16 May 2015

No flies on Scott Morrison

The one sure way to tell that a politician is on the rise is when nothing they do blows back on them. They say clumsy things, they do clumsy things, as we all do - but for those on the ascent, someone else takes the blame. It’s a sweet position to be in, and Scott Morrison is in that position now.

For years, the part of Mr Do-no-wrong was occupied by Tony Abbott. In the Howard government, ministers and backbenchers were castigated for speaking out of turn –Abbott could say what he liked, and did. At the 2007 election, when the Coalition needed all the help it could get, Abbott’s silly pronouncements embarrassed Liberal candidates across the land. When Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull led the Liberal Party they had to put up with Abbott’s often unhelpful interventions; sending him to the backbench either never occurred to them, or did and proved too scary.

Now, the part is played by Scott Morrison.

Morrison had been something of a media tart in opposition, talking big about what he was gunna do. In office as Minister for Immigration, he stopped talking. He refused to comment on “operational matters” of his job that were, actually, central to the very point of his job and notions of democratic accountability.

The Labor opposition missed a big opportunity when they failed to bell him as a secretive creep, giving rise to suspicion that they’d behave the same way if given another crack at government. His behaviour casts doubt on his unverified pledge that he stopped asylum-seekers coming to Australia by boat.

Promising ministerial careers have ended after lesser debacles than the riot on Manus Island last year. Reza Barati, an asylum-seeker inmate, was killed. A Senate committee found the riot “eminently foreseeable” but Morrison, as minister responsible for the detention centre and Barati’s guardian, escaped censure. He escaped censure from Abbott too, of course, but also from the press gallery; it was as though the government could not have been held responsible for conditions in an institution within its purview.

Tony Abbott had whittled down his lavish paid parental leave scheme over time, but he had taken it to two elections and consistently used it as his most tangible shield against charges of misogyny and sexism. Had it been a genuine personal commitment Abbott would have introduced it as soon as possible after being elected. When he finally dumped the policy, Abbott said he was putting more money into childcare.

In 2009 the Productivity Commission recommended that childcare should get the money promised by politicians for PPL. Yet, the credit for averting a policy whose cost far outweighed its benefits went not to the Commission but to Morrison, who stepped up to claim credit for increased childcare resources, promising to work bipartisanly with a startled opposition. The press gallery loves bipartisanship and reported the very promise of better resources for childcare as further proof of Morrison’s effectiveness. Abbott had clung to PPL for too long and Morrison weaned him off it; now we see who’s really running this joint.

When the budget was finally released on Tuesday, the narrative was still alive that the attractive but inappropriate PPL had given way to a simpler, better and fairer childcare system. Hockey and Abbott had the limelight on them. They knew that Shorten would have his go in two days, but nobody counted on Morrison.

It was Morrison who described the situation where women in permanent employment can claim both the basic government paid-parental-leave scheme, and any such scheme their employer might offer, as a “rort”. It's an evocative word, a provocative word, and yet Morrison has largely escaped responsibility for using it.

Abbott used much milder language to describe his shift in policy, but he has worn the full brunt of betrayal and disappointment from those who had been convinced that a man who offered women little might come through for them where they needed it. Mia Freedman does her woman-scorned thing, covering the issues:
  • The strong, confident women surrounding Abbott are there to support him, and he in turn supports them. Freedman, like many women, assumed that he could and would extrapolate beyond them to the women of Australia; she was wrong. The only women who will get a break from Tony Abbott are those who had formed a close personal and supportive relationship with him well before September 2013.
  • The strong, confident women surrounding Abbott aren't what they were. His daughters are spoiled. His wife takes less interest in her husband's career than anyone in her position since Bettina Gorton. His chief of staff has gone to ground.
  • All those points Freedman lists about Abbott acting against women's interests should have shown the inevitable fate of PPL. A government that won't even fund women's refuges but might spend $10.1b on PPL? Dream on.
  • People wanted to believe in PPL, and in Abbott, against all the evidence. When Julia Gillard nailed him on misogyny, PPL enabled him to draw attention to her childlessness and her cuts to welfare payments to poorer mothers.
Freedman is disingenuous on why she allowed herself to be played, what she hoped to get from being played in this way, and what she actually got from it. But this isn't about Freedman; it's about the idea that even after he failed to implement the PPL, even after he dropped it altogether, he still got the benefit of the doubt on childcare.

Recently, however, Morrison is steadily accruing more and more credit.

Morrison was praised for his handling of childcare until days ago. Morrison was a member of the Expenditure Review Committee that signed off the budget. Morrison did a lot of the spruiking in the lead-up to the budget, more than Hockey as many commentators noted. Yet strangely, as the PPL/childcare furore rages, the Minister for Social Services is unscathed. He hasn't gone to ground, keeping his profile up throughout; the vigorous questioning of the press gallery hasn't troubled him.

Joe Hockey had hoped a cautious budget might save his political skin. He did himself no favours when Laurie Oakes drew him out on "double dipping", but Morrison could have smoothed the waters had it suited him.

Matthias Cormann and Josh Frydenberg were both accused of "double dipping". The speedy discovery of this by press gallery journalists who are better at catching drops than conducting investigative journalism is suspicious. It was fascinating to watch both men try to deflect the accusation by denying double dipping was even a thing.

Cormann controls a number of party-room votes among WA Liberals and Frydenberg is a player in the Victorian Libs. Both men stood by Abbott in February, both will be key when the leadership is raised again. Watch Morrison praise both men, and their wives (which Abbott hasn't), offering a quid that might yield a quo from these men the next time Abbott goes wobbly.
Malcolm Turnbull earlier refused to back the language his frontbench colleagues Joe Hockey and Scott Morrison have used to criticise the existing paid parental leave arrangements.
So?

Andrew Probyn quotes from Morrison but puts the blame on Abbott and Hockey. Abbott is the head of government, so ultimate responsibility is his - but he is soft on Morrison:
This is policy development by the lowest common denominator - that if the worker in the bakery doesn't get it, nor should anyone else.
This is a lowest-common-denominator government and Scott Morrison is a lowest-common-denominator guy. This should be clear by now, even to press gallery journalists. Some of us were awake to this before September 2013, but never mind that now.
Morrison's charge is that Labor and the unions struck a secret deal to entrench the so-called "double dipping".
Liberal minister takes a swipe at Labor and the unions to rally a base cowed by the public storm over this issue. Almost as obvious as the deal over "double dipping", when you think about it.
Not only is it awful judgment and bad politics at a time the Prime Minister and his Treasurer can least afford it, it may also prove to be a policy of false economy ... This, from the side of politics that spent five years railing against the inadequacy of the existing PPL scheme, proposing instead to give women up to $75,000 (later trimmed to $50,000) for six months leave under Tony Abbott's "fair dinkum" paid parental leave scheme.
My kids are about the same age as Probyn's, but I'm not a press gallery journalist so I was never taken in by Abbott's carry-on. I mean: Abbott. "fair dinkum". Pfft.

Here is the killer:
Tuesday's Budget confirmed the Abbott scheme would have cost $10.1 billion over four years. Its ditching in February amounted to the biggest saving in Hockey's Budget.
The fiscal credit for that saving will be enjoyed by the relevant minister (Morrison) long after the Treasurer who brought that budget down (Hockey) has been forgotten.
Earlier this year, Abbott demonstrated a capacity to lance political boils.

If he truly has changed, he'll be lancing this one early. It's rotten policy and stinking rhetoric.
I must have missed that - did this happen when he was fighting off threats to his leadership? Proof positive of the failure of press gallery journalism is the idea that Tony Abbott has changed. Abbott hasn't changed. The disingenuousness and ineptitude of this government is a given.

Now Hockey, Abbott, and the government, depends utterly upon Morrison as the responsible minister to find a detailed solution to the whole PPL/childcare issue, and negotiate it through the Senate. He is both arsonist and fire brigade, hoping - knowing - that only the latter role will be remembered by a press gallery thirsty for a new hero. There are no flies on Scott Morrison. You can't even see where they've been. His run to the Prime Ministership will not be questioned.

13 May 2015

Have a go ya mugs

Coverage of the budget is always dreadful. The entire Australian media relies far too heavily upon the lines the Treasurer's office wants to push, it congeals around a consensus that is almost always wrong, and throws away what little journalism skill it has for the sake of ... for the sake of filling up airtime/adspace that nobody wants to buy.

1. The consensus on this budget


We get it, Joe:
  • No bold moves fiscally or policy-wise.
  • A bit of help for AussieFamilies™ in 2017 or something.
  • Please don't hate us.
  • We're doing the best that we can. Really. We're firing on all cylinders.
  • You should see the other guys.
You don't need more than 200 press gallery journalists to tell the exact same story with the exact same quotes. Three or four, tops, would do that 'job' more than adequately. Bussing numpties down from Sydney is just redundant, unless it freed up the increasingly sparse office for real journalists to get some work done.

2. Insiders outside

... Standing on the outside lookin' in
Room full of money and the born to win
No amount of work's gonna get me through the door ...


- Cold Chisel Standing on the outside
I watched the ABC's budget coverage, and how strange it was.

There is no point to being an "insider" if you are shunted outside on a cold Canberra night. The ABC have perfectly good studios embedded within Parliament House from which they could have done their talky-head bits, and in which technicians have already done the wiring-up and other preparation. If you reject the idea that the outsider thing was Uhlmann at his most absurd, the only other explanation is the sheer spite toward the national broadcaster by the Speaker.

Leigh Sales gave Chris Bowen too much rope and he was boring. She gave Hockey too much stick and made him look good. Her desk stuck in a corner was basically a pimped-up table from Aussie's.

She made less of a fool of herself, though, than Uhlmann. His reference to the voters and taxpayers of Australia as "the mob" was unfortunate, and revealing, which made it all the more unfortunate. His insistence that politicians must be taken at their word was stupid, and probably revelatory of his whole journalistic approach; even more unfortunate.

3. A year's worth of stories


Why even bother recounting the announceables when you never, ever follow up those stories: just because it was announced on budget night doesn't mean it will happen at all, or in the way the government intended. The budget should contain 90% of the following year's stories for a journalist covering politics and government, insulation against the very possibility of a "slow news day".

All of the points made well here should have been tracked by the press gallery before the budget. That would have been more important - for their own self-worth if nothing else - rather than dropseeking.

Journalists who sit around the budget lock-up interviewing one another should not be allowed out - or they should be cast into the cold darkness where they can hone their inanities with Sabra Lane and Annabel Crabb. They are a bit like motorsport drivers huffing petrol fumes: they might think they are taking in the very essence of their profession, but they're wrong about that too.

4. Ferals in the Senate


The idea that it is appropriate for the press gallery to refer to Senators outside Laborandthecoalition as 'ferals' is clear proof of journalistic failure. Why even bother going on about an $X increase here and a $Y cut there when they are mere offerings to the unknowable Senate, like Quinctilius Varus' legions heading off to the Teutoburg forest.

Start covering the Senate. Press gallery journalists have nothing better to do. It is functioning as the Constitution intended, as a House of Review, and the fact that a control-freak government can't negotiate with those it doesn't control should be a bigger issue than press gallery journalists seem to realise.

5. Re:hash


Joe Hockey's speech to the National Press Club was a waste of time. He stuck to his script. The journos were all hung over and less pertinent than usual. They should all have been strafed.

6. The undead


The idea that the government's nasty policies have been excised from the budget was stupid and wrong. When there is a busy news day - one that doesn't involve the press gallery at all, like a real disaster far from Canberra or a royal something - the government will disinter one of its many nasty proposals. That's how this government works. The easily diverted press gallery will miss this until some kind soul from an interest group points it out to them, and explains why it's bad.

This is what happened with Kevin Andrews' Poor Laws; it fell to ACOSS to point them out and explain why they were bad, while only Kevin Andrews could defend them. The fact that a man whose entire career has involved defending the indefensible - and failing - is now Minister for Defence should be more of a concern than it appears to be.

Being a product of this government, this budget is of course full of half-baked ideas and contradictions which journos have overlooked in their rush for a consensus (see 1. above). They will not keep poring through it, nor follow its fate through the Senate; instead, they will wait until the story is pointed out to them in social media, then run it as EXCLUSIVE. Media execs call this a 'business model'.

7. Savings


When the government cuts money to a thing, it does not announce the cuts as a cuts: it calls them "savings". Journalists who refer to these cuts as "savings" do not understand what they are reporting on (policies that affect people's lives) and have come to identify with the incumbent government to a greater extent than is healthy or wise.

Before the election Tony Abbott said "I don't want to be known as Mr Cut, Cut, Cut", and the press gallery immediately complied. They stopped referring to the very idea that he might cut into services that people need - and can't get other than through the kind of group-buying scheme that Australian government has been since its inception.

8. Our Taxes and Aid to Foreign Kiddies


In between budgets, traditional media run well-researched thinky pieces on how foreign aid is a useful tool of foreign policy, projects our influence abroad (especially when we need stuff from international bodies, like UN Security Council seats or big sporting events) and is generally good to do, reinforcing and magnifying the generosity of this country's private donors.

When the budget rolls around they forget all that: see "Savings" above.

Yesterday the press gallery quoted Julie Bishop as telling the Coalition party room that foreign aid would not be cut. Yet, the budget papers show aid to subsaharan Africa cut by 70%, aid to Indonesia cut by 40%, with no corresponding rises elsewhere to make Bishop's assurances true in any way. Nobody in the press gallery appeared to question this discrepancy, or even notice one existed.

9. Our Taxes and Aid to Australian Kiddies


Unmarried, childless people sometimes grumble that their taxes subsidise other people's children, and resent any increase in resources devoted to their fellow citizens. Their concern is misplaced.

The government has lavished additional funding and legislative powers to security agencies. Apparently those who breach our national security these days are not wily agents of foreign powers but unmarried, childless loners. The Bali Nine were UCLs until they developed a sense of community. So were the Bali bombers of 2002 and '05. You show me someone who's joining Da'esh or an outlaw motorcycle gang and I'll show you someone who doesn't qualify as a "busy mum", or otherwise as AussieFamilies™.

People in sporadic employment need childcare as much as those in more regular employment. Say what you will about the previous government, it would have at least taken seriously a policy response to these people. The people least likely to be securely employed, most likely to be unemployed or sporadically employed, are Indigenous. Their children are not catered for in Smirky Morrison's calculations. They should have been, and if you overlook those in need then you can't really begrudge them.

10. Our Taxes and Aid to Foreign Kiddies Imprisoned by Australia Outside Australia


I still think this is something that should have been discussed at budget time. Remember how Scott Morrison closed down the debate by stonewalling the press gallery? What makes you think he's not going to do that kid of crap in his current or future roles? Wake up press gallery, and stop sucking up to him. He doesn't respect you any more than I do.

11. Hole-heartedly


Joe Hockey has the look of a guy who is giving his current predicament his all, in return for a promise of political survival that Abbott is unable to honour. He reminds me of one of those doomed dancers in They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, it hardly matters how much he smiles and poses for selfies.

As Samantha Maiden points out, Hockey gets no credit for this budget but all the blame. To punch through the passive voice for a moment, this happens because people like Samantha Maiden don't and can't give him any credit: it goes against the narrative. Any journalist who notes the "optics" of a situation without being able to push through and question them is no journalist at all.

The press gallery is the hole in the heart of Australian democracy.

12. The opposite of leadership


Re Hockey above (and there are other examples), no greater love hath Tony Abbott than this: that he would lay down his friends for the sake of his life.

The government has no plan to stimulate the economy: they hope Australia's small businesses will light a path they cannot see, let alone build. The government has no generosity toward less fortunate people overseas: they take credit for our private donations, and by being niggardly show themselves as not our true representatives. They cut health funding, but insist we be impressed by a $20b mirage that funds nothing. What's good about this budget can't be trusted; what's bad about this budget (including what's hidden from us) will bite us, hard.

In all its coverage of the budget, the press gallery misses that and gives mendacious bunglers the benefit of a doubt that has almost disappeared.

13. How to tell when a Liberal government has run out of ideas


They spend big but tax less-than-big. If the people take the bribes it confirms the conservative notion of the people as ever more grasping and greedy. If they don't it leaves the incoming government in an economic hole, and the Coalition opposition can attack them for being in a bad situation.

When conservatives do this it shows they're out of ideas, like a cricket team that sends fielders to the boundary to limit a high-scoring batsman they can't get out. This is what Fraser did after 1978, what Howard did after 2000, and what Napthine did as soon as he became Victorian Premier.

When Coalition governments do this they place themselves utterly in the hands of Labor. If Labor haven't got their act together (as in 1980, 2001 and 2004), they are re-elected and hailed as geniuses. If Labor have their act together (as in March 1983, 2007, Victoria and Queensland 2014-15), conservatives not only lose but are bewildered.

Kim Beazley showed that caution is the risky strategy when boldness is required (so did Peter Costello, but anyway). Shorten is certainly very cautious.

14. Early election?


Journalists only run the early election story because they can only report on elections - or think they can. The years that drag on between elections full of complex governing which they can barely describe, let alone analyse. This story has become so discredited it is a joke, particularly when coupled with lavish use of anonymous sources.

15. When the history of this government is written


... this budget will have been its high point.

07 May 2015

The blind spot

When Senator Christine Milne retired yesterday as leader of the Greens and was replaced within hours of the announcement by Senator Richard di Natale, the press gallery was so shocked and so 'unprepared' that it actually reported the news. Those who complained about that lack of preparedness looked so stupid they cast doubt on the very idea of insider political savvy, on which the press gallery depends for its existence.

Next week Christine Milne turns 62. Days before he attained that age, Bob Hawke had been deposed as Prime Minister. When John Howard turned 62 he was still Prime Minister, but press gallery speculation was rife that he might be replaced by a much younger Victorian. Nobody then or since referred to Howard as "a bowser boy from Dulwich Hill" as Milne is just apparently a farm girl from Tasmania.

Senate preselections for the Tasmanian Greens are being held shortly. To win such a contest, and then the election, would commit the winner to a term due to extend from 1 July 2017 to 30 June 2023 - this would have put Milne beyond the constitutional age limit of 70, to say nothing of the personal toll of an already long career in politics.

The press gallery have no excuse for failing to even consider that Milne might choose this time to go. Those who remain in the press gallery from Hawke's and Howard's times look ridiculous in their failure.

When the announcement was made, the fix was already in. This is standard practice when governments make policy announcements. The press gallery never speculate about how an announced policy might be different to the way it is announced, though they may quote somebody who does. If the policy ends up being modified in the parliament, they report it as a personal defeat for the relevant minister or even the government as a whole, regardless of the effect any such change might have on the wider community.

The press gallery concentrates on government. It reports what government does uncritically and only covers opposition to that policy within a wider narrative of political maneuvering, not policy. The formal Opposition often does not quibble with announced policy, which lends it the air of Sensible Bipartisan Reform, to which the press gallery wants all policy to conform (see Jeff Sparrow on this - in his quest for a wider social narrative he lets the press gallery off far too lightly). When it does, the press gallery have to be alert to the possibility that the current Opposition might become the government, and go easy on the narrative that any such opposition exists simply to frustrate government policy.

Because the Greens aren't a party of government, any position they take is only reported by the press gallery through the lens of the major parties. While individual pieces in traditional media sometimes display an understanding of what the Greens are about on a particular issue, and what they hope to achieve, these are almost never written by press gallery journalists. Press gallery journalists don't understand, and don't want to understand, a party they can't imagine ever being in government.

The press gallery don't use favourable coverage to inform readers. They use favourable coverage as currency for the party that is, or might be, in government. A press gallery journalist who gave favourable reporting to the Greens would upset people from the Labor political party as well as the Liberal political party and the Nationals political party, which might make their job just that little bit harder.

In 2010 the press gallery was negotiating positive coverage with Kevin Rudd while his own party, unbeknownst to (and metres away from) them, was tipping him out. For the following three years they held out the threat/promise to the ALP that they would deny Gillard positive coverage, but that if Rudd returned as leader he might have a credibility that she lacked. By the time Rudd returned, people had stopped listening to Labor, and the press gallery wasn't listening to Rudd's warnings that Abbott might go back on his centrist-sounding promises.

The major parties regard their relationship with the press gallery as crucial. The Greens regard it as irrelevant. They maintain a significant vote, and a significant presence in the parliament, without the sort of relationship that the major parties cultivate and maintain at great effort. The very presence of the Greens and other minor parties is an affront to the press gallery, which gives them the desultory coverage that would make major-party players fear for their very jobs, but this does not have the effect of making the Greens die politically among the voting public.

The press gallery have a structural blindness toward the Greens. That's why they tend not to leak to journalists, not this. Nobody will leak to you if what you're offering has no currency at all. Annabel Crabb does favourable coverage so unrelentingly that its absence isn't even noticed, let alone missed.
... although it's obvious there was some pretty serious internal division within the party this year when it decided not to back the Government's planned increase to fuel excise, despite increased fuel taxes being a central part of the Greens policy platform, the exact details of the division are unclear.
Something that's hidden from you can't be "obvious" unless it's hidden badly, which this wasn't.

The effect is clear: the Greens voted against the government's proposal. They have a consistent and easy-to-understand position that they won't raise fuel excise to pay for roads. Crabb and her press gallery compadres would seek to blur with their lazy, cliche-ridden CHAOS SPLIT SHOCK pablum.

If you want to write about the Greens' position on an issue you have to address the issue. Labor and the Coalition now both support increased fuel excise to fund roads, therefore it has become Sensible Bipartisan Reform - and who in the press gallery could stand against that?
On the other hand, it's strange not to know where everyone stands. The abandonment of a central campaign platform item occurs, more or less seamlessly, and the lack of any evident fallout gives the whole thing a slightly eerie, unnerving air - like in Watership Down where the rabbits disappear and no-one says anything.
A better and more pertinent comparison might be when Tony Abbott abandons a central campaign platform item, and only social media call him out.
... there's a whiff of Moscow about it.
Rubbish.

That effect is achieved in Moscow because, (under Putin, and before him under the Soviet Union, and before that under the Czars) killed people who leaked to journalists, and the journalists themselves. Even when the major parties change leader in Australia, nobody dies.

The only exception to that was with Holt in 1967, and you have to work pretty hard to attribute foul play to his disappearance. Gorton's successful campaign for the leadership was the first to engage the press gallery in the way people like Crabb regard as normal, which was a mixed blessing to say the least.

Today, Peta Credlin runs around telling members of the Coalition to shut up, apparently threatening with every dire fate short of death - but oh my goodness no, nothing Muscovite about that.

Crabb's third-last paragraph is a verbal train-wreck, but out of it you can pull what looks like criticism of press gallery consensus. Her swipe at Labor is silly, pointless, and typical (try telling the MPs for Sydney, Adelaide, Perth and Newcastle that they are really representing outer-urban seats, or that they are politically doomed). Her final, major-party-centric paragraph tells you all you need to know about her imaginative failure and that of the press gallery as a whole.

The Greens clearly want something other than 'credibility' or 'openness' with the major parties and the press gallery - or at least this is clear to everyone but Crabb and the press gallery.

It is equally clear they have demonstrated the alternative to such 'credibility' or 'openness' is not impotence and oblivion; but adherence to that belief is crucial to the press gallery, to political-class operatives in the major parties, and everyone who regards themselves as "politically savvy". Either reality, or the press gallery's misperception of it, will have to change.

The major parties have introduced whiff-of-Moscow legislation to stifle journalists and other sources of dissent. A few days beforehand traditional media decided the big story in politics was that the Prime Minister ate a raw onion. After the legislation went through, traditional media and the MEAA half-heartedly tried to engage people on how serious that legislation is - but Crabb used her advocacy to return to the onion thing, and the MEAA represents the press gallery ninnies who've missed the significance of that legislation, so what can you do.

Mark Kenny is always on the lookout for a good-news story for Abbott. He spent February being puzzled how suddenly they dried up. He's found them in what was Julia Gillard's bathroom, he's found it in Christine Milne's old office, and if Malcolm Turnbull steps in dogshit while gladhanding in Rose Bay you can be sure Mark Kenny will declare it good news for Tony Abbott.

Chris Pyne's input to the Greens' leadership transfer is a taunt, not serious political commentary. The press gallery simply can't cover a political issue that didn't involve either Labor or the Coalition, and Pyne has inserted himself into every real and imagined change of leadership for a generation. Pyne was rubbing salt into a wound that seemed to heal quickly, which just left him rubbing salt onto other people - but the press gallery didn't get where they are by making Chris Pyne look/feel awkward.

You could criticise the press gallery, as I have and do, for being gibbering dupes of the major parties. This falls flat when you also accept the gallery's basic premise that political coverage is all about the majors and that minor parties, especially the Greens, have no future, none at all, etc. One constant of the major parties is having commentators predict their demise. There might be as much of a future in death-riding the Greens than being one of its representatives: it's not quite parasitism but not symbiosis either.

The press gallery's best exposition on the Green's change of leadership (despite its lousy headline) came from Lenore Taylor. What follows is unfair to that article and to Taylor's work as a whole, but it shows that even the best press gallery journalism is still limited by press gallery journalism:
Most voters have probably never heard of Richard Di Natale ...
Public ignorance of public matters is a failure of journalism.
He didn't say anything different to existing Greens policy. But more to the point he wasn't saying anything much different to existing Labor policy ...
Green policy can't be understood except by reference to a major party.
And he sounded authentic, like he was speaking in sentences he had made up himself.
This shouldn't be so shocking as it is.
The former GP is also likely to be harder for Abbott to dismiss with the Coalition's usual critique about the Greens being "extreme" and "ideological zealots", and Di Natale maintained he had "small 'l' liberals" in his sights as well. He wanted to convince them that "they can trust us with their vote".
Tony Abbott spent his early political career trumpeting the message that small 'l' liberals had no place in the Liberal Party. Di Natale is reinforcing that. If you look at the recent NSW election you'll see that the second-placed candidate in the seats that make up Abbott's seat, and other safe Liberal seats in Sydney, were almost all Greens. Abbott is likely to be the victim of his own 'success' yet again.
But [di Natale] taking on the leadership just as the government brings down a budget, which to the extent it does anything at all, does things that can't be attacked as unfair. That paves the way for potential deals with the Greens on things such as wealthier pensioners losing payments more quickly.
It remains to be seen whether the budget can't be construed as unfair. The link between what this government says and what it does was never as strong as Taylor seeks to imply (and she will get no quarter when she falls over shocked after the budget is delivered).
Since 2013 the party has been sidelined somewhat by a government agenda it could seldom support and a Coalition happier to do deals with the assorted independents on the crossbench.
On 22 October 1957 The Times of London apparently ran a weather story under the headline "Heavy fog in Channel, Continent cut off". It all depends on your perspective in terms of who is "cut off" or sidelined".

In 2012 the press gallery missed Bob Brown's retirement until it happened. Crabb said then there was a "whiff of Pyongyang" about it (I've never been there, what is that whiff? Stale boiled cabbage?), and the opportunities for press gallery improvement identified by Tad Tietze back then go begging still. Now they missed Christine Milne's, and they will miss di Natale's too. Can't wait for the olfactory journalism on that one.

When leaders of the Australian Democrats stood down the press gallery reacted in much the same way they did with Milne yesterday: one small-party freak replaced with another former teacher from Adelaide. This changed with the rise and fall of Natasha Stott Despoja, who used the press gallery to gain the leadership but was not a more effective or popular leader as a result, and was unable to maintain that well-cultivated relationship when she failed at non-press-gallery-related aspects of her leadership.

Subsequent Democrat leaders were unable to stem the groundswells of dissent that would surge up from the membership and sweep them away. They were like Roman emperors who were happy to dispatch their rivals to far-flung provinces but unprepared when those rivals returned, cashed up and battle-hardened, to knock them off.

If anyone leading the Democrats did have any clues about popular support, they didn't have time to implement them. Unlike the Roman Empire, the Australian Democrats' culture of everyone-gets-a-turn which worked against the strong, decisive (yet bipartisan!) leadership for which the press gallery yearns. That's why the press gallery measures all minor parties against the Democrats and finds them wanting.

After months of treating him like a hoon, a poltroon, and a buffoon, the press gallery couldn't understand why Senator Muir won't confide in them on his legislative votes. They gang up on him when he ventures out of Parliament House, the way court reporters jostle witnesses in high-profile cases to provoke a reaction on the footpaths outside hearings. Perhaps Muir has the whiff of Mt Panorama about him, whatever that might mean.

Taking their lead from the media, major-party negotiators treat Muir the same way. This only reinforces the political gap to which he was elected (however circuitously) to fill.

The press gallery exists to mediate the relationship between those who (would) govern and those who are governed. The idea that there's "nothing wrong" with cosy journo-pollie relationships fails when the public is regularly uninformed and/or misinformed. Whether it's this one on Julia Gillard and "mummy bloggers" or that one on Abbott's in-house photographer, the press gallery's buddies in the major parties are busy trying to get around them.

Music critics don't need to explain Sia in terms of Wagner. But even the best in the press gallery - let alone the other 200 busy making the case for media diversity by pumping out the same story with the same angle - are stuck in the frame of Sensible Bipartisan Reform. The press gallery don't do minor parties because they just can't, while the major parties smooth their dying pillow - the press gallery's, not the minor parties. The more minor parties there are in federal politics, the less the press gallery will be able to meet their brief of reporting to you and I about how we are governed.

01 May 2015

Barrie Cassidy queers the pitch

Barrie Cassidy is one of the longest-serving members of the press gallery and the host of the ABC TV show Insiders. His analysis doesn't quite work because, like Michelle Grattan, he takes political developments as they happen without any real long-term perspective.

Take this. The first questions are: what is "Plibersek's gay marriage pitch"? At what will it fail?
No matter how fatigued and cynical seasoned political journalists become, they line up enthusiastically to hear debates in the Parliament set aside for a conscience vote.

Such debates are refreshingly honest and passionate, allowing members of Parliament on all sides to shed stringent party allegiances and follow their heartfelt convictions.

That the issue is not just restricted to religious beliefs make the debates even more compelling.
There are MPs who vote like this all the time. They're called independents. Cassidy regards them as freaks and ferals and wishes that the electoral system could be re-jigged to stop such people getting elected.

The reason why Cassidy starts the article like this is because he wants to make it clear that parliamentary debates should be conducted for the entertainment of journalists. He then goes on to explain why, and how much, Tanya Plibersek has let him down.
Now Labor's Deputy Leader, Tanya Plibersek, wants to bind MPs to a party position on gay marriage, rather than allow a free vote based on personal beliefs.

Plibersek has been accused of raising the issue only because her electorate has a high proportion of gay people, and the Greens, as a party committed, driven and united behind marriage equality, present as the only danger to her re-election.
Plibersek has represented the electorate of Sydney since 1998. I haven't been back through her record but it's fair to say she would not have won that seat, and kept doing so, had she not been deeply involved in issues affecting the LGBTIQ community.

If you understand politics enough to comment on her seat, you'd understand that and seek to convey it as part of your analysis. The idea that Plibersek woke up one morning to be confronted by marauding gay gangs wanting to get married is silly.

Note the passive voice "has been accused" - by whom, with what motives? Why did it not occur to an experienced political journalist to ask those questions? Whenever journalists lapse into the passive voice they are up to no good.

Cassidy wrote a book called The Party Thieves in which he claimed that ambitious politicians had somehow 'stolen' each of the major parties from their membership bases. Let's apply his thesis to Plibersek: a long-serving member of a political party (and a major one, none of your minor-party riff-raff), Plibersek worked within party forums to get same-sex marriage adopted to her party's platform. It's notable that the issue did not cause powerful opponents to flounce out of the party, as the ALP split in the 1950s.

The Deputy Leader of the Labor Party is seeking to get the Labor caucus to vote according to the already settled Labor platform: this is not quite the bolt-from-the-blue Cassidy is trying to make it appear.
More than that, her motives have been linked with the leadership, especially because Bill Shorten went on the record last year in a speech to the Australian Christian Lobby, locking himself into a conscience vote.
Again with the passive voice. If Plibersek is the tactical doofus Cassidy makes her out to be, Shorten is safe.

Sounds like the start of a LABOR LEADERSHIP SHOCK beat-up. It's on the record that Cassidy doesn't take kindly to ambitious Labor deputies. He didn't take kindly to Gillard, Crean, or Keating, deputies who turned on their leaders. He revered Lionel Bowen and Brian Howe, who each no more wanted to become Prime Minister than fly to the moon. He was quite fond of Kim Beazley, who waited until the leadership was dropped in his lap. As for upstarts like Hawke, Latham or Rudd - hey, that's just politics.
However, beyond that, her frustration is understandable. Despite a succession of opinion polls showing majority support for the move, the issue has been allowed to drift for years. Plibersek obviously believes that locking in Labor's numbers will guarantee change.
Not necessarily. Labor is in opposition. If there was a vote in parliament on same-sex marriage it would not pass because Labor doesn't have the numbers.

So, what does Cassidy mean by 'change'? Labor's platform won't change. Plibersek might be seeking to make a statement about Labor's intent when in government. She might be seeking to progress an issue she's been working on for years.

In politics, it's possible to lose a vote in the short term but win eventually. Look at Tony Abbott's repeated no-confidence motions in the Gillard government (Cassidy has): Abbott lost every one of those votes. Did this make him a loser? Eventually, Abbott convinced the public to share his lack of confidence in the last Labor government.

It is possible that Plibersek is playing a long game with same-sex marriage - indeed, it's likely - but in his lunge for PLIBERSEK FAIL Cassidy cannot even examine the possibility.

What's the point of doing all that work to change the Labor platform if you can't enforce it? Should this issue be on Labor's platform at all? Cassidy should engage those issues, but can't.
But the party's national conference will resist the call for a host of sound reasons.

Undeniably the community wants change, but a conscience vote on both sides would be the best expression - and endorsement - of that attitude; an opinion freely expressed rather than one driven by party discipline.
Tanya Plibersek isn't deputy leader of 'both sides'. Like any practical politician she is doing what she can with what she has, and what she has is some influence within the ALP.
The tactics are wrong as well; and that was best underlined by openly gay Liberal Senator, Dean Smith, who supports gay marriage.
So a Liberal backbencher has greater tactical sense than the Deputy Leader of the ALP? Smith has more directly at stake with this issue than Plibersek, a straight married woman, but Plibersek has the record on this issue that he lacks. Cassidy is only quoting him because he needs some support in opposing Plibersek.
He recently said that "if the ALP was to adopt a binding vote ... then the issue of a conscience vote in the Liberal Party is dead".

He is right. Such a move by Labor would release the pressure on Tony Abbott to grant his side a conscience vote.
No it wouldn't, and no he's not.

First of all, same-sex marriage is dead within the Liberal Party so long as Tony Abbott is leading it. Smith, Cassidy, and everyone else with any political experience at all knows this.

Abbott and same-sex marriage is like John Howard and the republic - he's just not going to support it, and everyone who thinks otherwise is kidding themselves. He'll go around stomping out debate, saying that Liberals who support it aren't really Liberals at all - until community pressure builds and a vote must be held, whereupon he will frame the vote in such a way that it can't succeed. If same-sex marriage came to a vote while Abbott is Prime Minister he would put up a travesty: Smith and other prominent same-sex-marriage advocates would vote it down, proponents would be split, and Abbott would declare the issue as dead as the republic. People like Barrie Cassidy would praise his deft political skills.

Abbott's opposition to same-sex marriage isn't tactics, it's strategy. Cassidy should be able to tell the difference.

What pressure is there on Tony Abbott to hold a vote on same-sex marriage? Tony Abbott is under pressure over a number of issues, but same-sex marriage isn't one of them. How can you ease pressure that is barely felt?

Smith did not win a Senate seat for the WA Liberals by being a passionate advocate for gay marriage. They voted for him despite, not because of, his position on this issue. What he is trying to do here is not introduce same-sex marriage, but keep alive the idea of the Liberal Party as the natural party of government - the Liberal Party disposes in its own good time and not a minute sooner.

Progressives often criticise conservatives for being against any and all social change. Not only is this not fair, it's inaccurate: just as there are plenty of eminently conservative positions brought in by Labor governments, so too there are progressive positions that were brought in by Coalition governments. Conservatives almost never dismiss social reform out of hand: "now's not the right time" or "there are other priorities" deflect and bog down progressive momentum, whereas outright opposition can rile it up.

Smith would rather there were no same-sex marriage for the next fifty years rather than have the ALP or any member of it get some credit. That's how conservatives work. Barrie Cassidy has no excuse for not knowing that, and failing to convey it to his readers.
Neither would it be a good look for the Opposition to impose a binding vote, and then suffer the humiliation of MPs voting against it anyway, as some surely would.
Labor has established mechanisms for dealing with its members who vote against their party's platform, and Cassidy knows that - but more on that later.
And already merely raising the issue has shown how divisive it can be. The ALP's national conference is a singular opportunity for its leader, Bill Shorten, to take centre stage with a developed plan for the future built around economic management. The issue of Palestine threatens to distract from that. Loading up the agenda with an unnecessary brawl around gay marriage is a further impediment.
Labor has an established lead over the government in the polls, just as Kim Beazley did a decade-and-a-half ago. Shorten led it into that position by being risk-averse, by only opposing the government where it was proposing something unpopular. Say what you will about Plibersek and same-sex marriage, or recognition of Palestine - it isn't risk-averse. Cassidy should acknowledge that, but he can't because it goes against his narrative.

Why does Labor have to focus on economic management? The Coalition promised to be econocrats first and last but most of their energy has been dissipated in cultural stances like abolishing Medicare bulk-billing, or enforcing Anzac Correctness. Why can't Labor's future include same-sex marriage and a Palestinian state?
For most of its first 60 or 70 years, Labor insisted on tight discipline. New members had to take "the pledge", allowing for internal debate initially, but absolute adherence to the party platform in the end.

They wanted to resist factions going off on a frolic of their own, splitting the party into disparate groups.

But times have changed, and dramatically so.

Across the country, there is nothing like the support for the main parties that existed even 20 years ago. As voting patterns change, parties need to be more diverse. The broad church imperative grows, not diminishes.

That means, at times, foregoing discipline for flexibility; being more open to conscience votes, not less so.
But wouldn't that be embarrassing? Cassidy said it would be embarrassing if some Labor people voted one way and others another. Now he's saying there should be more of it. Why were Labor splitters of old "on a frolic of their own", while those who want to vote against today's platform are just being broad-church? When Plibersek opposes her leader on this issue, a matter of party platform, is she being broad-church or frolicsome?

Cassidy has not made the case that flexibility of the type he advocates is the answer, or even an answer, to declining support and participation in traditional politics. Maybe no such case can be made. Does political debate really end with the bemusement of journalists?

Barrie Cassidy is entitled to engage in political analysis, too; his employer pays him to do so. His analysis just isn't very good. He trashes his own experience, even the thesis of his Party Thieves, to make what looks like a self-defeating point. He flails a successful politician in pursuit of a long-term social reform goal whose popularity bears no relationship to the numbers of people directly affected. This year's Labor Conference is less significant than you might expect; it is certainly not that significant to a journalist who's seen plenty such conferences come and go.

Cassidy's political experience should be worth a lot more than he makes of it, and not just to himself. The Drum should do a better job of editing what is submitted to it. Cassidy can't even have a meaningful debate with a blank piece of paper - no wonder he can't handle political debates among other people.

30 April 2015

Expecting the unexpected

When any disaster happens it is reasonable to ask: could we have foreseen this, and could we have done anything to stop it?

The deaths of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran have been disastrous for Australia. People who once disdained them have been confronted with the awful unspinnable finality and barbarity of death, and government-mandated death at that. Our search for meaning has kicked off debates over the death penalty, the criminalisation of drugs, prison as a place of rehabilitation - even quaint protocols like blindfolds, or having a spiritual advisor present, when facing execution.

All of those debates goes back at some point to public policy, requiring responses and planning and resources to be spent. The debates arising from these deaths are different from most public policy debates in this country, initiated by a government wishing to announce a solution they have already developed. There is very little engagement from public figures in these debates: policy wonks on drugs and prison reform will get a bit of airtime and bounce their ideas around until they die from lack of traction.

Yesterday there was a palpable sense that the government had let us down in some way, without any clear idea how or why. This morning, media outlets interviewed Barnaby Joyce on the issues arising from the deaths of Chan and Sukumaran. Whenever the Coalition want to introduce a red herring into public debate, they wheel out Joyce.

Hard-hitting, savvy journalists should be awake to the Joyce ruse. If they had any professional pride they would resent being played. But they aren't, and they don't: off they went, following Joyce's lead on reintroducing the death penalty here. Traditional media enjoys debates that are heated and which lead to absolutely no change that might require coverage and analysis. They are happy to spare themselves the hard work of wondering how this situation might have been handled better.

When President Widodo was elected last year, foreign policy analysts wrote vague articles about how he might not be well disposed toward Australia. Places like the Lowy Institute, fatuous commentators like Greg Sheridan, all pretended to know more than they did. Nobody seemed to foresee that he would stop taking calls from this country's government and turn a deaf ear to the very idea of clemency, not only to Chan and Sukumaran but to the mentally-ill Rodrigo Gularte.

Isn't it lazy to assert that this really be just another kerfuffle that blows over soon enough - or as with the passing of a cyclone, will the landscape be changed by the blowing-over? Was there really no way of knowing Indonesian politics would lead Australia to this desolate, unproductive place, or where we might go from here? One thing's for sure: it's a joke to say that "Indonesia's credibility is at stake".

In all the escalating calls that Something Must Be Done, all those the last-minute appeals, there was no consideration given to the public debate in Indonesia: they too have their death-penalty opponents, and their drug-policy absolutists, and there too they talk past one another. We have less clout in Asia than we imagined - we are to that continent what Tasmania is to ours.

With his blithe dismissal of Australia's feeble, ill-considered threats of diplomatic action, HM Prasetyo looks like an absolute prick - but no more so than Scott Morrison, or Eric Abetz. Populist politics can work well for governments, and for journalists who cheer them on, but when the same politics goes against them the populists squeal loudest - and journalists cover the reversals like they were unexpected, and unfair.

Nobody seemed to anticipate the fact that the executions were announced on Anzac Day, and how it was a calculated insult to Australia. I've grown up watching interviews of old diggers, when asked why they volunteered to join a world war, exclaim "I wanted to see the world!" - a sentiment echoed by members of the Bali Nine, and by me at times, and maybe even by your own self dear reader.

Foreign policy is predicated on a strict division between high matters of principle (big themes: global initiatives, multi-lateral agreements) and consular matters (petty themes: Australians breaching foreign laws); in this case, as with Peter Greste in Egypt, these supposedly parallel facets of our foreign policy collided. Could this reshape the way we conduct our foreign policy?

Nobody seemed to measure developments in Indonesia against Abbott's proposal for "Jakarta-centred foreign policy". Whatever that might mean, or have meant, it looks like yet another area of policy in which Abbott is hopelessly out of his depth but can't avoid. Waleed Aly's fourth point exonerates Abbott - but I'm not so sure. Who knows what, if anything, Abbott feels? Does the Prime Minister have no advisors - in the permanent public service or in his partisan office - who could have crafted a better message for a man who has been a spokesperson all his life, at such a time?

We need better coverage of policy because that is the only way for citizens/ voters/ taxpayers/ people to judge whether we are being governed well or badly. The press-gallery method of covering politics is bullshit: stuck fast in meaningless minutiae, too easily ambushed by 'events' which they can't understand except by being spoon-fed by those with an agenda; too easily nobbled.

When the traditional media act all surprised at foreseeable events it isn't thrilling hype - it's boring, and robs us of the ability to seek out better policy, and to hold policy-makers to account. It does traditional media no favours either.

Jonathan Green attempts to draw false equivalence between traditional media - which has a tradition of restraint and in-depth consideration of complex issues - and social media, which doesn't, and which (especially in the case of Twitter) is constrained by space issues. Social media is not obliged to pick up the dropped baton of well-informed, nuanced information about complex issues. It is out of control because it was never under anyone's control, something that can't be said of the top-down empires of traditional media. Perhaps Green's implication is all too accurate (reinforced by Mr Denmore) that we cannot reasonably expect traditional media to lift their game.

A badly-informed populace is something journalists should take less delight and bemusement in than they do. Brigid Delaney probably consumes more Australian media than anyone, yet she was surprised by the outcome in a way that no well-read person should be. It is proof that journalism, and all the resources devoted to it (including legal protections and feather-bedding in places like the press gallery) has failed, and failures have no excuse sneering at those no better than they.

Chan, Sukumaran and the other members of the 'Bali Nine' were arrested in 2006. We've been through three Prime Ministers since then, and Indonesia has changed President. There are wider issues about what our foreign policy even is, and how it is developed and executed - and the way it is reported, and the role foreign policy plays in the narrative over whether the incumbents govern us well or badly.

That said, what does democratic input in this area look like? No country manages its foreign policy on the basis of populism and democratic will - it is largely an elite preoccupation, one that tends to change little with political complexion. Policy-makers don't have the political tools to engage the public, especially where security agencies get involved. Journalists are easily fobbed off with the "operational matters" thing, especially with recent legislation against disclosure.

While policies themselves will come under less and less scrutiny, the results of half-baked policy will become increasingly clear. Debates over big issues will go on in different media and call for public resources. When previously trusted sources of information on public policy (traditional media and what are now major parties) fail, people will have to pick up the slack - but how, and with what? That's the challenge of our age. Spokespeople and their bemused observers overestimate their ability even to describe the challenge, let alone meet it.

18 April 2015

Sweating the small stuff

Eventually, a section of the political class that has ascended to high office through back-room maneuverings and media stunts comes to the realisation that governing is more about day-to-day grind than maneuverings and stuntwork. This becomes the real test of the government. Some never recover from the shock: this is the point where ministers often come crashing down or quit 'unexpectedly' as some gobbet of Canberra gossip finally makes it into traditional media coverage.

Some rise to the challenge and end up with achievements they never expected earlier in their political careers: they end up having presided over some major reform quite by accident, never having expressed any interest in the issue (or even having scorned it). This is how Martin Ferguson of the ACTU ended up as some sort of expert on mining policy, and how Peter Howson parlayed a few undistinguished months as a paternalist Aboriginal Affairs minister into decades of inane commentary.

The exhaustion of political silly-buggers in the face of day-to-day reality surprised Lenore Taylor, who felt the need to explain the inevitable as though it were novel, even 'commendable':
When leadership speculation was rife in early March and the government was still struggling with the political death throes of savings measures from its previous budget, Abbott spelled out his immediate strategy to his party room with commendable candour. He was changing focus, he said, from policies the government was unable to get through the “feral Senate” to smaller things that didn’t need Senate approval, but would appear “meaningful” and “positive” to the person on the street.

Headlines about policies rejected by voters and defeated in the Senate were duly replaced by scores of announcements about taskforces on the ice epidemic, crackdowns on childhood immunisations, inactive bank accounts, country of origin labelling on food, codes of conduct for supermarkets and sod turnings for new roads.

It was a deliberate plan to ease the sense of crisis engulfing the government, soothe the party room panic and restore some semblance of normal, to use the short attention span of the 24-hour news cycle to the government’s advantage by filling it up with small, positive things while the large unsolved budgetary questions were considered in the background.
Take any government that lost office over the past decade or so: Rudd/Gillard, Bligh and Newman in Queensland, Napthine in Victoria, Giddings in Tasmania, Keneally in NSW. At different stages they stopped poring over polls and focus groups and turned to flurries of new announcements, the way distressed cuttlefish squirt ink: a new road here, something to get you photographed with little children there, a taskforce, something else to get you photographed wearing hi-vis, etc.

If experience counted for anything in political journalism, the press gallery would be awake to that; they are wrong to assume their readers/ viewers/ listeners are not. Large unsolved budgetary questions are very much in the foreground of the commentary I read - though, admittedly, I have to hunt for it rather than just get handed a press release.

Remember how all that activity by the Gillard government was framed:
  • "In another desperate attempt to shore up her leadership, the Prime Minister announced ..."
  • "The Opposition has criticised the government for its attempts to ..."
For some reason, coverage of the Abbott government is not framed in that way. It is no more popular than the Gillard government was three years ago. Even after the disconnect between what Abbott says and what Abbott does is clear to everyone but journalists, the press gallery still flock to his announcements as though that broken connection was strong enough to support the weight of government, journalism and public expectations combined.

The "24-hour news cycle" did that framing to lift individual issues above the business-as-usual context the (beleaguered) government sought to create. The "24-hour news cycle" and the (beleaguered) government accused one another of spin. Whoever was in opposition at the time just stood there and accrued a credibility they did not deserve, because the "24-hour news cycle" lacked the skills and the inclination to assess how they might govern. People rely on the "24-hour news cycle" to show them who will govern best: ongoing disappointment has diminished the "24-hour news cycle" as a credible source of information, or even as an excuse.

Colin Barnett benefitted from this on the upside in 2008. The WA Labor government couldn't take a trick (despite being led by a former journalist, who doggedly insisted on "getting on with the job") and Barnett was set to retire until a bizarre sequence of events saw him thrust into the Premiership. He presided over a mining boom, and thought he was intensifying and prolonging it by cutting out long-term investment proposals: no to the new train line, no to a new stadium (see this and that on the investment return on stadiums), no to additional school funding. He gave the Treasury to wasteful, destructive oaf Troy Buswell, and then to some numpty from the IPA.

When his luck ran out he couldn't believe it, like this had never happened to any WA Premier before.

He fell back on that mainstay of WA politics: blame Canberra. He thundered into COAG this week as though running out of fuel halfway between Nowhere in Particular and Nowhere Else was someone else's fault, and not something that should ever rebound on him. When he disputed the feel-good message of COAG's commitments on domestic violence and other issues by saying "I must have been at a different meeting", he wasn't seizing the initiative. He just looked like a doddery old man who didn't get it.

Barnett and Nahan have always been starve-the-beast small government men: their squabbling for public coin is unedifying to say the least. Abbott gave him that same smirk that he gave Napthine when he embraced him before the Victorian election - Howard knew that the fewer Liberal Premiers there are, the better it was for him. Abbott always had a keen nose for weakness.

In Australia, the state/territory level is mainly responsible for the delivery of social services on which the nation relies most heavily: health, education, transport, law-and-order. In Canberra, the press gallery regard COAG as a game show in which the PM succeeds only when the states/territories get as little as possible to deliver those services - then, after each COAG, they write disquisitions on how dysfunctional federal-state relations are.

No leader who so recently faced a leadership spill ever got such a free run as Tony Abbott is getting now. Lenore Taylor can describe that free run but not explain it, except by referring to the mass-psychosis of press gallery norms as though they were natural phenomena like the weather, or "24 hour news cycle"; affecting all humans but never itself subject to human agency.

Barnett is showing Abbott, and anyone else who can bear to watch, what happens when a government has run out of options and luck. Barnett had a good go, and a longer go, than Abbott. Barnett faces the prospect that his legacy consists only of cuts - cuts to Aboriginal communities, and no doubt cuts to non-Aboriginal communities coming up in Nahan's next budget, followed by cuts to the number of Liberals in the WA parliament at the next state election.

Nahan has his ideology to take comfort in cuts, and not to care about electoral consequences. He can commission a poll from the Lomborg Institute to show everything will be just fine, eventually. Barnett is part of that WA elite who regard themselves as builders first and foremost. He sees his future, and that of his state, stretched out before him like a patient etherised upon a table at Fiona Stanley Hospital - and, in short, he is afraid, and right to be afraid. He's an old man, he doesn't do "eventually".

Whether WA Labor are ready for government is an open question that probably can't be answered, or even adequately explored, by the state's terrible media.

Tony Abbott has cut his way to a similar predicament to Barnett. He is not the small-government ideologue that Nahan is but nor is he a builder. He, too, will run out of options as unemployment rises and tax revenues fall, and the getting-on-with-it thing will convince fewer and fewer people. The press gallery won't be able to predict that, either; and unlike Taylor they will barely be able to describe it. They will still assume - and insist, despite all evidence - that Abbott has some deeper reserves to call upon not available to other failing leaders.

07 April 2015

With all due respect

Occasionally, press gallery journalists will show that they are even more dumb and/or sneaky in avoiding their central responsibility of telling us how we are governed.

Soon after taking office, Tony Abbott hired a TV cameraman so he could shoot his own flattering footage and have it sent directly to newsrooms, bypassing the press gallery. Now he has hired a stills cameraman, and Stephanie Peatling acts all surprised and sad.
It was not uncommon for the weekend television news to have only Mr Abbott's weekly video message, recorded by his staff and distributed on a Sunday, to use in bulletins.
They have plenty of options for the use of images, and of stories, other than those provided to them by the PM's office. They use those images because they're lazy. They don't check what Abbott says against sources of actual truth, which is a pretty good definition of journalistic failure. TV news ratings reflect this failure as, just because dopey news editors want to show the pap pumped at them from Canberra, viewers aren't obliged to watch it. Peatling's attempt to drum up sympathy for poor news editors just emphasises their failures rather than excusing them.

Peatling refers to a staged black-and-white picture of NSW Premier Mike Baird and his wife, which is similar to the staged pictures that former US President John F. Kennedy and his wife half a century ago. There have been many developments that have buffeted the Australian (and US) media and politics in recent years, and people like Peatling and those who employ her can be forgiven to some extent for not reacting quickly and deftly to all of these. For Baird to use a media-management technique from more than fifty years ago, and to have such a technique stump the Australian media, is laughable.

This, however, is the clincher:
Previously, media photographers were relied upon to take the pictures, which would then be selected by editors and placed in newspapers according to what a range of people judged to be the best image to illustrate a story.
Whenever journalists lapse into the passive voice they are up to no good, and this is another example. By "a range of people", Peatling means groupthink victims in an editorial team.

To give one recent example: a few days before the government introduced legislation that would imprison investigative journalists and their sources, "a range of people" decided that the image that best illustrated "the story" was one of the Prime Minister eating an onion. These people still control vast media resources and can direct journalists cover any number of stories - but they all decided the onion-eater image was the one that best prepared us for the coming of that legislation.

The sorts of people who make decisions like that are the sorts of people who hire Stephanie Peatling - people like Peter Hartcher. Now they're being ambushed by political media strategies that are half a century old. This is beyond risible, like being run over by a glacier.
Now, politicians can readily bypass that filter.
Really, was there ever a filter there? Whose interests did it serve? Was it just a make-work scheme for "a range of people"?
"It's one thing to go down the United States president path," Mr Kelly said. "But you have to ask yourself where it ends."
Every modern election campaign is 'presidential' and borrows to different degrees from techniques used in the US. This is hardly the novel, unexpected development Peatling and her source trying to make it out to be.

Tony Abbott has been a media operative since leaving the priesthood, and has worked out how to play the press gallery better than almost anyone who has occupied the Prime Ministership. He pulls stunts, he stonewalls, and they can't get enough. Now he's replacing them, sending audio, video and script direct into newsrooms.

He's doing it slowly enough - if he got called on it he'd backtrack and get the gallery to forgive him, and then when they were all busy he'd do it again. This is how Abbott works. The very people who should see this coming most clearly are completely surprised. And the beautiful thing - for Abbott - is that they don't even blame him.
Mr Abbott's office was contacted for comment but did not respond.
Bloody staffers!

Traditional media organisations want the government to send its competitors to prison. The government is happy to oblige, in return for not being criticised. And they are engaging in this dirty little arrangement in the name of freedom.

Successive governments have moved to restrict our freedoms over recent years. Occasionally journalists notice, after a while. Often they regard opposition to such measures as the work of hysterics and cranks. The restriction of freedoms under the Abbott government has been noticeable for how long it took the press gallery to notice them, and appreciate their severity. They still believe that internet users are a tiny minority of the population and a greater threat to traditional media than the laws themselves.

Only now, elements of the media from beyond the press gallery - media head offices, the MEAA, universities, and non-press-gallery journalists - have started to become involved. They realise the gravity of these laws was not conveyed by those on the ground, at the scene, the ones with all that Canberra savvy, whose job it is to tell us how we are governed.

What Laurie Oakes is doing here is not standing up for freedom, and rallying his readership. He is admitting to colossal professional failure. Restrictive legislation passed through parliament under his very nose and he just watched it go by. Now, he's doing a deal with the government to protect his EXCLUSIVEs but which does nothing to protect - let alone inform - anyone outside the parliament or the press gallery. This is a sneaky, ridiculous commercial deal at the expense of the rights and freedoms of all Australians.
... the Government has been alarmed by the strength of criticism from media of the Data Retention Bill it wants passed before Parliament rises in a fortnight. Bosses, journalists, even the Press Council, are up in arms, not only over this measure, but also over aspects of two earlier pieces of national security legislation that interfere with the ability of the media to hold government to account.
That legislation has passed, and as Oakes pointed out two other pieces of legislation also passed; journalists in the press gallery, employed for the sole purpose of monitoring what politicians are up to, missed its significance (see the onion-eater example above). There might have been a time when a united, concentrated effort might have stopped legislation like that in its tracks. That time has passed. Oakes is chronicling, and embodying, its decline.

In the decade following World War II, Australian governments tried drastic measures to impose order on issues that were too big for them. The Chifley government tried to nationalise the banks and the Menzies government tried to ban the Communist Party. Both measures were opposed by the media and thrown out by the courts. It remains to be seen whether this mass surveillance legislation is unconstitutional, but the response from the media hasn't been as ferocious as Oakes pretends.
The Press Council is concerned the laws would crush investigative journalism.
Stephen Conroy suggested the Press Council had more power over journalists and their employers than it does. He was portrayed as Stalin for suggesting measures that are trifling by comparison to actual legislation passed by the Abbott government. The media outlet that did that is the one that employed Oakes when Conroy was a minister, and which employs him still.
“These legitimate concerns cannot be addressed effectively short of exempting journalists and media organisations,” says president David Weisbrot.

The media union is adamant journalists’ metadata must be exempted from the law. That’s what media bosses want, too, though they have a fallback position based on new safeguards being implemented in Britain.

That would prevent access to the metadata of journalists or media organisations without a judicial warrant. There would be a code including — according to the explanatory notes of the British Bill — “provision to protect the public interest in the confidentiality of journalistic sources”.
There are two things to be said here.

First: the journalists' union, the MEAA, represents not only investigative journalists but also non-investigative journalists in the press gallery. The failure of the press gallery to raise the alarm, to explain to the public why an attack on their interests is an attack upon us all (as the banks did to their staff and customers in the 1940s) has put their investigative colleagues in the firing line, which is against the interests of media consumers, citizens and taxpayers. They need unity and discipline, but eventually they will need to acknowledge that the whole thing has become necessary only because the press gallery were asleep on the job.

Second: all Australians deserve freedom, not just those employed by the organisations that employ members of the press gallery.

Oakes and all those people on committees with him stand ready to sell everyone down the river so long as he and his get a little more wriggle-room, at the hands of "public interest guardians" who are hired and fired by the Prime Minister just like Peatling's photographer buddy.
In their meetings this week, the government team boasted of concessions in the new Data Retention Bill ... whenever an authorisation is issued for access to information about a journalist’s sources, the Ombudsman (or, where ASIO is involved, the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security) will receive a copy.
So?
Memories of the grief Conroy brought down on his head would undoubtedly make Abbott sit up and take notice.
Is that your considered judgment, Laurie, the fruit of a half-century of intimate knowledge of this country's politics and media? Pffft.

It has been said that Malcolm Turnbull began his working life in service to Kerry Packer and ends it in service to Murdoch; the same can be said of Oakes, who has not been a trusted source of political news for at least half a decade.

As a student, Kevin Rudd cleaned Oakes' house, and when Rudd was Prime Minister Oakes used all his gravitas and media pull to insist Rudd's government was fine, when it was tanking. The downfall of Kevin Rudd in 2010 undid the old media model whereby journos gave favourable coverage to preferred politicians; that preferred coverage meant the public were bewildered when Rudd failed so publicly, and when people like Oakes could neither predict it nor explain why it happened.

When [$] Chris Wallace insisted "Oakes goes where the story takes him, however it affects friend or foe", she wrote falsely and must assume that we have been paying as little attention to twenty-first century political journalism as she has.

With all due respect, the government is playing a wider game with regard to the information it releases to those it governs, and the role of the traditional media within that. Those who work in the traditional media, particularly those who observe politicians and legislative procedures up close, have no excuse for not being awake to that, and to do more than they did to head off this predicament.

What media offered politicians was a relationship with the community that machine politicians lacked; now the absence of that relationship, that conduit, has been exposed. Laurie Oakes and Stephanie Peatling both do the more-in-sorrow-than-anger pantomime, but their surprise and lack of preparation is pathetic.

The press gallery can no longer tell us much about how we are governed, or even very much about by whom. The press gallery, by its own admission, is worthless. It seems better to preserve the empty charade than to work toward something better.