governments. It should, though, but this is easy to say from the sidelines:
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten should adopt a less negative stance and try to cut a deal with the Abbott government on higher education policy, according to former Labor MP Maxine McKew.
She would say that. In his attempt to simply quote what people say and never mind the context, Matthew Knott has overlooked the fact that Pyne's proposals stand to benefit bigger, more established universities like ... McKew's employer, the University of Melbourne. Long-term Labor MPs who've been in and out of government must be killing themselves laughing at being lectured on More Labor Than Thou by a oncer.

McKew might have a lot to say about what universities are and should be for, but perhaps Knott is not the person to explore that sort of big-picture stuff.
Education Minister Christopher Pyne backed Ms McKew's comments and said Labor had become a "laughing stock" on higher education policy.

"I have invited the Labor Party to enter into negotiations with the government regarding higher education; however, they have steadfastly refused, despite many of their members privately supporting our reforms," Mr Pyne said.
He, too, would say that.

Fancy giving Pyne the last word in your article. Knott really thinks he's being 'balanced' by quoting one person who proposes supporting Pyne's proposals, and then quotes another who also supports that outcome. The case for those proposals is no further advanced by this article. It was not worth writing or publishing, let alone reading. There are people struggling on local papers who are infinitely better journalists than Knott, and they should be rotated through the press gallery until the folly of Fairfax's self-negating hiring policies become clear.

If you don't know anything but transcribing, you can't be an effective reporter. To say that the people who run traditional media companies disagree with that wholeheartedly is beside the point - I'm solvent and they aren't. I'm the audience they need but can never understand. Knott is an overpaid transcription service, and Fairfax readers are poorer for having to go around this sort of stuff in order to find out what is going on in public debate.

Media courses have attracted the best and brightest of a generation. As one of the last traditional media outlets, Fairfax could have the pick of that generation, curious active and well-informed, people who could yet save the company from going to the dogs. Who have they chosen? Obtuse clerks like Knott, Latika Bourke, and Earring Girl, who shows how bleak her employer's future is by simply quoting social media on delay. You can't set yourself above social media while trailing after it. If you think I'm being unfair, compare the pithy wit of this to Cox's entire clippings file. If people will tweet for free, how long can Fairfax keep paying these dupes?

Look, w(h)ither Labor? questions are properly matters for ALP members, and having lapsed back into media criticism I might just leave it there. You need to get across health and education policy if you're going to understand 21st century politics in this country. Merely critiquing politicians' messaging, like most of the press gallery do most of the time, is not healthy or educative. It is a non-job with no future.

08 January 2015

Everything wrong with political journalism

... is in this article on the coming Queensland election.
Election campaigns are great fun for political reporters. Long days, frenetic pace, constant pressure, travel, close companionship with politicians and journalistic colleagues.
Yeah, but not particularly enlightening as to how we are and might be governed. Set-piece events taken at face value, no real checking of words against deeds, same approach ('line') to reporting by every outlet because of groupthink. The whole idea of this is to limit access to information other than what the party wants you to present - it's a wonder why editors think this is in any way valuable.
Mystery bus rides and plane trips to destinations revealed at the last moment for reasons of state security.
It isn't 'state security', just PR bullshit by a political party. If you're such an experienced journalist you should be able to see through that.
But it seems like only yesterday I was on the campaign trail for the last Queensland election. In fact, it was two years and 10 months ago, but given the enormous palaver that election campaigns are, two years and 10 months is barely enough time to catch a breath.
There's more to state politics than elections: education, health, transport, policing, disability and ageing, state governments have a huge gamut of responsibility that should keep reporters busier than they are. Sport reporters have less than six months between seasons. Teachers have six weeks between the end of one school year and the beginning of the next.

Two years and ten months is plenty of time. My wife and I had two children in less an interval than that. Get over yourself.
It seems far too soon to be doing it all again. And I'm just a reporter. Imagine what it's like for people who actually matter in our state, the politicians who are supposed to be running the state and the business and social leaders whose work depends on a reliable and steady public framework?
Nobody - not in government, nor business, nor any other field - just gets on with it unchecked. Three years is plenty of time in between elections to get on with it and anticipate changes of direction. The supposedly soporific Menzies era had three-year elections.
The work they do on our behalf is interrupted every three years for a frantic rush around the electorate.

That's democratic and fine, but not conducive to smooth productivity.
I'm so glad you approve of democracy, especially as you enjoy election campaigns.

Did you even think about what ‘productivity’ might mean? Elections are not interruptions, they are the point. Are we on the right track? How might we do things better? These are questions that should be asked by productive people - and political reporters too - from time to time.

Why are they ‘frantic’, given that they are planned well in advance? If running a four-week campaign is ‘frantic’, surely these people are going to burn out after three whole years - what do you mean, you hadn’t thought about it?
… the interruption begins after about two years when the speculation starts about the timing of the next election.
Whenever a journalist lapses into the passive voice, they are up to no good. They are covering for someone or something.

“The speculation starts” among journalists who are bored by the grind of government service provision, and who want polls to focus on them rather than boring old voters with their boring hospitals and boring prisons and boring roads and boring. When they can’t speculate about elections, they conjure up #leadershit or ministry reshuffles.
Longer terms are needed.
Why? By whom? You do realise that means more time covering policy, right?
Other states have four years.
Like NSW, where we spent three years with a dead government twisting in the wind? Over the past two four-year terms NSW had five Premiers, Victoria four. A political system built around feeding the media beast cannot handle the pace.

I thought Queensland was special and different. Every time I go there, locals make a point of wondering aloud why anyone would want to live anywhere other than Queensland.
As a minimum it should be that Queensland elections can't be held before three years.
Why? What would you prefer, ten? Why? You haven’t thought about this at all.
Premier Campbell Newman is in favour of fixed or longer terms. So are and so have been political leaders on all sides. But all say it can't be done because bipartisan agreement isn't there.

Something is missing in that logic.
Ya reckon? Why not get a journalist to ask some questions?
Mr Newman is facing the quite remarkable prospect of an electoral backlash in this election - remarkable in light of his extraordinary success in 2012 when he led the LNP to 78 seats in the 89 seat parliament.

That was an enormous change in Queensland politics after years of Labor rule. But a lot more has changed in the two years and 10 months since then.

Suddenly a Government which overwhelmed the Parliament has found itself level pegging in some opinions polls with the nine-seat ALP opposition. And Campbell Newman himself is under some pressure to hold his inner Brisbane seat of Ashgrove.
Hmmm. What that tells me is all that boring non-election governing stuff is what changes people’s minds about elections. Only journalists think the elections should change people’s minds about the actual stuff of government.

Journos love being the focus of election campaigns - all those set-piece events put on for their benefit, arranged around their schedule - with the obligatory piece at the end wondering why people are so jaded and disengaged with election campaigns.
The reasons for the LNP's fall in the polls so soon after its 2012 triumph have been well documented: a concerted union backlash to public service cuts, some contentious law and order policies, environmental concerns, and so on.
Blithely skipping over the point of the campaign, the whole context, way down the article after all the hoo-ha about the empty thrills of campaigning and a vacuous push to alter an election system when you don’t even see the point of it?
All that must be tempered in fairness by an acknowledgement of the Newman Government's achievements in health and its determined efforts to streamline conditions for doing business in Queensland.
What are they, exactly? What sort of business? What has Labor done to draw level with a government of such achievements in so short a time?

Why does it fall to me, a blogger from NSW, to ask these questions? Don’t you have journalists in Queensland? I remember how the Fitzgerald Inquiry bagged the Queensland parliamentary press gallery - they haven’t got worse since then, surely.
But the point is change. The enormous shift in the political landscape in 2012 seems itself to be shifting again.
If you’d kept up with the issues since the election, it would seem as though the Newman government had a kind of - call it a ‘media strategy’, if you will - where they seemed to be doing something every day, so that journalists would have something to write about. If the ground has shifted on them, are they not victims of their own success?

Maybe the LNP cobbled something together that was never going to last. Maybe Newman was full of it from the beginning. Maybe journalists should have examined that possibility more closely than they did.
The pace and extent of change in politics, all around Australia and certainly in Queensland, is growing year by year.

Gone, seemingly, are the days of one party or the other settling down for several terms of steady government. So in that context, it's especially important that the Queensland body politic is not disrupted every two years.
Every Queensland government has undergone an election every 2-3 years. Every. One.

Even the ones that held office continuously for decades, they still held those pesky elections where they put it all on the line. They didn’t have very good coverage by the media, but then they never do.
If there is bipartisan support for fixed/longer terms, let it be so.
No, start asking questions. Who wants longer terms, Chris, and why? There’d be a story in that, if only you were a journalist.

Queensland is the state where ‘bipartisan support’ counts for less than in any other state. Kevin Rudd took Brisbane-style hokey, anti-establishment schtick all the way to the Lodge, twice, and you can't understand what Palmer and Katter are doing in Canberra until you look at the jurisdiction where they cut their political teeth.

You haven’t done a very good job of making the case for longer terms, Chris. If they are really in favour then they should be making the case, while you weigh the evidence and seek inputs from beyond the George St bubble - if you can imagine such a thing.

Maybe there is no case to be made. Maybe they’re not confident of their ability to win over people. Maybe it’s only in Queensland you can damn-with-faint-praise in declaring something “democratic and fine” but somehow also beside the point.
Chris O'Brien is the ABC’s state political reporter in Queensland.
I’m so sorry to see that.

At a time when we should be rallying behind freedom of the press (je suis Charlie, aussi), we should also expect more and better from them. In politics, journalists hold politicians to account - they are not there as the politicians’ unquestioning support crew, and nor is political journalism somehow valuable in itself.

Read The Boys on the Bus when you have time. You’ll enjoy it, like you enjoy election campaign coverage today, but hopefully you’ll also wonder why so little has changed since it was written in 1973. They have four-year Presidential terms in the US, but so what?

21 December 2014

A slight change of emphasis

The reshuffle is interesting for how this government sees itself.

First, it's limited in scope, which reinforces Abbott's idea that there isn't much wrong with the government that a bit of spin can't fix. It also reinforces the idea that shifting some of the government's alternative leaders - Bishop, Turnbull,  and yes even Hockey - would be career-limiting for Abbott.

The only governments that have far-reaching changes to their ministerial line-ups are those in real trouble, like the two reshuffles Labor had in 2013. This government may well have a reshuffle or two on that scale, but not yet.

Abbott has not promoted any big thinkers because he does not want any profound transformations in the way policy is conducted. He does not want to have to defend any controversial ideas on matters about which he knows little and cares less.

Andrews in Defence We're sending our forces into Iraq at a time when warfare, like all other facets of human activity, requires fundamental reexamination of a number of basic assumptions. Australia's strategic environment is shifting fast. Kevin Andrews is not the man to handle that.

If you accept those limitations, then what is needed in that role is a program manager par excellence - someone who will ensure Australian warfighters go into mortal danger relying on kit from the cheapest bidder. He's not that, either.

Andrews holds the fate of a large chunk of the South Australian economy in his hands. He'll give them more than the bugger-all currently on the table now, but not much more. He won't be able to wrest any political credit for that away from the state's Labor Premier, Jay Weatherill, and will be deaf to the screams of SA Liberals on why that matters to them.

Defence is the death-seat of federal politics. Apart from genuine policy nerds like David Johnston and Kim Beazley, every minister for the past 40 years was appointed to that role in full knowledge that their career was over (apart from Joel Fitzgibbon, which demonstrated Rudd didn't get the role Defence plays in foreign policy). Andrews is being managed out of politics.

The mad scheme for Credlin to take his seat remains in place. Only Canberra insiders blithely assume the Victorian Libs will meekly comply with an order issued from Abbott's office. It also means that the constituency of paternalistic religious conservatives will have to be represented by someone else, which will mean someone like Bruce Billson, Tony Smith and/or Michael Ronaldson will come under threat, blood will beget blood, etc.

Morrison to Social Services This assumes Morrison has attained a reputation as a competent administrator, with some sort of magical touch to get things through the Senate. This portfolio covers 20% of the Budget and the fun ain't done in that portfolio. The people most impressed by his tough-guy antics against refugees are older people with few skills, who fret most about refugees taking their jobs, and who are also most affected by changes to pensions or unemployment.

It also assumes Senator Marise Payne, who has basically been responsible for executing policy in this area (and helping outmaneuver Andrews brainfarts like denying young unemployed people support for six months) hasn't done enough to warrant a promotion. Keep this in mind when you cheer Abbott's doubling of female representation in Cabinet (more below).

Dutton to Immigration This assumes the case for our current immigration policy has been made. It hasn't.

Conservatives confuse doltish obstinacy with firm consistency of purpose, which is why they rate Dutton more highly than his talents and record suggest. He was a political passenger, offering nothing against Nicola Roxon or Tanya Plibersek as ministers for health. As minister and now shadow, Catherine King ran rings around him. If Richard Marles takes the kid gloves off in dealing with the new boy, it could be the making of him.

Support for the current immigration regime seems strong but individual incidents puncture it. Polling does not capture this. Morrison starved journalists of detail and derided them for writing rubbish, but they love being put in that bind because they love Strong Narrative over anything else. Morrison, like Howard, had the ability to look plaintive while being inflexible - a tactic that fools journalists - but Dutton can't do that.

Dutton has only two political talents. He picked the Liberal leadership changes since Howard with great accuracy and extracted great deals for himself. He comes from a state that is crucial politically but which doesn't send talented people to Canberra.

Dutton will overreach the wide-ranging powers Morrison won for him. At exactly the wrong moment, Dutton will make a dumb and callous statement that leads to a policy rethink greater than he can handle.

He can plug, plug, plug a message regardless of facts or changing circumstances, a quality prized highly among those who regard politics as a sub-type of public relations. It won't be enough.

Ley in Health Of all the Coalition MPs not initially appointed to Abbott's cabinet, Ley had the strongest case for inclusion. Her appointment is less a what-if than a why-not. She is across the detail and can plug a line as well as anyone while also having a mind of her own. In short, she makes a stronger case for inclusion than almost anyone there now. If anyone is going to come up with a workable arrangement on state funding or NDIS she will do it. She will also counter some of King's work on regional health initiatives.

Ley's appointment is a tacit admission that Dutton failed in Health, and that his failure is politically costly. Peta Credlin had assured female Coalition MPs that there would be more opportunities for them but now we see what that means as far as Abbott is concerned: women tidy up after men.

Frydenberg as Assistant Treasurer This is reward for service to Abbott.

The Assistant Treasurer is basically Minister for Tax. The Budget has a revenue problem and this government will shy away from far-reaching tax reform. Therefore, the battle will be joined at the level of detail: the government will want to close lurks and loopholes while the lobbyists who pushed for them will want them kept open. The Assistant Treasurer will need an eagle eye for detail and a firm commitment to what's right for the country: the 2006 version of Arthur Sinodinos would have been perfect.

Unfortunately, we've got Josh, who has glided through life with a superficial charm designed to disguise his boredom with detail. He's an errand boy. Nobody wants this guy in the trenches when it gets tough, and this is one tough job. He doesn't complement Hockey's weaknesses, he compounds them.

He was in charge of not one but two of Abbott's so-called bonfires of red tape. Rather than do the hard work of identifying and costing (politically as well as economically) counterproductive regulations, Frydenberg slapped together a whole lot of straw men that impressed nobody but press gallery journalists. It was lazy stuff and this blog has had it in for him before he was first elected.

Others who might have done this job better - Little Jimmy Briggs, Kelly O'Dwyer, Christian Porter or even Steve Ciobo - are right to feel passed over for a lesser person. Briggs and Ciobo should be wangling invitations to Mal and Julie's supper club.

The Parly Secs
- Christian Porter (replacing the ousted Johnston from WA) rose fast and far with little competition in his native state, and it will be interesting to see what errands Abbott sends him on.
- Kelly O'Dwyer's investigation into foreign investment in Australian real estate looked like an audition for a higher role (along with hundreds of media appearances where she unblushingly recited the daily inanities), and so it has proven. She risks treading a narrow path with her Treasury background but nobody is obliged to pass up a promotion.
- Karen Andrews is a former Hockey staffer who has taken to the busywork of committees and generally kept her head down while other newbie MPs aare still coming to terms with how the joint works.

Abbott is sending the signal to ambitious MPs that Howard did: knuckle down and do the busywork and I'll call on you in my own good time. Howard regularly broke that rule, with Abbott and Mark Vaile and Petro Georgiou to name a few, but hey.

Abbott deserves all the meagre rewards that come from having taken meagre risks. You, my dear readers, deserve all the best that the festive season and 2015 can offer, so we'll see what happens then.

14 December 2014

The end of Peta Credlin

Peta Credlin was one of the few Coalition staffers willing or able to stick around after the downfall of the Howard government. She hadn't landed a top-flight lobbying job or a seat in Parliament or simply buggered off to that old shack in the hills/sand dunes. Nor had she embarrassed herself like some did who couldn't really believe that, after 11 years, it really was all over.

From Brendan Nelson's office she would have seen how Labor's ministers configured the government differently; how they made decisions that Howard's ministers never dared/couldn't be bothered, and the pratfalls of their rookie errors. She would have liaised with Prime Minister Rudd's office on those matters requiring bipartisan consultation, and seen the same dithering and tantrums that his ministers apparently saw. She would have seen what happens when nobody in government can scratch themselves without PMO approval.

Yet, she went ahead anyway and made this government in that image.

By the time it became clear Nelson could not stop Turnbull, Credlin had become a symbol of Liberal continuity. They feared Turnbull was such an outsized personality that he would remake the Coalition in his own image, and imposed on him a Praetorian Guard ever ready to remind him that he was mortal. Credlin, Chris Kenny and a handful of others gave nervous Liberals a sense of continuity that otherwise eluded them, with an insanely popular Labor government and its renewable broadbands and what have you.

She was privy to the great debates of our age, and worked out ways to shirk them.

Then Turnbull began to stumble, and fair-weather sailors like Kenny departed, it would have been fair for Liberals to wonder about their leader's office. They lacked the capacity to judge it, having only Howard's remote office as benchmark. By the time Turnbull's gutless front bench quit one by one, at the behest of Minchin, Credlin began to scramble despite assurances that she'd be looked after. She was still polishing her CV when the Hockey-Turnbull-Abbott fiasco of December 2009 ended with the latter on top.

By this time Credlin was well practiced at lemonade-making.

Abbott had been a spokesperson all his life. Now he was her spokesperson, and she was in a position to impose terms. Say what I tell you, do what I tell you, wear what I tell you: now lycra, now sluggos, now a blue tie. Say "this government is a bad government". The press gallery share that sentiment, and all the old lions who might challenge you for the sake of being arsey are long gone (or in Oakes' case, de-fanged). The press gallery can't tell the difference between activity and progress, and neither can conservatives; they are united in their hatred of Rudd and Gillard.

Sometimes it just all comes together.

Credlin came up with the Coalition's two-track policy strategy: meeting donors in private to work out what they want and how they want it, while at the same time giving the media no indication of what their thought processes were. The press gallery loved it: praising Abbott as 'so disciplined' was their bright-side thinking about being kept in the dark and fed bullshit. Even now, clowns like Peter Hartcher try to keep the magic going. Some still can't work out what went wrong, and never will.

If Laurie Oakes can recall Ainslie Gotto and her parallels with Peta Credlin, he should have been smart enough to examine what an Abbott government might look like in comparison with other highly centralised PMOs, like Gorton's or Rudd's. If you're going to have experience as a political journalist, that's what you use it for: analysis, before the event rather than after. Leave the raconteurism to Mike "Abbott will grow into the job" Carlton.

After Abbott was elected his team went into a defensive crouch for weeks: what the hell do we do now? In his choice of ministry, Abbott slapped down those who had always supported him (more conservative elements of the Liberal Party) while rewarding those who had never supported him (centrists who actually won the votes from Labor). I pointed this out at the time and am still amazed that the entire press gallery couldn't see it coming. This is a vulnerable position to put any politician, particularly at their moment of triumph: Credlin couldn't see what the problem was.

Here's the thing about Credlin: she's not some political super-genius, she's the hired help. Candidates for public office cop a lot of stick but they put their very faces and names and reputations out there in the community; people like Credlin are known only to wonks like you and me, dear reader. It's easy to craft a message and get others to sell it when the message is well received (or given the benefit of the doubt, as the Coalition's was way back in 2013). It's harder when the message is less well received.

Consider Joe Hockey, who had to sell WorkChoices in 2007 and now the 2014 budget: some policies just can't be sold, and no amount of brickbats or bouquets from Credlin will change that.

Credlin was happy to use her fertility issues to try and deflect bad news from Abbott, and all that's done is two things. First, it reinforces the idea that only women who already have a deep pre-existing relationship with Tony Abbott get anything from this government. Second, there is no lasting policy legacy surrounding fertility treatments: would you pay five or seven bucks to subsidise someone's fertility treatment? All that power, and no legacy. The government angrily denies that paid parental leave is Abbott's gift to Credlin. It's another of those policies where those who stand to benefit keep quiet and watch helplessly as the government botches the execution - and now the process of reforming it. Abbott wants to ask for help but has no goodwill to draw upon, and fears losing control of the narrative. Credlin has never done public advocacy in her life.

In this article is the strengths and weaknesses of the press gallery: Samantha Maiden has the access to get the story, but she's either so compromised or so thick that she can't see it for what it is.

The Whip is an office that has existed in parliamentary practice for centuries. The job involves getting out the vote in the short term, but over the longer term maintaining a relationship with the backbench for the leader to use as a sounding board.

Howard, with direct experience of not only being elected but also dumped by the Coalition backbench, used his Whips assiduously. He visited marginal electorates and insisted on impromptu meet-and-greets; if people met him with warmth he knew he was travelling OK, tight politeness or hostility meant trouble. Abbott and Credlin just don't do impromptu, and are poorer for it; they rely more heavily on wankers like Textor than Howard ever did, and Textor treats people who rely on him too heavily with contempt (e.g. the press gallery).

This is why Maiden is stupid not to recognise the importance of Entsch speaking out. Cut out all that cassowary-wrasslin' shit at the top of her piece, and that photo makes him look like one of Eleanor Robertson's Old Farts. Entsch was Whip in Opposition; Ruddock is Whip now. The fact that a Whip is speaking out means the backbench are deeply, structurally unhappy. Fear of being unemployed in 2016 can't be allayed with a cup of tea and a smile, or even another clenched-teeth threat. Nobody wants to be part of a government that rings down through the ages as a political punchline. These people are going to be asked by grandchildren yet unborn, "why didn't you just tell Peta Credlin to fuck off?".

A government can survive without this or that person as PM's Chief of Staff, but no government can survive without a backbench. It's a pity that Maiden missed that, or couldn't face it. Bill Shorten's relationship with his backbench is why he's leader and not Albanese. Rudd had a great relationship with his backbench, until he didn't. Howard knew what that's like. Abbott has done what he's been told all his life, and expects others to do the same - as does Credlin. That's why they're at sea with autonomous individuals in the Senate (and elsewhere, like the White House). They expect to crack the whip, not the other way around.
Some suggest that Kevin Andrews for example would make a delightful ambassador to the Holy See.
Are you crazy? The defeat of the Napthine government has discredited moderate, Hamerite liberalism in Victoria, and Kevin Andrews' homeboys have been vindicated. The man is practically skiting about how he's going to micromanage the lives of the fallen until they reach the sunlit uplands of God's mercy.

Look at how Andrews dispatched Conrad Xanthos. Look at how Andrews kyboshed the Northern Territory's euthanasia law as a backbencher. Credlin would have no chance against Andrews, and the political limitations of 104 Exhibition would be brutally exposed if she took him on. Voters in the electorate of Menzies are the most conservative in Victoria. As if they are going to vote for a woman who dresses like a Gold Coast property developer's second ex-wife.
Has anyone else noticed that Malcolm Turnbull is ­awfully quiet lately?
Has anyone noticed that Maiden referenced Ruddock in her story and didn't follow through with him? Reading over that story again I'd suggest Ruddock is more of a key figure than Turnbull at the moment. Have you got Ruddock's number, Samantha? He has yours.

Turnbull is keeping his head down because of the unpopularity of his cuts to public broadcasters, that leave us at the mercy of the sorts of people who think Samantha Maiden understands politics. If Turnbull lashed out at Credlin now it would look like sour grapes. If Samantha Maiden rang him to break his silence, he'd laugh at her. There will come a time when Turnbull goes Credlin, and he will choose phrasing of Aesculapian skill I'm sure - but now's not the time.

People are looking to Julie Bishop as the key figure in what happens next with Credlin and Abbott, but she's a showpony. The one to watch is Chris Pyne. Pyne has served six Liberal leaders and been disloyal to them all. He (and Entsch) will be the difference between whether the backbench gets behind Abbott or deserts him. Pyne is who and what he is and doesn't care what others think of him - if asbestos had a personality it would be his. Samantha Maiden, bless her, has missed that too.

When you're stuck between the hard place of public hostility and the rock that is the Prime Minister's current Chief of Staff (as Coalition MPs are), you're in the wrong place. Where do you turn? East Germans or Zimbabweans might turn on the people, but we still have a vestige of democratic sentiment in this country. Abbott alone, not one member of the Coalition parliamentary representation owes their position to Credlin - and even he'd survive without her. He was best man at Peter Slipper's wedding. Tony Abbott didn't get where he is by being sentimental.

The first Liberal who is confronted with their metadata by Credlin and Abbott from the intelligence services, and accused of 'treason' for leaking to journalists, will be in an interesting position.

Every misjudgment of this government, down to and including their Senate negotiating strategy ("There is only one plan! This is the plan! What do you mean, no?"), is Credlin's. The successes (give me a minute) have been squirreled away by others. Credlin is not suddenly going to develop a whole new policy response. She's going to keep screeching at people until they shut up - or don't.

Everyone's happy to go along with a winning strategy but few will stick by those who are out of options, ideas, and time. If the Peta Credlin of five years ago was working for today's Peta Credlin, she would be polishing her resume and calling up long-neglected contacts. Credlin isn't stupid, she knows it's over. All that remains (in no particular order) is to set the stage, wrong-foot the press gallery, and break it to Tony.

06 December 2014

With a muffled whimper

... For mine own good,
All causes shall give way. I am in blood
Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er.
Strange things I have in head, that will to hand,
Which must be acted ere they may be scanned.

- William Shakespeare Macbeth Act III Scene IV
What we saw at Abbott's press conference on Monday was his last stand.

Polls a symptom not the illness

Never mind the polls. That's like taking someone's pulse to diagnose cancer. There never was any substance, any plan, any grounds to believe Abbott could capably run a capable government. Everyone who thought otherwise - the press gallery, the Coalition and all who vote for them - were wrong. Everyone who thought otherwise and who isn't big enough to admit they were wrong is participating in a pantomime about what a surprise it is that Abbott is no good, that he's somehow come over poorly all of a sudden.

Abbott was rotten from the start. Only bloggers could see this. Journalists who think they have, and should maintain, some sort of lock on political coverage underestimate how crap they are at the job they get paid to do.

The reason why political parties used to release policy position papers before elections was to give some idea of their thinking about their general approach to policy in government. They wanted to get their policies out there without media slant. It wasn't to provide a list of gotcha opportunities, which is what the traditional media think they are.

This is why political parties stopped issuing policy papers. They demonstrate their thinking about policy approaches at speeches to party fundraisers. Journalists are excluded from these events and are too lazy to get that information regardless. This government slid into office with almost no challenge from the press gallery; claiming surprise and befuddlement won't salvage lost credibility and confidence.

Political parties still complain - even with the internet - that they're somehow constrained in getting their message out. The Coalition in Victoria is doing this now, even though the state press gallery and the outlets that employ its members agreed that the Coalition should be returned.

Politicians and journalists both expect people to take them on trust when they won't engage their thinking on issues.

The beginning of the end

Abbott can't back down; his pride and his backers won't let him. He can't go forward; he has, as Lenore Taylor points out, and as I pointed out last week, snookered himself. Think of Tony Abbott as Australia's next ex-Prime Minister.

The whole barnacles thing shows that Abbott underestimated the degree to which the government of this country has to change. A metaphor has to help illustrate the thing to which it refers, or demonstrate familiarity on the part of the speaker. If Abbott had been some sort of master mariner before entering politics nobody would doubt his expertise in dealing with barnacles. When done badly, as this was, it's a lampoon - like Monty Python's Norwegian Blue parrot "resting" and "pining for the fjords".

Nobody has any confidence that Abbott can distinguish between barnacle and ship. From the engine room to all classes of passenger and everyone outside the bridge, it's clear he has done such a crap job at running the vessel.

He can't just slip away. The traditional model of politics holds that problems are brushed under the carpet, and/or managed in the back rooms. Labor tried to dispose of Rudd quietly on that June evening in 2010, scheduling their crisis meetings after the press gallery had finished up in the mid-afternoon, inventing a one-liner excuse and running with that. This was never convincing. It was never going to be. Big-time political operators looked like clowns when they fell for, executed, and defended that approach.

One does not dispose of elected Prime Ministers* without a clear reason for doing so. One should not appoint someone to the Prime Ministership without some appreciation of his strengths and weaknesses, and one's own abilities to burnish the former and play down the latter. The idea that the Liberal Party did not realise he'd be rubbish as Prime Minister, or that it worked with the media to sandbag his shortcomings far longer than was dignified for either of them, is the kind of synchronised shallow thinking that is killing both major media companies and major political parties.

Acting-ere-scanning is not charming and it neither sells newspapers/airtime, nor shifts votes. It's professional failure, not success, and the fact that you can't tell the difference means you're all stuffed.

What you cover when you cover a press conference

The press gallery was negligent in its reporting of Abbott's press conference on Monday.

Keep in mind (which they don't) that press conferences are staged events put on for their benefit. They are not naturalistic, random chats.

Some reported that Abbott had apologised, which was false. He wasn't even apologetic in tone. He basically reiterated what he'd always said, a bit more slowly and a bit less boldly.

He talked about the week being 'ragged', as though feeling sorry for him was the only valid response. Look at the analysis from those who agree with him uncritically, there are your press gallery muppets practically begging for unemployment.

Keep in mind that Tony Abbott did not get where he is by holding regular press conferences. Wondering why a man who rarely puts on press conferences suddenly does one is not cynical, and it's not up to journalists to decide this is too hard for their audiences to understand. It's part of the analysis that seasoned and savvy observers of politics should do as a matter of course.

It shows the less-stupid members of the press gallery that Abbott can hold press conferences when he wants to, and that you should stop being so soft on him (and never, ever, simperingly thank him for gracing his presence as Leigh Sales did on Thursday).

It is nebulous to say that press conference "changed the tone". The tone of this government was nasty and brutish, and Grattan can't bear to admit that it follows the life left in this government is short.

Stabbed in the back

I will tomorrow —
And betimes I will — to the weird sisters.
More shall they speak, for now I am bent to know,
By the worst means, the worst.
The closest I've come to feeling sorry for Tony Abbott, an insouciantly privileged man both callous and selfish, is when the Murdoch press have turned on him.

The fact that the Murdoch press have turned on Abbott is significant. Their advice to Abbott is to do what he's always done, but more so; that's what he's doing, and it isn't working for him. This sort of cod analysis is what stops NewsCorp translating its dominant market share into real clout with its audience. We saw this at work when the nation's largest selling newspaper** The Herald Sun recommended that its readers return the Napthine government.

The first member of the government to decry NewsCorp for abandoning them when the going got tough would suffer a bit, but such a person would be the rock upon which the Coalition might build a post-Abbott future.

It would have been the perfect excuse for Malcolm Turnbull to renege on cuts to the public broadcasters: if you're going to turn on us then we won't do your dirty work on the ABC. Turnbull is more committed to those cuts and to Murdoch than many erstwhile supporters dare admit. Cultured, handwringing Malcolm is not the authentic Turnbull; the mogul's facilitator is.

Watch for Peta Credlin to start polishing her resume: the press gallery won't. Her departure will of course be perfectly amicable, as Arthur Sinodinos' was from John Howard's office in early 2007, and as with his hers will both signify the end and bring it closer. The whispering campaign against Credlin has begun because to hold a position like hers, you have to be absolutely right about everything all the time. I'm a Credlin sceptic too but this government will get worse, not better, once she goes.


But this is not Turnbull's last stand, it's Abbott's.

Nobody liked him. The press gallery didn't just cover him in opposition, they covered for him; unemployment is just desserts for professional gutlessness. Nobody is grateful for his few, poor, and essentially negative achievements: terrorising asylum-seekers and slowing our transition to 21st century power and communications. He had no right to get this far; the press gallery gave him a free pass, declining to ask the hard questions about suitability that they put to Mark Latham a decade ago.

Now the economy is turning down, and nobody but press gallery sucks have any confidence this lot can turn it around. Howard would have freaked out had the Budget not been passed by MYEFO, having seen the Whitlam government sacked for such a failure early in his career. What his fans insist is calm resolve is nothing but cluelessness and carelessness, and all but the most hard-bitten among them see it shining plain.

Abbott went to a long press conference looking apologetic but not being apologetic, and the press gallery was grateful for that old magic. The press gallery are doing their 2014 In Review pieces and goodness me, it does appear that the whole year (rather than just the week) has been rubbish.

It's almost charming that such people should regard the eminently foreseeable failure of the Abbott government as such a surprise.

Why have they only just realised this, having observed Abbott up close for so long? What is wrong with these people? Why are they still getting the pay and privileges attached to their positions? Why has this Walkley-winning journalist produced the kind of formulaic takedown you'd expect from a blogger, and why wasn't she awake to this two years ago? After Abbott has gone (!) these are the questions that remain.

Tony Abbott's government was never going to end with a bang, despite him and those close to him being the most bloody-minded Götterdämmerung types. It is ending with a whimper of self-pity, as it was always going to - muffled by those who should be listening for it, who should be amplifying it, so that we far from Canberra might know how we are governed.

* Fine, I'll cop your lecture on Westminster government and how 'Prime Minister' is nowhere defined in the Constitution, if you'll accept that the political parties that govern this country design their entire offerings each election around the persona of their leader, and that replacing the leader post-election means a different offering to that put to supposedly sovereign voters beforehand.

** Which are the more reliable stats: media circulation/ratings figures, media-commissioned polls, or neither? Vote now.

30 November 2014

Does Victoria matter?

Short answer

Yes! Very much. Some of my best friends, etc. I will be Christmassing there. God bless you all.

Yesterday saw one of the few election results where my prediction was the same as what ended up happening, so I'm quite pleased about that.

No, I meant politically. You know, the big picture. Napthine's loss as a harbinger for Abbott

Oh no, of course not. Well, not necessarily.

Menzies said that the Liberal Party was for all Australians, beholden to none. Under Abbott, this is less true than it has ever been. It is getting every bit as rancid as the UAP during World War II (but more on that later). The fact is that the Liberal Party can't handle government across all jurisdictions. Local councils drain cash from and are embarrassingly petty for state governments (territory governments can be counted as 'local government' for the purposes of the preceding statement). State governments set up alternate power bases for the feds.

John Howard hated Liberal state governments. He did nothing to ensure their re-election and actively helped euthanase a few of them. Abbott has learned the lesson but can't execute it.

Correlation is not causation. Napthine's gone and Abbott is stuffed, but as this blog has pointed out for years Abbott would always have been stuffed if Dennis Napthine - or Geoff Shaw - had never been born.

But surely, for committed Liberals like John Howard and Tony Abbott, you can't have too much Liberal government.

You weren't around in the late 1990s, were you?

In January 1995 Howard returned to the federal Liberal leadership. The Coalition had held together a minority government in NSW for four years until March that year, when Bob Carr cobbled together a majority with independents (see my previous blogpost - you'd think the Coalition would be awake to how to do this. Then again, you'd think Labor would, too).

When Howard became Prime Minister, he immediately came over all beleaguered. Carr worked quietly and constructively to shore up funding. This was a sharp contrast to the way his Liberal predecessor, John Fahey, had been wrong-footed by Keating in the COAG doh-si-doh. This made Carr look like a man who could Get Things Done.

By contrast, the Premier of Victoria was Jeff Kennett, a Liberal only in the broadest of broad-church terms. Kennett was not quiet. The extent to which he was constructive can still get you a smack in the mouth in certain Melbourne pubs. He was a man of firm ideas about how Victoria, and the country, should be governed, which pissed Howard off. Victorians with money preferred Kennett over Howard, and donated money to the state Libs rather than the feds, which pissed Howard off even more.

Howard was never a broad-church man, tolerating dissenting views through gritted teeth at the best of times. Once he got a taste of the view from the pulpit it was all over:
  • In South Australia, Nick Minchin nobbled one of the state's most popular Premiers, the Liberals' Dean Brown, and replaced him with a piece of furniture from a second-hand shop in Norwood. This is why the SA Libs will probably never govern their state until Minchin dies.
  • The Western Australian government proved to be self-nobbling; the current Premier was then its deputy and is applying his self-nobbling skills as we speak.
  • Something similar happened in Queensland: Labor seemed to like the health-and-education state government thing, and the Coalition weren't doing much with it, so they handed it over with a shrug that Beattie confused with convulsions of joy.
  • In Tasmania, Tony Rundle ran a moderate government in Coalition with the Greens. Eric Abetz helped ensure Rundle was starved of the funding to Get Things Done and was replaced by Labor.
  • Abetz also mentored the ACT Liberals, edging out winners like Kate Carnell and Gary Humphries and replacing them with knuckleheads who spray themselves daily with voter repellent.
  • The CLP lost the Northern Territory after a generation, replaced by a former ABC journalist who spoke in complete sentences and had probably never even opened a beer bottle with her eye socket.
I worked for the NSW Liberals in the 1999 election campaign and watched Mark Textor smooth the dying pillow over their even-money effort to knock Carr over. Carr won in a landslide. I left the Liberal Party soon after that but remain a Textor sceptic - which puts me at odds with the entire press gallery and other members of the political class, but hey.

With Labor in power at the state level, Howard learned that he could continue to play silly-buggers with the states over its functions and with tax, all care no responsibility because we're Liberals and they're Labor, politicians gotta politic.

High-minded rhetoric about reforming federation was framed as mealy-mouthed nonsense. This continued while Labor held all governments bigger than Brisbane City Council in 2007-08. It continues to this day, because ideas shared by both sides are the epitome of good government and political sophistication, while ideas opposed by both are freaky and flaky and otherwise undesirable. This will continue until the Labor-Coalition duopoly is broken.

But back to Victoria. When Steve Bracks, when Steve Bracks, beat Kennett in '99, beat Kennett in '99, Howard wasn't exactly distraught, wasn't exactly distraught. Bracks was quiet and constructive, quiet and constructive, and repeated his phrases when talking to commercial radio listeners. By contrast, Liberal Opposition Leader Dennis Napthine looked clumsy and shrill when he went after Bracks, and Howard gave him no assistance to speak of. Baillieu only won in 2010 when there was no risk of impeding the feds.

Abbott is in trouble, isn't he.

Yes, for reasons that have nothing to do with Napthine.

Rather than expect Abbott to use some sort of super-powers to save Napthine, then act all surprised when they prove non-existent, journos would be better off asking whether it is reasonable to expect Abbott to do anything. What is the nature of these superpowers that could save Napthine and the Victorian Coalition from itself? Why would Abbott be able to save Napthine's government but not his own? What made you think he'd be any better than Rudd or Gillard?

What is the political benefit for Abbott to save the Napthine government? What does he lose when Napthine loses?

Abbott needs all the help he can get. A re-elected Napthine government would have drained attention and resources away from his outfit.

The best people in the Napthine government (and they weren't all turkeys) are now either unemployed or staring into the foggy gloom of long-term opposition. Those who worked to get Abbott elected took staffer jobs and are looking to get some sweet lobbying roles in before the current government goes terminal. Abbott has the pick of the Napthine government's best brains, which is a nice arrangement for Abbott. And that, as far as he is concerned, is the main thing.

But, but ... Victoria is terribly important!

Oh, please.

From 1949 to 1969, the Victorian representation in the federal government was bigger than that of any state, and provided the leadership. Lightweights like Harold Holt and Peter Howson made it further than they should have through being Collins Street flaneurs, while non-Victorians like Paul Hasluck and Percy Spender were underutilised.

Never mind that during this period, the nation's centre of economic and cultural gravity shifted to Sydney. NSW had a state Labor government and a massive Labor redoubt, and the other states regarded voting Labor with communism.

After the 1969 election the representation from Victoria and NSW were roughly equal. Leadership tension between Gorton and McMahon can be seen in light of that. So too can the tension between Howard and Andrew Peacock.

Malcolm Fraser was Victorian to his bootstraps but he took pains to cultivate the party in NSW, particularly men of substance like Sir John Carrick and Bob Sir Robert Cotton. By the time Howard (mentored by Carrick and Cotton) won in 1996 he had rebuilt the NSW party from the ground up, which has never happened in Victoria.

Today, Victorians aren't the largest delegation to the federal government, nor the second - they are third, slightly ahead of WA. The current federal government, if you hadn't realised already, views things through its own prisms. We had a Prime Minister from Victoria until last year who was underappreciated by the rest of the country. Victorians have never taken to the current Prime Minister (see below). But, cheer up! The alternative Prime Minister is a Victorian - oh, don't be like that.

Look, everyone knows the Liberal Party regards Victoria as the Jewel in the Crown.

It's true that the Coalition held state government in Victoria for a long time, but two things need to be said about that.

First, people like Dick Hamer don't grow on trees (and anyway, with the fate of Leadbeater's possum in the balance, we've seen how Victorians care about trees). The Victorian Liberals of old would have quietly strangled Geoff Shaw rather than have him undermine a Baillieu. And the likes of Peter Reith, I mean I ask you. Costello might have burnished that jewel had he not been such a piker.

Second, the Labor Party in the period 1955-82 deliberately enfeebled itself, much the same as it did federally until last year and as it has in NSW for the past decade or so.

Victoria has 12 Senators. Four of them are Liberals, all numpties. There are local councils with more impressive representations (and more Liberals) than the Victorian Senate team. There is a National Senator too but, for this government, she's the wrong gender (read some of Margaret Fitzherbert's work on formidable Liberal women and wonder what might have been. Wonder what happened to Fitzherbert herself).

There are 37 Members of the House of Representatives from Victoria. Given that the state is such a Liberal jewel, and the Coalition hold federal government, and the party's federal director comes from there, you'd expect more than half - much more than half - would be held by the Coalition.

16 of Victoria's 37 HoR seats (i.e., a minority) are held by members of the Coalition. With the government on the nose, you'd expect the JitC to step up: who will bet me that Victoria's Coalition representation will increase in 2016?

The Liberal Party gives its Victorian branch all the respect and deference due to whiny laggards resting on faded laurels.

You know what the problem is? Tony Abbott needs strong Victorian representation on his front bench.

Andrew Bolt (no I won't link to his article) told his audience of mouth-breathing Victorians that the lack of a strong Victorian in his Cabinet is one of Abbott's major shortcomings.

Four members of Abbott's 20-member Cabinet are Victorians, roughly commensurate with the proportion of Victorians to Australians as a whole. It isn't clear what more Bolt could want.

Even if you accept Bolt's comment (don't worry, dear reader, I won't tell anyone about that time you agreed with Andrew Bolt), the question is: whom? Which Victorian Liberal would you have Abbott slot into his Cabinet to set things right? Napthine? Mary Wooldridge? Bolt himself? What about Sophie Mirabella, a director of the Australian Canoe Corporation? You see the problem here.

Victoria has the country's best infrastructure!

Quite why Kennett, Brumby, and now Napthine had chosen to impale themselves on the altar of the East-West tunnel is unclear.

What do you think of the way the Victorian media covers Victorian politics?

When it is forced to cover actual stuff that state government does, it is quite good. Sophisticated political and policy analysis with a light but not clichéd touch: this is what journalism on how we are governed should be. Only South Australia's InDaily comes close.

When it comes to the coverage of elections, it is as cliché-ridden as any electoral coverage. Before the election, Josh Gordon from The Age insisted that he was "on the fence" about who would win the election, when his coverage was showing clearly that Labor was preparing for office while the Coalition was in a defensive crouch, protecting its vitals.

This phenomenon was identified by US journalist Michael Kinsley in the 1990s. Before the election, journalists insist the race will be tight (against evidence that it often won't be), and that even the lamest campaign cliché is imbued with great significance. After the election, journalists portray the result as the inevitable result of seismic historical factors against which all campaigning was pitifully feeble. Political operatives of similar kidney during the campaign are divided into wise seers and hopeless jokes on the basis of a result the journalist deemed "too close to call". Those considered 'hopeless jokes' can redeem themselves to journalists by dumping on their loser-party colleagues.

This deliberate misinformation is not done to inform the public, but to maintain the journalist's pose of 'balance' above all other considerations. Not one extra newspaper, not one second of airtime, is sold because of this pose. A journalist sitting on a fence is good for nothing but target practice. The position of The Age under a Labor government will be interesting:
  • Apparently The Age hacked into a Labor database. According to the journosphere, this was fair play and part of the perils of using job-killing computers.
  • Apparently the ALP found a recording device belonging to a journalist from The Age; they listened to it, found and disseminated Ted Baillieu bagging his Liberal colleagues. According to the journosphere, this was fair play an outrage against our very democracy.
The Murdoch press seemed strangely ambivalent as to whether the Napthine government lived or died. Napthine should be congratulated for not appearing in Murdoch ads like NSW's Mike Baird did. In the nature of oligopolies, you can't really expect the Murdoch press to step up:

Hunting for clichés at staged events and finding them is political journalism's equivalent of coprophilia, the sort of misjudgment that is killing their profession from the frontline journalist to the most senior executives. Bloggers who think they have to be fair to the Murdoch press cite Karvelas as proof that not everyone in that organisation is a clown. After her coverage of this state election I'm not so sure.

What will Dennis Napthine do now?

Napthine, a country vet, was for some reason often photographed with, and drawn by cartoonists riding, horses. This could well see the end of the 'man on horseback' metaphor of strong leadership.

His affection for horses is probably genuine and the horseracing industry probably represents his best chance to avoid Stockdale Syndrome, the situation where people are bundled out of politics too early in their working lives and struggle to find something constructive to do.

Napthine has been quoted as saying that Labor's proposed royal commission into domestic violence is a waste of money, but nowhere is he quoted directly: if true, this will go down in history like all those arguments a century ago against women's suffrage, and people will defend Napthine against criticism that he excused the inexcusable.

In the regular quiz at your local pub a little while into the future, one of the questions will be: "Who was Premier of Victoria from 2012 to 2014?". You will rack your brains and groan because you'll know the answer but won't be able to articulate it. When the quizmaster reads out the answer you will growl "Oh, that's right!", and nobody will be impressed because anyone can do that and get zero points for it.

What will happen to the Liberal Party in Victoria?

It will be taken over by conservatives, a process that started already (see the preselection for Kew, and the dithering over Shaw). Churchy obsessives mostly, with one or two IPA types; the sorts of people Malcolm Fraser left the party to get away from, the sorts of people trying it on in NSW. They will shriek for their pet projects, but anything else will be nanny-state bloat. Old-guard figures who are not enjoying retirement as much as they thought will pop back up and tell everyone to keep quiet, to stay away from the Facetweet and what have you, to no avail.

They will preselect voter-repellent candidates for the federal election in 2016 and repeat the dose state-wise after that, selecting people who make Geoff Shaw look like Cicero. The media will describe these people as "feisty" and "controversial" and imply that Andrews has a fight on his hands.

Maybe there will be good and sensible people who turn the party around, but this won't happen anytime soon. The long period of reinvention that I thought was necessary before the Coalition came back to government federally is actually starting now.

The Prime Minister of Australia cares deeply about Victoria. He described Melbourne as a second home.

Yeah, he's said a lot of things. Most of them bullshit.

You seem to be implying that Tony Abbott doesn't care whether the Coalition governs Victoria.

I state it without any risk that it can be refuted. Rebutted perhaps, even dismissed; but not refuted. Do not underestimate the sheer extent to which that man gives no damn.

But if the Prime Minister of Australia doesn't care about Victoria, it must mean we're insignificant.

Oh no. See the first paragraph above. As Australian states go, Victoria is right up there. We've just got the wrong Prime Minister. Easy problem to fix, and you can do your part Victoria.

Just leave those fence-sitting journalists where they are and stop buying their output. Fence-sitting can get boring, and the best press gallery operators know there's more to state politics than some sort of longeur between elections (which they suck at covering anyway). What Daniel Andrews said before the election might not be true afterwards, so keep on looking into what the government is up to.

You'll have to do your own journalism because of the addiction to clichés by those contingently employed to do so; they can't get over it.

27 November 2014

Media and politics today

All media organisations fancy themselves as political players. In 2013 the traditional media ganged up on the Rudd-Gillard government and levered it from office. Now, the traditional media don't really understand politics, can't report on it, and can't influence it. The ABC's response to politics takes this to a whole new level.

Stop me if you've heard this before

Traditional media organisations represented in the press gallery came to dislike the previous government. Big reforms that had not been extensively canvassed in the media created the impression that the government didn't need traditional media - an impression reinforced by its flirtation with social media.

Traditional media panicked responded in two ways. First, the sorts of grievances and disgruntlements that occur in all governments was misreported as extraordinary, and magnified in importance.

Second, the Coalition was given a free pass; coverage like no opposition had received before, its often inane and occasionally hypocritical criticisms given credence they didn't warrant. No consideration was given as to what an Abbott government might do in office. Coverage of the government was framed by the criticism from the Opposition.

No Opposition Leader before Abbott or since received such uncritical coverage, or so much of it. He got what all politicians want: to be taken at his word. He got the 'green light', in much the same way that dodgy NSW Police in the 1980s gave the 'green light' to career criminal Arthur 'Neddy' Smith. Abbott even looks a bit like Smith at the same age.

The traditional media were aiming to preserve the two-party system. Detailed and cogent criticism of the previous government from the Greens, or Andrew Wilkie, received much less coverage than white-noise like "Well this is a bad government" from the then Opposition. Minor parties and independents tended to be framed as freaks, an unstable rabble, a framing that extended to the ALP itself.

The two-party model cannot be maintained in reporting politics today. The errors made by the government have largely been unforced, their own inadequacies more important than pressure from the now Opposition.

The government has lost the political initiative. The Opposition does not have it. The political initiative is not coming from the major parties, but from minor parties and independents. Political journalists can pick that it's been a bad week for the government, but their usual frame is that must mean a good week for the opposition. They can't admit how few good weeks this government has had, or is capable of.

Having painted Labor as so hopeless, day after day for years, they cannot credibly claim they now have the answers. Nor can they claim, given the polls, that Labor are so hopeless that the shortcomings of the government should be overlooked. Because they don't understand politics today, they will eventually respond by giving Labor's leader (whether Shorten or someone else) the green light that they gave Abbott. That won't help the public decision-making process either, and nor will it help sell advertising space - depends on what you regard as the main game.

Traditional media is trapped with a set of templates on how to report politics that just don't relate to the reality before us. Regular readers will know I hate this more than I can describe, but describing is necessary as a first step to working out how to break it. A man has to have a hobby. In mid-life this beats the hell out of hair plugs and sports cars. It is cheaper, more engaging, and ultimately more constructive than trying to get a girlfriend half my age. And unlike many other hobbies, collateral damage is not worth worrying about.

Mark Scott, the ABC and 21st century politics

An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile - hoping it will eat him last.

- Winston Churchill
Mark Scott is giving 21st century politics a red-hot go, mainly because he's out of options. He's playing a longer game than the government, and even the Murdoch press.

Abbott, Turnbull and the gang thought that instead of letting media organisations play politics, they'd have politics play media. As with pretty much all this government's most cunning plans, it has failed irretrievably within hours of being announced.

Former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser denounced the cuts to the ABC, and to SBS (which his government established). ABC broadcaster Mark Colvin recalled the Bland Report and jeered at what he called Fraser's "double standards". Yet, Colvin and his colleagues at ABC News and Current Affairs thought they were so clever in reporting on the Gillard government in the way the Coalition hoped they might, and for not being 'even-handed' in speculating what an Abbott government might be like. They gladly fed the (contemporary) Coalition crocodile.

Colvin still can't believe he or the ABC would ever be guilty of double standards himself. He can't imagine such an accusation even being made. Such high-handedness and selective blindness makes him the exemplar of not only what's right about the ABC (when he's on song) but also what's worst (when he's not). The extent to which the ABC relies so much upon so few makes the case for cuts stronger, not weaker.

Today, we have a government that disdains to provide journalists with any real information, and to be fair only very few actually bother seeking it out. Today we have a government that can send journalists to prison and spy on their sources. These is what happens when your first priority is maintaining journalists in their pose of balance, to the point where their actual research and story-telling skills wither from disuse. This is why merely reversing the cuts would restore nothing worth having, and increase scrutiny of government not one jot.

Spare us this 'Hunger Games' crap. Honestly. Everyone works in insecure environments these days. Get over yourselves and shut up.

It would be asinine to say that Scott is banking on Labor and the Greens to come through for him, as this shows. It's beyond wrong, it's beside the point. It's just so 20th century.

The two-party system has broken down because communities not considered 'marginal seats' felt neglected, and so are changing their politics to avoid the majors and become politically contestable, getting things done that wouldn't be done if you leave things to the 'professionals'. Denison had been a safe Liberal seat and then a safe Labor one; now it's held by an independent. Indi had been held by 'Black Jack' McEwen and by a putative minister in the current government; now it's held by an independent. Senior Labor MPs Anthony Albanese and Tanya Plibersek face little threat from local Liberals, but are forced to maintain constant vigil against the Greens. Chris Pyne won the safest Liberal seat in South Australia in 1993; now they've stopped listening to him and will chuck him next time.

Community is a thing, keenly missed when it is absent, exulted in when present. Everybody wants their community to be a marginal seat, but it takes hard work and skills that not everyone has.

The ABC builds communities, and maintains them during emergencies. Mark Colvin is a community-builder. So too are Geraldine Doogue and Robin Williams, Tim Cox and Macka. Communities gather around Peppa Pig and The World Game and Australian Story and Q'n'A. Politicians don't represent those communities. They only make their presences felt when they try to knock them over.

Scott has targeted cuts to the ABC in regional Australia. This has flushed out silly Nationals and Liberal MPs in those areas, who have all responded with the much-derided tactic of the Open Letter. They all go something like this:
Dear Mr Scott,

When I voted for swingeing cuts to your organisation, it never occurred to me that you would cut services in my community, or that my constituents would complain so much. It's easy to outmanoeuvre me, and all I can do is squeal like a stuck pig because my persuasive abilities are more limited than you'd expect from someone in my current job. Peta never warned me about this; but to be fair, if she had I probably would have ignored her.

Please, please reverse those cuts, you bastard! You are so not coming to my Christmas drinks.

Yours etc.
In the old way of reporting, where bad news for the Coalition means good news for Labor, this would mean Labor's vote in regional Australia would skyrocket and ... look, it's all too silly. Restoration of ABC funding to rural Australia will not be achieved by the Coalition. It will not be achieved by Labor. It will be achieved by a critical mass of politicians who owe nothing to anyone but those who elect them.

An ABC journalist who has given long and loyal service to a remote community - and who is about to receive a big payout, right in the middle of the parliamentary term - is a potent, direct threat to even the most well-entrenched Coalition MP. The smarter ones know this all too well. ABC presenters are welcomed into homes, vehicles and workplaces far more than even the most affable politician. They cover the gamut of local and national issues, while the Coalition MP is hamstrung by talking points. If they don't run as actual candidates themselves, those people have greater appeal and credibility than those thrown up by parties.

Imagine you're living in a regional area, and you know more about climate change than all the nose-ringed baristas of Fitzroy and Enmore put together. Imagine you're concerned about fracking. Who are you going to vote for?
- a) the incumbent Coalition MP, and Tony Abbott.
- b) Labor, oh yeah.
- c) that ABC journo who did all those 30-minute specials on fracking, teasing out the subtleties of the issue and who stands to win or lose.
- d) a Green who couldn't win preselection for their local city electorate, but who comes with a big recommendation from Senator Lee Rhiannon (whoever the hell he is).

The late Peter Andren, a commercial TV journalist in rural NSW, kept Labor and the Coalition at bay throughout the 1990s. Tony Windsor regards Andren as a role model, and even after his death he has more to offer ambitious regional candidates than, say, Luke Hartsuyker or Joel Fitzgibbon.

The social base on which the major parties were founded is wasting away. The initiative is with community-organising movements, which must necessarily be small-scale. There may come a revival of mass politics later this century, but it is hard to discern from this angle. The smart money is on independents and minor parties, with diminishing majors negotiating terms to enjoy office.

If Scott had wanted to go after the current political class, he would have axed Insiders and smashed the other mirrors in which they regard themselves. But he is playing a longer game.

The majors look silly in their denials that they will (or that they have to) negotiate with minors. They get the legislative composition that the voters set for them, and their challenge is to make the best of that. Labor is better able to get over itself in order to strike a deal than the Coalition. Not only federally in 2010 but in every state over the past 20 years, Labor has won office through a deal with Greens and/or other independents.

This is the future, baby: thumping wins and inviolable mandates will be fewer and further between.

What Scott has done is to mess with the majors, and to ensure that while they might gang up against public broadcasting, they will have to work within a political environment where maintaining and extending the ABC is a given.

Labor underutilised public broadcasting in its pitch for the NBN, and if they do so again (they'd have to resist Murdoch, and the NSW Right in particular could never stay mad at Rupert) they should talk about public broadcasting - not allow the Coalition to witter about hi-def sport and movies. Labor has an advantage in talking public broadcasting, but not much. A future version of the Coalition could peg them back if they really tried, and wanted.

Social conservatives have shown the way, clogging Labor and Coalition parliamentary ranks with churchy freaks implacably opposed to same-sex marriage and to investigating sexual abuse in the churches and the military. This makes minority-held positions look bipartisan - and to be bipartisan is the best politics can be, right?

Issues like political donations, a federal ICAC, euthanasia, gaming reform and biodiversity look scattergun and untidy to those who can only imagine politics as a duopoly. They look like a laundry list of issues which clever manoeuvring and cosy deals can sideline effectively. The recurrence of those issues in public debate looks to such people like a failure of issues management, political reflux; not an authentic expression of democracy.

In the late 20th century, the issues that became crystallised as the Whitlam agenda were like that. Urban planning, no-fault divorce, acquiescence to communist governments in China and Vietnam - I mean, I ask you. Labor only took them up in the vacuum from being squeezed by Moscow and Rome. Labor can't be relied upon to truly embrace a laundry list of issues like that, but they are better prepared to entertain them.

Labor's fading branches, and those of the Coalition parties, aren't discussing those issues - and if they are, the wide boys in those parties ensure they don't get past Conference. The initiative is coming from independents and minors. Mark Scott has pitched the ABC as one of those issues that is always with us - not batted back and forth every time there's a change of government, and neglected in between.