22 May 2016

What the dead cat tells us

I still think Turnbull is running this campaign as one long validated learning exercise. It might not do him any good, but if there is any method behind the madness I'd suggest that is it.

US campaigns run for more than a year; political consultants from there struggle with our relatively compressed campaigns, and with compulsory voting. The last election campaign pretty much ran from Gillard's announcement in January 2013 until September, and within weeks it was all invalidated as Abbott negated the no-cuts pronouncements that got him elected. The last short, sharp election campaign we had was in 2010, upon which nobody from the major parties will look back fondly.

Long campaigns could well become the norm in Australia, especially in an environment where so many long-accepted verities are biting the dust. There are three things we've learned, and no doubt many more we are yet to learn:

Can't count, don't count

Had Peter Dutton's comments about illiterate, innumerate refugees taking our jobs and welfare simultaneously been delivered in the final week of the campaign, with the government well behind in the polls, it would be easy to pile on with all the other commentary that the government is desperately panicking, or panicking desperately. It is quintessentially conservative to go back to what once worked for you regardless of prevailing circumstances now.

But we're not in the final week of the campaign, are we? Polls are fairly even. If it wasn't for social media it might be difficult to find anyone who cares much about this election. We're all in a position to have learned something from Dutton's statement - hardly new or groundbreaking, was it? Dutton isn't pleading with the uncommitted, he's not engaging with Labor policy, he hasn't exacerbated the already dreadful conditions asylum-seekers under our care suffer now. It isn't as though he has trashed his brand: it's exactly the sort of pig-ignorant, nasty stuff he has said throughout his career. There's none of the classical allusions from Enoch Powell, nor the smart-alec lines from Morrison.

We've often been told that I am, you are, we're all terrible racists who vote accordingly. Pauline Hanson was a one-term MP who only won her seat in parliament by accident 20 years ago and has lost every race she ran in since. Tampa was not that big a deal in the 2001 election, neither a spike nor a dip in a trajectory that took Kim Beazley from Tomorrow's Man to Yesterday's Man that year without him ever having his day. But if a week is a long time in politics, surely fifteen years is epochal?

Labor doesn't really offer much difference in policy terms from the Coalition. Only partisans regard Dutton or Morrison or Ruddock as more intrinsically evil than the Labor ministers who held the portfolio. Labor's current immigration spokesperson, Richard Marles, is exactly the sort of bloodless functionary who whimpers "I was just following orders" when it all finally catches up with them. Pre-polling won't open for another month (you there, stop weeping).

Dutton's remarks can be said to dogwhistle dumb racists - the Hildebrand constituency, if you will - but in another way they signalled to another constituency altogether. Those who instantly spotted the contradictions of what Dutton said (we all know fine people who fled murderous regimes and contributed greatly to this country, and how can anyone steal my job while being too lazy to work?) are the very people who will play down the significance of asylum-seekers or racism generally as real issues: red meat tossed at the excitable lower orders, talked down and away by all thinking people such as we.

Personally, the only animosity I've ever felt towards boat people is these guys; if the various vessels being built in South Australia can fend them off it will be money well spent.

There could not be a better time to let Dutton off the leash, with plenty of time to adjust based upon evidence. The nbn raid rather complicates things, but generally we can expect one of four outcomes:
  • Polls will go heavily (4%+) in the Coalition's way: Asylum Seekers Took My Baby schlock reinforced as an issue.
  • Polls don't change: asylum-seeker policy seen as a non-issue.
  • Polls go heavily for Labor: a) Asylum Seekers Took My Baby schlock reinforced as an issue, but Coalition won't know what to do with it and Labor won't believe their luck, and/or b) nbn raid really takes centre stage.
  • Polls don't change much (-/=3%) either way: signal to Coalition will be unclear, but there will be a tsunami of media hype out of all proportion to what the issue really means.
The follow-up polling with Hildebrands will be fascinating. Racists are always called upon to redirect their attention to social services or other class-based issues, and they almost always jeer at the call. Whatever happens, it will be a teachable moment about the reach and appeal of this kind of scare campaign.

Jeez, mate!

Here is yet another dreary piece whining about what evil genius/es CrosbyTextor are/is. Toward the end of the piece there is a mention of how the evil geniuses failed in the London mayoral election, which rather blunts the thrust of the piece. So too does CT's patchy record at state level: since the 1990s Labor has not allowed itself to be outflanked on being seen as "tough on crime", which is pretty much CT's entire gamut of advice at this level.

Read the quote from Johnson again: it is not the consultant, nor the party that is their client, who is to blame for getting their message across. They are doing their job. The 'dead cat' messaging strategy works because the journalists covering it are - despite their much-vaunted experience - not clever enough to anticipate the 'dead cat'. They lack the guts and the sense to call it for the distraction that it is, and to keep their focus on issues of greater currency and relevance.

With 250 members of the Canberra press gallery, supposedly intelligent, diverse, and competitive to a man/woman, you'd think the very essence of savvy would lie in their ability to recognise and resist a blatant and predictable digression.

The very idea that they are helpless (as kittens?) before a 'dead cat' tactic is an indictment of the media, of the value of their experience and nous, and of CrosbyTextor's brothers-and-sisters-from-other-mothers within Labor and other organisations. It is those people who aren't doing their jobs. Digressions and diversions are covered extensively by Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, Clausewitz, and other strategists who long predate Crosby, Textor, Johnson, and all those who whine about them.

No journalist has any excuse for not being awake to the 'dead cat' manoeuvre. No journalist has any excuse for being sucked in, or doing another piece on how brilliant it is (you don't have to be brilliant to play a press gallery journalists for mugs). Any journalist who thinks they've done their job by describing the dead cat and not looking for the distraction is a fool. Any editor who confuses the 'dead cat' with the story of the day should be boiled in their own piss and then deported. The shame of it is not in planning and executing the manoeuvre, but in the hapless, helpless, and hopeless others who don't know what to do when the inevitable happens.

The real leader of the Liberal Party

Here's what happened: Dutton made his remarks, then however much you may have expected of an earlier version of Malcolm Turnbull, the fact is he endorsed the remarks and Dutton himself. Then, after that, for some reason, Mark Textor came out and backed Dutton.

What would motivate Textor even to comment on an operational campaign matter? Is he wired up to the media through the campaign, like a V8 Supercar driver or a Twenty20 cricketer? He doesn't have a formal role in the Liberal campaign, like Federal Director Tony Nutt. What happened after he spoke, however, was that the debate over Dutton's comments ended. The endorsement of the Prime Minister, the elected leader of the Liberal Party, didn't have that effect. Once Textor had spoken, chatter about whether Dutton had gone too far/not far enough simply stopped. Dutton's remarks were no longer 'a gaffe', but an intrinsic part of the Coalition campaign: tangible and undeniable as a corflute.

Katharine Murphy noted the events but got the analysis the wrong way around:
Presumably my question [about the propriety of Dutton's remarks in the context of the campaign] was impossible to answer before the prime minister set the tone. Given Malcolm Turnbull has backed in Dutton, Textor will now express a view in public.
Turnbull didn't set the tone, he was just another voice among many and the debate continued around him. Textor had the final, closing word in that debate, as a leader does.

A consultant should never make themselves the story - except when they do, and they silence the debate to an extent that neither Dutton or Turnbull can, clearly there is something else going on which Murphy and others have missed.

Former press gallery journalist, Hewson adviser and now ANU academic Norman Abjorensen, notes that neither Abbott nor Turnbull have dominated the Liberal Party as Menzies or Howard had. Crosby and Textor play that core role in the Liberal Party. They determine its strategy, its priorities, and its policy positions in the ways that used to be reserved for party members and/or leaders.

In 2007, John Howard had been a Liberal for half a century, in Parliament for a third of century, and at or near national leadership roles for a quarter of a century - yet he still put his fate in the hands of Crosby and Textor.

Whenever other elements in the Coalition disagree with Crosby and/or Textor, the latter prevail - that wouldn't be the case if they were mere back-office hirelings. Leaders have come and gone in the party organisation and the parliamentary party over the past twenty years, but those guys prevailed amid all the turmoil. No matter who won at any particular time or jurisdiction, they all took advice from Crosby and Textor. They cannot be sacked or backstabbed or shafted or dumped; no politician is so invulnerable. That's power. Turnbull and Dutton and Morrison and the rest of them are in office, but Crosby and Textor are in power.

The Liberal Party has outsourced its core function, which is why it has no compunction doing so to government services.

14 May 2016

Ahead of time

Starting a company is like throwing yourself off the cliff and assembling an airplane on the way down.

- Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn
The reason why Malcolm Turnbull opted for such a long campaign is because he has to build his campaign team from scratch.

The team that took the Liberal Party from defeat in 2007 through coming close to winning in 2010 and then regaining office in 2013 has largely remained loyal to Abbott. Most of those who weren't personally loyal to Abbott are just old-school campaign junkies who confuse action with progress, people who get rewarded with staffer jobs but who suck at actual slow-and-steady government.

The Nationals have experienced less of a turnover, but their ranks are full of people who were perfectly happy with Warren Truss, less so with Joyce. Backroom boys and girls always have a tough time with those who see themselves as having the common touch, and who back their own judgments over those of the data-wranglers and those who've watched The West Wing a little too ardently.

Turnbull has always had clever people around him, but there are different kinds of cleverness - people who crunch data on social issues and/or can boil down a fat academic tome on cities or defence into a snappy precis, and engage on the issues just enough with his sharp and well-honed mind. Turnbull uses this to impress journalists and others just how clever he is, which is why the entire press gallery fell so hard for him:
Malcolm Turnbull's standing as the Coalition's great communicator has taken a second hit ...
Well, Michael Gordon, you will keep setting up these straw men. I can see why people thought Hawke was a great communicator, but Turnbull? Where is the proof? He failed at the republic and was unconvincing as both minister for Murray-Darling water and for the national telecommunications system. He's good at close quarters but can't work a crowd, because when has he ever gotten anything from a crowd?
Crowds are noisy, unreasonable and impatient. They can trample you easier than a single person can. And a crowd will never buy you lunch. 
- P.J. O'Rourke Parliament of Whores
Turnbull's people aren't scrappers. They haven't had to fight for much, and being uncouth has counted against them rather than been rewarding, as it was for the Abbotts or Rudds of this world. They aren't particularly loyal to the Liberal Party per se (which is why they are using that Turnbull Australia livery: it means more to their team, such as it is, than that not-quite-retro 1970s-stylised blue 'L'). They don't have any of that 'romance of the road' that enables people to tolerate substandard conditions and upheaval day after day, all those flights and buses and cars and hotels/motels and late nights/early mornings and now Adelaide, now Queensland, now Westensinnyyyyyyyyyyyy ...

That leaves the Liberal Party with Tony Nutt, former Liberal State Director in about four states. Nutt is tough and shrewd; very hard to put anything over him. Nutt is fascinated by marginal seats and targeted campaigning and all that jazz in the way that Turnbull isn't - Abbott wasn't either, but he knew he needed it so he outsourced it to Credlin and Loughnane. Nutt could've been a great minister or a very good CEO. What he can't do is run a national campaign on his lonesome. Nobody can. Turnbull's people are the sort who'd bring plastic cutlery to a knife fight; Nutt would bring a chainsaw, but he can only do so much.

He could commandeer people from the states:
  • There are some good people with impressive track records from NSW who aren't sulking with Abbott, but not many;
  • Victoria is pretty much full of deadshits. It takes a village to raise a child and it takes a village of idiots to overlook or cover up for someone like Damian Mantach. The IPA are no good at campaigning because their ideas fail on actual contact with humans. Most other operators have had a run-in with Kroger or one of the sub-sub-factional warriors to which he franchises out the hard and dirty work of on-the-ground campaigning, leaving that state run by numbskulls with good people ostracised or confined to the sidelines. Kroger will scream blue murder if a) the second-raters close to him are snaffled by the feds and cruelly exposed in the far provinces beyond Murray's northern bank, or b) those who have incurred his disfavour get opportunities from the feds that he would deny them.
  • Queensland. I mean, I ask you. Blowing the biggest electoral majority this side of Iran in three years really is apocalyptically stupid (even worse than Victoria above). None of those people have much to offer their local municipality, let alone the nation; the few exceptions are rusted onto Barnaby, even though he has racked off to NSW. That places more weight than is wise upon James McGrath, the man who went to London and ensured that Boris Johnson left no political legacy whatsoever - and who would do the same to Turnbull, vastly overestimating coded appeals to racism and other lame shit like that.
  • South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania, the Territories? No, no, no, no, no. Everyone with ambition and capability has gotten the hell out of there.
Turnbull would have crashed with a traditional thirtysomething-day election campaign. It doesn't matter that he cancelled a street walk in Penrith, or lunched at a gentlemen's club in Melbourne, and no amount of traditional media hype can make it matter seven weeks from now.

Note what happened to Labor in 2010 after Rudd's 2007 campaign team fragmented. Some sat out the usurper (as Abbott's people are doing now), some took the mining industry's lolly; others couldn't quite believe it would be that bad for their side and never lifted beyond second gear, unprepared for Abbott's ferocity. A longer campaign gives the Turnbull government more time for a team to be assembled, and to gel in that mysterious way management theorists and sport coaches wax lyrical about but rarely deliver.

It is not so long that people lose focus. The second of July will be upon us all soon, regardless of our different involvement in this campaign, and the imperative will be on all to make the best of it. Turnbull is backing himself, and others will back him too - whether those people are those the Coalition needs is an open question. Shorten is backing himself, and momentum is as important within campaign teams as it is to the public beyond them.

Everyone's agile and innovative when they've got a rocket up them - or they flame out. Now you can see why the Liberals are like that with regard to workplace relations.

Peta Credlin was a member of Turnbull's staff in 2008, and it's fair to say that her efforts then and since have put Turnbull where he is today. If Nutt and Turnbull manage to build a team that comes together and fires at the right time, she will be both nasty and pathetic at the same time, like the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz after being doused with water*. If not, she'll simply sigh at the Coalition's stumbles and diagnose every problem with "not enough Tony".

This is why "campaign trail journalism" is so lame and such bullshit:
  • Firstly, Tim Crouse belled that cat in 1972, and since then this sub-genre has never been bettered or redeemed.
  • Secondly, Australian journalists do not have the feel for local communities that older-style US journalists had. Regional and suburban journalism has been all but wiped out in Australia, and it was rarely a first step for national journalists as it was in the US or UK. Campaign-trail journalists waft in off the bus and make half-witted, shallow observations about communities, which discredits those media outlets for paying customers who live in them ("if they're wrong about our community, what else are they wrong about? Why are we watching this?"), to which news directors respond by making each successive campaign more and more vacuous.
  • Thirdly, who appointed the media the "on message" police? When Duncan Storrar or Melinda ask about educational and employment opportunities, they're not going "off message" - they're trying to relate life in Australia as they know it to life in Australia as politicians would describe it. Politicians need to relate to voters, and vice versa: the media are meant to be the conduit for this, not to get in the way or pretend the dialogue is about something else. Party hacks have an imperative to be "on message" - that's their job, not the journalists', and not members of the public who are the point of every election. To hell with "on message", and to hell with the fewer than a thousand people across the nation who overestimate its importance.
  • Fourth, cross-continental smirking while waiting for someone to gaffe is tiresome, and fatal to the engagement media organisations crave for survival and relevance. Journalists become mobile jukeboxes of cliches, idly wondering if there are enough such cliches to keep them going for two months. There aren't, of course. The reason why press gallery journalism sucks so hard is because they sit around Canberra for two-and-a-half years ignoring actual policy and governing and stuff, wishing they were on the campaign trail; and when on the campaign trail, they half-heartedly complain about the shallowness of it all, without admitting that they couldn't do policy if they tried. Their political cliches are exhausted before the writs have been issued. The engagement media organisations need for their very survival becomes swamped by the apathy they themselves have engendered.
  • Fifth, you can't explain why Shorten and Labor are competitive without reference to policy. Given that Shorten hasn't had a charisma transplant, vacuous non-policy theatre-review analysis simply can't and won't work. Coverage of policy is done better off the campaign trail than on it (wtf does "tapdance a little faster" really mean, and would anyone with more than 10 minutes' experience of politics honestly believe more hype and stunts would improve anything?).
  • Sixth, for media organisations looking to cut costs, two months of junkets to produce audience-repellent content is unsustainable. The 'romance of the road' leads to in-jokes and inability to communicate with those who weren't there at the time; which is everyone, and that defeats the very idea of journalism. Everything you had wanted, or will want, to say about the 'romance of the road' has been done in this song - thanks anyway. The major parties are increasingly creating their own content and are happy to provide it direct to the newsroom for free (no Alice, staffers are not playing journalist, they are working to replace you and you are helping them).
Turnbull needs a long campaign to build his team, which will by necessity be a different team to the one he (kind of) inherited from Abbott. If it works for Turnbull he'll have a new team for government, one that will carry on into 2019. If not, he can walk away knowing he did his best, leaving others to piece together what it means to be a Liberal in this century: a bit of Abbott rage and resentment here, a magazine cover of the royal family there, a tax cut - maybe something can be cobbled together from all those broken bits, who knows.

Shorten is a long-game player, a quality not seen since Howard or Rudd and not fully understood even by experienced journalists. Paul Kelly described Shorten as "sharper and crisper" than Turnbull, which would be great if the alternative Prime Minister was a white wine. This election can only be understood with regard to policy: Labor have more of it, and it is more consistent, than that of the government. This "out of the blocks faster" crap, or oenological metaphors, defeat the fundamental task of journalism: to explain what is going on, and why it matters. Traditional political journalism isn't good enough for this campaign. Everyone who thinks it might be is wrong, even if they've backed themselves like Turnbull and Shorten have.

Journalists could have a closer look at Labor policy, but that won't be done from the back of a hall in a marginal seat. They could have a closer look at government policy too, and Turnbull will try to work out a way to razzle-dazzle and bamboozle them as he has in the past. Having begun his working life at the feet of an old-school media mogul, he assumes vox media vox populi, which journalists of his vintage and journalism educators take as gospel. I don't think he is right about that, but when it comes to politics and the not-quite-dead press gallery I've been wrong before - or maybe just ahead of my time.

Update: credit to [$] Laura Tingle and Lenore Taylor, two of the better journalists in the press gallery, who have each come to question the ongoing value of campaign trail journalism.


* While it's true that women in public life ought not be regarded as witches as a general rule, Peta Credlin's systematically misogynistic (e.g. "ditch the witch") campaign against Julia Gillard puts her in breach of one of the iron laws of Australian politics: What's Sauce For The Goose Is Sauce For The Gander (as amended from time to time).

20 April 2016

Mummies and daddies

It's long been a cliche of US politics that Republicans are the daddy party while Democrats are the mommy party: Republicans believe (ostensibly) in punishment for wrongdoing and rewards for doing the right thing, while Democrats just want to make sure everyone's healthy and doing well at school. Australian politics seems to be moving along similar lines, with the major parties selecting candidates that reinforce those images in their very bodies.

We all want security in an uncertain world. Members of the Coalition believe the security they can offer Australians in government is with a sound economy, stable and dynamic at the same time, to ensure today's jobs and growth going forward. Increasingly, police and military and others involved in security are challenging the domination of businessmen. Government as security provider is a paternalistic view of government and its role. It resonated in 2013 amidst media narratives of Labor chaos, and their ridiculous overestimation of Tony Abbott's ability to provide stable and secure leadership.

The NSW Coalition has three women in the winnable positions on its Senate ticket: sitting Senators Concetta Fierravanti-Wells and Fiona Nash, then Hollie Hughes. The Victorian Liberals had planned to do the same, the common wisdom elevating Jane Hume from number two on their ticket and choosing another female Liberal to fill that place, with Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie making up the three winnable spots (assuming a half-Senate election with six Senators to be elected). Senator Michael Ronaldson brought forward his retirement and spoiled that plan, with IPA office boy James Paterson taking Ronaldson's position atop the Liberal Senate ticket.

Since then every Liberal preselection has been won by a man. Departing female Liberal MPs Sharman Stone and Bronwyn Bishop have not been replaced by women, but by men. Apparently men are more credible in talking about the economy than women; we shall see how well that goes for them.

The Victorian Liberals used to produce formidable matriarchs like Dame Ivy Wedgwood, who never won (or sought) preselection but made sure women's issues achieved a prominence they would not otherwise have received from an all-male parliamentary party. Today, Louise Asher and Mary Wooldridge may already be past the peak of their influence. Inga Peulich, like Bronwyn Bishop in NSW, has no interest in advancing women candidates. Every other Liberal woman is flat out securing her own spot rather than building a base to help others. The opinionated Janet Albrechtsen is happy to be a consort rather than test the reach, validity, and influence of her theories.

Much was made of Georgina Downer running for Liberal preselection in Goldstein, and losing.

The Victorian Liberals used to be big on scions and breeding as a consideration for candidates; even Robert Menzies relied early in his career on being the son of an MLC. Downer's political inheritance was both a blessing and a curse. The IPA domination of the party's ways of looking at government and itself meant the prospect of a fourth-generation politician was to be resisted. The political DNA from her great-grandfather (a former Premier of South Australia), her grandfather (former Changi internee and Immigration Minister), and her father (former Party leader and Foreign Minister) seemed less important than the XX-chromosome.

When it became clear Downer was losing the Goldstein preselection to Tim Wilson, she allowed her supporters to play the homophobia card. I have no idea whether she descended to this herself and it's not one of the things that matter. At the risk of getting all intersectional here, it was important that Downer did not win on the basis of homophobia and hopefully she's learnt a hard lesson well; if she hasn't, stuff her. Sir Alec's granddaughter ought never have stooped to that.

Discuss: it's more important to have fewer homophobes in Parliament than more women - and as this is Australian politics, no it isn't big enough for both.

Labor have pretty much given up on the job security thing, happy for unions to wage the odd battle here or there for entitlements but accepting that the war for permanent, secure employment for all is pretty much a thing of the past. Look at that typical male worker profiled in the Harvester judgment in 1907, detailed down to his three kids and allowance for tobacco; he is as remote from workers today as those who built the Pyramids. Providing state-sponsored health and education seems to be their way of offering security in an insecure world. You could call it a maternalistic approach.

Not every Labor candidate endorsed for the current election are women, but many of them are; more than have been endorsed in the past. Health and education have been increasingly important The framing of this is interesting, and of course the Daily Telegraph is too dopey to question it. Note that:
  • it isn't the party leader, Bill Shorten, who is demanding more women candidates and being vindicated;
  • it isn't the party's deputy leader, Tanya Plibersek - a woman and from Labor's Left - who is calling for more women candidates and succeeding;
  • it isn't prominent Labor women like Penny Wong or Anastacia Palaszczuk who get the credit for years of activism to this end;
  • it isn't the party's rank-and-file, often invoked but rarely consulted, who rose as one to insist more women be given a go; but instead
  • the State Secretary gets the credit for delivering a full complement of viable, appealing female candidates.
The position of NSW Secretary of the ALP has been imbued with mystical powers of control over Australian politics, impressions cultivated by those who held the office like Graham Richardson and Mark Arbib, and burnished by no-hopers like Eric Roozendaal or Jamie Clements. The current occupant, Kalia Murnane, is using the legendary powers of her office to promote Labor women, and by doing so reinforce her own position. This manoeuvring meant that a woman Labor State Deputy Leader from the Left was replaced by a man from the Right, but hey:
Declaring the line-up as “unprecedented”, Labor’s new female boss Kaila Murnain said the party had more than met its 40 per cent quota.

“Many of these women are in winnable seats, which will mean our representation of women in parliament is set to increase,” she said.
Is it unprecedented, or just "unprecedented"? This is easily checkable and would have demonstrated a brain engaged with this subject matter, rather than just more transcription journalism. How many of those women are in winnable seats? Have women been put into safe Coalition seats for the sake of the quota? It isn't clear from that article and there is no list on the NSW Labor website at time of writing. Let's do the maths:
  • There are 21 women identified in that article;
  • There are seven women Labor MHRs from NSW, including Plibersek. Of those, all but Jill Hall will definitely nominate again, or have been preselected;
  • There are two women NSW Labor Senators, both likely to renominate;
  • According to the article, "Of the nine most winnable seats, five will be contested by female candidates"; this leaves us with
  • Eight Labor candidates (seven if Hall is re-endorsed in the face of the Conroy-Fitzgibbon stoush over Hunter) who are pretty much making up the numbers in safe Coalition seats.
Again, note the frequency in that article with which Murnane is referred to as "Labor boss". You might wheel in Shorten to lay on some verbal tinsel, but the point of this article is to underline Murnane's power and the purposes for which she is using it:
Mr Shorten said it was a major achievement for Labor to have so many women standing.

“We are streets ahead of the Liberal Party when it comes to increasing the number of women in parliament,” he said.
Labor is beating the Liberals in a fight they have abandoned. You may as well say Labor is streets ahead in selecting trade unionists.

Health and education are two sectors of the workforce definitely likely to grow into the foreseeable future; two areas of the workforce with high percentages of women at all levels of responsibility, two areas where (HSU shenanigans notwithstanding) union membership remains strong. Old-school Labor powerbrokers like Doug Cameron (from the Manufacturing Workers' Union) and other horny-handed sons of toil from male-dominated industries are less likely to retain their historic grip over Labor's future.

The concern here is that political coverage and debate degenerates even further where there is no common ground: he says more money for defence, she says more money for healthcare, no evaluation and off to the pub. With major parties cleaving in this way, the political emphasis turns to those outside the majors who will have to be able to discuss defence and healthcare, and allocate resources to both. It means the ballot every three or four years becomes a blunter instrument than it is already. It means the real stories lie far from the announceables.

At the very time Australian politics is becoming more interesting, the press gallery is gearing up for two months of cliche-milling, gathering mindlessly into formation like Orwell's cavalry horses. They will be unable to break out of he-said-she-said coverage, which will guarantee they miss the real stories: the information we need to make sound decisions over the government of the country, creating the value that might make traditional media's future more sound than it appears.


* Note: when I describe parties' offerings above, I am describing my understanding of those offerings, rather than propagandising for/against those parties. Label-slapping responses and tweets will have to be good to get published, let alone warrant a response.

05 April 2016

Some sort of difference

Yesterday gave several great examples of why the press gallery's insistence on a narrative - and cramming everything that may happen into it - produces such terrible journalism.

Kevin Andrews is not going to be Prime Minister. He's not even the next Liberal Opposition Leader. The framing of this is just such bullshit. It's designed to feed into a narrative that Turnbull is so "beleaguered" that a low-flier like Kevin Andrews might seriously fancy his chances.

Let's do instead what press gallery journalists can't, despite their much-vaunted experience and all that oak-vatted savvy from which they draw so deeply. Let's piece together real things that actually happened and see if they indicate a pattern.

When Turnbull was Opposition Leader in 2009, Kevin Andrews challenged him and did better than expected. This brought on the later challenge by Abbott and Hockey which succeeded in knocking Turnbull off.

He was no closer to becoming PM then than he is now. Andrews is trying to make out that he has a future, that he's a player, and that he deserves yet another term in Parliament.

Kevin Andrews has been in Parliament since 1991. His one big success came in the late 1990s when he built bridges between Coalition conservatives and Labor conservatives (led by the young Tony Burke) to vote down Northern Territory legislation allowing for euthanasia.

That vote put the lie to the idea - still dearly beloved by the press gallery - that anything on which Labor and the Coalition agree must be "centre ground", reasonable and moderate and all good things about Australian politics.

Since then he's been a dud:
  • He was the Immigration Minister who made a scapegoat of Dr Haneef, and didn't even get that right;
  • He was the Workplace Relations Minister who could neither sell WorkChoices nor dismantle it;
  • He was the Social Security Minister who couldn't curb his nanny-state impulses for the sake of the Budget; and
  • As Defence Minister he was nothing more than a seat-warmer. He failed to understand that warships are blunt instruments in combatting militant Islam, yet had the gall to insist (unchallenged, but for social-media sniggers) that his removal from the portfolio represented a threat to national security.
Some Liberal preselections have been held, while others will be decided within the next few weeks. Menzies is the safest Liberal seat in the greater Melbourne area. Other Liberals holding safe seats there (Josh Frydenberg, Kelly O'Dwyer) may argue they deserve a little longer yet, while Tim Wilson is yet to get his feet under the desk.

Ambitious Victorian Liberals must look upon Andrews and conclude reasonably that he's had a fair go. To give a now-obscure example, Conrad Xanthos is ten years less inexperienced than he was the last time he posed a preselection threat to Andrews.

When Andrews proclaims himself a real chance of keeping the Prime Minister on his toes, he is trying to frighten off would-be challengers. The chestnut hair dye, the grey air of calm reassurance sliced with the occasional lightning-flash of defiance, all reveal a determination that many (including experienced observers) have underestimated for too long. Mere months ago, the then Prime Minister allowed speculation Andrews might give way to said PM's chief-of-staff; with a snarl he put paid to that.

We've all seen what happened to Dennis Jensen - a spring chicken compared to Andrews. Nobody wants to go out like that. Jensen also believed his talents shouldn't have been wasted on the backbenches, but so what?

Andrews says he has more to offer. Not even the vast journalistic resources of the Manningham Leader (nor those of any other traditional media outlet, really) are sufficient to explore what that might be.

Conservative men like Andrews constantly complain that they are on the defensive, that they are underdog defenders of mainstream values, even when they occupy positions of power and implement policies not supported by anything like a majority of Australians.

Andrews was in word and deed the "Captain Catholic" Abbott only ever talked about. The greatest churchman of their generation, George Pell, is depleted of moral authority when his titular authority should be absolute. Abbott came and went with nothing to show conservatives what might be done with political power. Apart from maybe Burke or Bowen (and even they have disavowed Church tenets like heterosexual reproduction-only marriage), no other Australian politician can show conservatives what might be possible. Andrews is doing his yeoman best but it just isn't good enough.

Andrews' generation of conservatives have cried 'wolf' for so long and are being ignored. We all know what happens next in that story: even Kevin Andrews.

The prospect of same-sex marriage has been so long delayed it is a failure of democracy. That prospect looms before Christianists like Andrews, and terrifies them. It has such momentum that we face the diminution (but not quite the disappearance) of the moral suasion against homosexuality that has existed since the late nineteenth century. What is now called homophobia used to be an unspoken given; now the case against homosexual equality must be articulated publicly by its proponents, and from none of them is it convincing.

People like Andrews can't quite believe that battle against women in equal paid employment, or against legalised (and publicly funded!) abortion, are well and truly lost. Traditional dominion of men over their households has been weakened by increasing measures against domestic terrorism and funding women's refuges. Kevin Andrews' whole political career has been in fighting those sorts of measures without being seen to be hostile toward hardworking people. He still thinks he can be effective in some small way somewhere, against all evidence to the contrary.

Perpetuating those battles is the "sort of difference" Andrews is hoping to make. He wants to be the dog in the manger a little longer: a fluffy dog panting smilingly and wagging his tail, but stopping others from using it to their ends regardless. Note how he expresses his wish in the soft humble words that had worked so well to deflect hostility, as he went about the quiet busywork that made the lives of those he opposed slightly more difficult.

Latter-day braggarts like Cory Bernardi or Ted Cruz show conservatives today need to cast off the sheep's clothing to cut through. Andrews can't do that: he is ovine in his soul. Nor can he keep up the penny-ante obstructions in an age of disclosure and selfies. The Liberals of Menzies may keep him on, or they may not; had they opted for a bright young thing after 2007, as other safe Liberal electorates did, their future might be better assured. Of all the ambitious young conservatives out there in Melbourne, very few are putting themselves forward "in the Kevin Andrews tradition".

By contrast, Phillip Ruddock goes into retirement knowing his legacy is secure. Ruddock developed and promulgated an Australian conservatism that didn't rely so heavily on The Crown, The Anglosphere, And All Things English. He hands over to Julian Leeser and Concetta Fierravanti-Wells while Andrews has no political heir. You can't be The Champion of Families in a job that is actively hostile to family life, and someone like Andrews won't join with the lefty feminists who would make Parliament more family-friendly. What if he had to hand over to some sodomite like that Goldstein fellow? This is another reason why Andrews wants a little more time: nobody wants his life's work carted away in a skip.

This is why Gray Connolly is wrong to insist that conservatism somehow springs whole and pure from grubby encounters with reality. All political movements need exemplars. Those who would carry the torch forward need the ability to stand on the shoulders of giants while being able to see what the giants themselves could not. Conservatives rightly sneer at marxists who think their movement(s) has/have survived successive debacles: Budapest, the Hundred Flowers, building hipster apartments from the rubble of the Berlin Wall. We have seen Australian conservatives distance themselves from Menzies, from Fraser, from Askin and the Courts, from Kennett and Hamer, and now Abbott and even Turnbull - and a fat lot of good it does them.

Experienced press gallery journalists should have laughed at Andrews' feeble rearguard action. A political analyst who can't distinguish weakness from strength simply sucks at their job, regardless of any imperative to excrete 600 words/20 seconds of blather on command. Nobody will buy a single copy of a newspaper on the basis of Kevin Andrews keening for another go around: to quibble with that would diminish what little value there may be in experienced political journalism.

There are many stories to be told from Canberra. Media advisors and their own herd instincts ensure the press gallery will miss almost all of them. The piping roar of a frightened, toothless old lion from a non-marginal seat in the 'burbs should not have been relayed so far. It should not have been infused with any importance it never had.

26 March 2016

Heave away, haul away

Critics of privatisation and outsourcing often complain you can go too far, that by hiving off "non-essential" functions you end up compromising some part of the organisation that is essential to its survival. Despite what organisational theorists say, there often is no clear line between essential and non-essential functions, and plenty of smart and experienced people have gotten that wrong.

So have the South Australian Liberals. Liberals in that state will follow their Queensland counterparts into history.

The old one-two

Nick Xenophon evolved a constituency that neither the Liberals nor the Democrats fully recognised: people concerned about the increased availability of gambling in a state where it had never been prevalent. He expanded his appeal to cover the spaces left by the dying Democrats, and vacated by the Liberals as they moved right. Now that the Liberals want to move back to the centre, it's too late; Xenophon owns that space now.

Part of the Liberal Party's shift to the right meant that they lost the ability to rein in someone like Cory Bernardi. A precocious young student politician, Bernardi modelled not only his policy outlook but his organisational structure on US brimstone-and-sodomy conservatives. Nobody becomes a Liberal Senator without backing from a substantial portion of the party, having worked the branches and other party structures assiduously (Bernardi was a protege of Nick Minchin, the party's State Director who stacked an overwhelmingly moderate state organisation in favour of conservatives). What made Bernardi different was building networks of fundraising and patronage independent of the Liberal Party, tapping into funds and support that the SA Liberals didn't know about and weren't obliged to declare.

By the time Bernardi took top spot on the Liberal ticket in 2007 the threat was implicit: put me at the top of the ticket or I'll run against you. Nick Minchin retired soon afterwards, knowing Bernardi was building a political superstructure taking him beyond the reach of the party, and beyond the discipline of people like himself. His setting-up of a new conservative party has been a long, long time coming. Finally, he's judged that his hour is at hand, and that he is free to drop off the Liberal Party like a sated tick.

Bernardi hasn't done this before now because the SA Liberals were always a more viable vehicle than anything he might cobble together, alone or with useful idiots like Family First. No longer: the SA Liberals are done. But the relative strength of left and right isn't enough to explain the collapse of the SA Liberals. They assumed they would have a permanent place no matter how little they did, how little they delivered for South Australia.

The franchisee

Labor has become the default party of government in that state. They actually focus on health and education and transport and all those other properly state-based issues. While they don't get every call right and have been in too long, they seem to actually care about congested roads or bad schools or whatever - they aren't diffident about those issues like the Liberals. Labor fights ferociously for every election and the Liberals are diffident about those too; the Liberals win the protest vote but fail to translate that to winning a majority of lower house seats, which underlines their diffidence and lack of the necessary political passion necessary to govern. They talk about economic development but they can't do it, and everyone knows they can't do it.

The leader of the SA Liberals is a nice man - Simon or Stephen or something like that - who acts like the franchisee he has always been, in office but somehow not in charge. If John Martin's department store still existed he would be standing in the window modelling what a suit might look like if a man were wearing it. When the federal government comes to town (rather than flying past Adelaide) they drag along what's-his-name to stand and nod.

He might have disagreements with Jay Weatherill - but Weatherill has imposed himself on his own party so ruthlessly you get the sense if Stewart ever took him on, Weatherill would leap over the Dispatch Box and rip his liver out. Even his "home" electorate is named after Labor's greatest Premier. Weatherill gets bogged down in the intractable difficulties of funding a growing state with a stagnant economy because he doesn't have to play politics with an opposition that is simply no good at that game.

It isn't like he stands before a band of seething rivalries, either; the Franchisee is the best they have. Conservatives spent years hissing at Vickie Chapman until they realised there was nothing for them to worry about. The years of backroom drama with titanic figures like Joan Hall or Nick Minchin having at one another meant that Liberal candidates tended to be no-fuss, inoffensive, even insipid. Minchin realised early, and schooled John Howard in the idea, that the lack of Liberal governments at state level helped ensure a Liberal government at the federal level. He smoothed the dying pillow over the careers of several promising MPs who might get in the way of his wider vision.

Can't be fixed

Christopher Pyne was 26 when first elected to the very safe Liberal seat of Sturt in 1993. When John Hewson was replaced by Alexander Downer as Liberal leader soon afterwards, Pyne said to John Howard "why don't you retire?".

A decade after that, Howard was still Prime Minister and Pyne was still a backbencher. Pyne became chief source for breathless press gallery stories that any day now, any day, Peter Costello would challenge Howard. It was nonsense but it kept both Pyne and the gallery in work, and each was grateful to the other. Eventually, by sheer attrition, Pyne became the guy at the centre of it all, the fixer without whom nothing would get done. The press gallery applauded his childish parliamentary tactics, borrowed from the US Congressional Republicans. In the leadership turmoil following 2007 he switched his vote late, but decisively, ensuring his choice and the winner were the same, and that the winner was grateful to him.

Back in South Australia, the mining boom lulled South Australians into overconfidence about Olympic Dam and defence equipment and other big dreams to transition the economy away from the clearly failing vehicle industry. When the dream died with the mining boom, Labor went back to basics at the state level and lost the plot federally. The Liberals offered criticism but not an alternative. 2013 offered South Australians a change of federal government with one of their own, Christopher Maurice Pyne himself, where he had always wanted to be: at the centre of the action.

Pyne could have had the clout to kick the car industry along for a little while, but he didn't. He could have managed a vast transition from cars to military manufacturing (or something else), but he didn't. Goodness knows he's had time enough and resources to think of something. Unhappy is the land that needs a hero. Those of us who never believed in Pyne were vindicated at such a terrible cost; those who thought he deserved the benefit of the doubt are so far beyond mistaken, it's embarrassing all round.

As Education Minister, he might have found a way to channel more money to the state's creaking institutions - but all he did was propose $100k degrees (increasing the impetus for talented young South Australians to flee their state), and open gimcrack colleges that collapsed before students could complete their courses. South Australia backed Pyne for decades and had hoped for more from him than he could ever deliver. "We will support all Australian students to embrace the digital age" - yeah, right.

When the naval construction contracts went to Spain over Adelaide, the story made the news in Sydney but it did not carry the full anguish from South Australia. It went way beyond Port and the Crows bundled out of the footy finals. It was a realisation that their final hopes were dashed, despite doing everything they could within the system to get some sort of relief. He's blown it. All the consultants who claim they can help him un-blow it are just taking donors' money under questionable pretences.

Pyne has compromised and triangulated so much, like Hillary Clinton in this masterful examination of US politics, that it isn't clear who he is any more. Maybe it isn't even clear to him. He's Minister for Industry from a de-industrialising state, when the BCA and the IPA expect him to sell the unsellable and judge hm accordingly. The new Liberal candidate for Boothby would want to be a cracker because otherwise Adelaide will be an all-Labor city in Federal Parliament, like Canberra or Newcastle.

If there's a double dissolution, the top two Liberal Senate candidates will be Bernardi and David Fawcett, two right-wing goons (if the standard half-Senate election, just Fawcett). Next on their list is Senator Sean Edwards, former real estate agent and transactional pol who put together the painstaking case for frigates and submarines to be built in Adelaide. If Edwards loses (as well he might - your 3-3 half-Senate election results are less likely going forward) it will be another one in the eye for the standard politics of representing your constituency and having your voice heard in Canberra; it will be the government's own fault for failing to respect assiduous grass-roots politics.

The next state election is in 2018 and the Franchisee is unlikely to take things forward. Chris Pyne may well be a private citizen, and we'll see what his extensive experience is worth then. Xenophon's federal focus will see his party play a limited role. Bernardi will trash Safe Schools and abortion, but otherwise have little to offer education or health. People will still vote for those guys, though.

Holdfast

The seismic shift in SA politics places a heavy load on Labor's internal processes to keep the state government honest and vital, and stop them sending monkeys to Canberra. When Sam talks about 2036 he looks forward to a time when the children will indeed be the future but most of his party's current members will be dead. He may well be the last SA Liberal leader, or at least the last where the party is clearly the second-biggest party in the state's politics.

All centrists get accused of being neither one thing nor the other. Most centrists muddle through with a bit of both and something else besides. The SA Liberals have none of that, not any more, and they won't be getting any in. They've abandoned the centre and the dingoes on the right have abandoned them. The state is stagnating economically, so any donor money is going to have to flow in from outside. The Queensland Libs struggled along as the branch office of a national movement for so long, and then gave up on themselves just as conservatives came to realise they needed the suburban south-east more than a shiny new civic centre at Woop Woop.

Whyalla isn't falling back on small business grandees, but on renewable energy - no help from the Libs there. The drought will exacerbate water quality problems in the Murray River, but the Liberal MP who represents that area has spent half a million dollars renovating his office. The SA Libs don't have Nationals but that's the least of their problems. They don't have enough to fall back on, and conservatives need something to be nostalgic about. Playford, Hall, Tonkin, Brown, and Olsen aren't a heritage: they're answers in a pub quiz.

The only future the SA Libs have is to show the rest of their party what structural decline looks like, and that majoritarian arrogance (what US Congressional Republicans call "the nuclear option") is a non-starter. Maybe lack of background will benefit the SA Libs, as it did for Tonkin and Brown, but only briefly - and it's too late for Saul. There may be a reconciliation of left and/or right after Xenophon or Bernardi, but you can't bet on the SA Liberals being led by broad-coalition community-minded people who could pull that off.

23 March 2016

Ever-decreasing circles

We were full of beans
But we were dying like flies
And those big black birds, they were circling in the sky
And you know what they say, yeah, nobody deserves to die


- Hunters and Collectors Holy grail
It is one of the most interesting developments in modern Australian political journalism that the best interviews are not conducted by members of the press gallery. They are not conducted by "serious journalists" on Sky or the ABC.

They are conducted on breakfast television. Lisa Wilkinson, Karl Stefanovic, and David Koch put Tony Abbott through his paces far more than David Speers or Emma Alberici ever did. Breakfast presenters get out of bed when late-night presenters get into theirs, but even with a full day of research and preparation it's the early-birds who get the political worms. Samantha Armytage sold herself short when she said that she joined breakfast television because she'd given up on serious journalism.

It was Wilkinson, not Leigh Sales or Laurie Oakes, who got Turnbull to admit he consults only a very small circle of people when it comes to things like the Budget. Turnbull has been a small-circle guy all his life. He didn't get where he is by cultivating a heaving mass of people. The nearest he got to a mass movement was the republic, and even then he cultivated an inner core of celebrities rather than a broader constituency.

For much of 2015, Australia's savviest political insiders not only insisted that Joe Hockey should leave the Treasury and be replaced by Scott Morrison. Nobody in the press gallery questioned that Morrison, like John Kerin a generation earlier, would effortlessly make the transition to Treasurer (indeed, many of them had been in the gallery when Kerin was Treasurer). They should have known better.

None of them looked at the decisions Turnbull made, either. In his first Cabinet, Turnbull took the unprecedented step of bringing the Assistant Treasurer (basically Minister for Revenue) into Cabinet. Kelly O'Dwyer was on Costello's staff and has been the closest thing Australian politics gets To The Treasury Born; Christian Porter is similar: a second-generation politician who succeeded (if that's the word) Troy Buswell as WA Treasurer, but who got out ahead of the mess that's since been left to that ninny from the IPA. Both O'Dwyer and Porter are reserve Treasurers.

Turnbull could have chosen anyone as head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet; he chose the former head of Treasury, Dr Martin Parkinson, who has spent his career putting Budgets together. If you fought your way through the Narrative, you'd hear some of the better press gallery journalists noting that Parkinson was playing a more prominent role in putting the Budget together than DPMC heads before him. As if Costello would have tolerated that from Max Moore-Wilton or Peter Shergold. As if Wayne Swan would have tolerated that from Rudd's office or Gillard's.

As if Scott Morrison has a choice. Morrison's life isn't about mass movements either, or even small circles. Morrison is about boiling complex issues down to snappy slogans. Keating could do snappy slogans too, but only after he had demonstrated to the press gallery that he was across the complex economics of the budget. Keating's slogans projected his understandings onto an issue; Morrison's slogans succeed when they deflect attention away from himself, which they rarely do because there is no understanding on which to project.

Morrison has spent his life sucking up to Howard and others with patronage. His preselection was secured after a head-office intervention against a well-organised rightwinger, and even now the Liberal factions in Cook could squash Morrison like a bug if they so chose. Turnbull doesn't need Morrison to suck up to him.

Turnbull doesn't have a political base in the Liberal Party, and Morrison hasn't got one to offer him. Morrison has inhabited that shadowy, ill-defined world in the Liberal Party which is neither moderate, nor economic-rationalist right (more a Vic thing than NSW), nor the brimstone-and-sodomy religious right. Like Labor's Centre-Left, this constituency shrinks when examined or tested in actual ballots. Morrison could have been their champion if he was any good, but he isn't. He's not much help to Turnbull, and if he turned on the Prime Minister Morrison would become a joke.

Perhaps Morrison could have impressed Turnbull sufficiently to have his head. He could have leapt into the role of Treasurer, rendering O'Dwyer and Porter or any other pretenders as irrelevant as Chris "Anthems" Whittaker was to the Wallabies under George Gregan. He could have quietly mastered his brief, like McMahon or Hayden or Howard or Ralph Willis or Swan. Too late for that now.

It's one thing to play that Canberra game of getting Turnbull to express confidence in Morrison, but fuck that shit. What is worse: for Turnbull to persist with the slander that Morrison really is the best Treasurer we could have, or to admit that the real fiscal and economic decisions are made by people other than the titular Treasurer? Turnbull might as well read out the Budget himself, Morrison is just the spokesperson.

When Morrison speaks of blockchain it isn't just that he's out of his depth: John Gorton might have had opinions on the Rolling Stones, but it doesn't matter what they were. Morrison is planting a tree under the shade of which he will never sit, with all the pathos that goes to that. He won't be Treasurer after this coming election. I doubt he'll be a candidate for the following one.

The Howard years narrowed the Liberal Party, leaving them nowhere to go after 2007. They lost the ability to forage for ideas, abilities Menzies and Howard developed in opposition when their fortunes were so dire nobody would come and talk to them. The small circles of the BCA and the IPA had ideas frozen, shrink-wrapped and ready to go, and the Liberals were only too ready to take them; they didn't heed the warnings that they were selling the unsellable, because there were no such warnings.

Journos didn't examine Liberal ideas to closely. Nobody pondered the implications of the Nats taking money from miners assuming there was no conflict with farming communities. All that experience watching governments come and go, a quarter century observing Abbott up close, counted for diddly-squat when it came time for them to help us decide our governments. The BCA and IPA played the Liberal Party; they got the windfalls and the credit if the Liberals somehow got the public to swallow their ideas, and if they didn't the ideas remained but the Liberals were trashed.

The Liberals faced no critics within or without, just inchoate whingers who were fobbed off with Abbott's sheep-clothing routine ("no cuts ..."). They became small circle jerks, both scornful and fearful of the public they yearn to reach, but who seem to shrink beyond their reach regardless of how well polled, monitored, or commented-upon we are.

After 2007 the Coalition needed to rethink. They needed those years where nobody would talk to them in order to forage for ideas. Turnbull hasn't used his time in the wilderness to good effect, buggering the NBN and leaving the commercial media without any hope from change in their regulatory environment (no matter how the regulatory environment changes, those who run commercial media will screw it up). He is like Churchill after the disasters of Crete and Dieppe, but without the stirring rhetoric or any hope for some D-Day master plan. Yet, plenty of press gallery still insist that if only they can somehow make it into those inner circles they can report what it's like. They can't admit to themselves there's no there there: not in terms of Turnbull, not in terms of press gallery journalism itself.

Labor have been abandoned by spivs and rentseekers. They have used their time well, listening to pointyheads rather than dismissing them for being unable to compete with them in politics.

They probably won't make a convincing case this time, and their backroom operators are being defensive and silly with the Greens. Mind you, Turnbull isn't that convincing either. It's why 2010 is the new norm: major-party operators and press gallery journalists who don't like it can just lump it.
You know I, I been searching for an easy way
To escape this cold light of day
I been high and I been low
But I got nowhere else to go

There's nowhere else to go ...

19 March 2016

White coal

English food person Jamie Oliver believes that because his country is taxing sugar added into processed foods, Australia should as well. He put out a statement on his Facebook page, and Fairfax superjourno Latika Bourke thought she was doing some journalism by copying it and doing a quick Google search on sugar. Some people regard this as Excellent Journalism That Must Be Preserved but I disagree.

There was the expected backlash from big processed food producers, inevitably to be copied here but with added surprise even from journos with Google access; but that isn't the reason why a sugar tax won't work in Australia.

First of all - Australia is one of the last countries in the developed world that doesn't have a bill of rights, same-sex marriage, or a tax on carbon emissions. What makes anyone think we are ready for a sugar tax? The Treasurer is actively looking for ways to cut taxes rather than raise them, even with a supposedly massive and unsustainable debt.

Second, and more importantly, the reason why we won't have a sugar tax in Australia is because of the sugar seats.

Most famers vote Coalition and get taken for granted. Sugar farmers tend to be different, voting for parties that best represent their interests at a given election (i.e., swinging voters), as Tony Windsor would have all farmers do. Sugar cane is grown not in lush, rich soils, but on marginal lands where margins are thin and a break in government policy can mean the difference between surviving or going under. This has seen major parties offer subsidies and other largesse - sweeteners, if you will - to sugar farmers.

Australia has a significant domestic market for sugar, which arguably has peaked. Australian companies producing sugar (such as CSR, founded as the Colonial Sugar Refinery) have exited the market, beset by low and unpredictable profits and high transport costs. Sugar processors that were set up as farmers' co-operatives, like Tully Sugar or the early distillers of Bundaberg Rum, have sold out to foreign-owned conglomerates. There is a large and growing market in Asia for sugar; except for a heavily-subsidised sugar cane industry in the south-eastern US, most sugar-producing countries are developing countries that undercut Australian producers on price.

The free market is bracing for the sugar farmer. The (increasing) threat of cyclones hits them first and hardest in their communities, and they are among the last producers to recover when the debris is cleared away. Combined with wildly fluctuating profit margins, sugar farmers can find it difficult to get insurance or other support for long-term production - which is where the politicians come in.

Here is a map of where sugar is grown and processed in Australia. The federal electorates covering that area are:
  • Page (NSW)
  • Richmond (NSW)
  • Fairfax (Q)
  • Wide Bay (Q)
  • Hinkler (Q)
  • Capricornia (Q)
  • Dawson (Q)
  • Leichhardt (Q)
Flynn and Kennedy (Q) would be included were it not for their significant beef and mining hinterlands, which dilute the impact of the sugar-farming vote. You have to draw the line somewhere.

Those electorates have as much in common/are as diverse as the much-vaunted seats of western Sydney.

In that list of electorates above, all bar one (Richmond) was won by the Coalition in 2013. People with short political memories may be tempted to simply regard the rest as Coalition heartland, but all of those seats* had been held by the Labor Political Party when it was in government and it would be crazy not to have some overarching strategy for winning them back.

The Leader of the Nationals Political Party, who is also Minister for Agriculture, almost certainly has feelings for and on the sugar industry too. George Christensen, who holds a sugar seat, has been courting the dormant One Nation vote with his culture-war efforts; he would sooner have people pay zakat than a sugar tax. Any concerted effort for a sugar tax by an unlikely and unsustainable alliance of health policy wonks and small-government fetishists simply has no chance against major political parties backed by processed food industry donors/lobbyists. Besides, the small government fetishists have sold themselves out to the gigantic bludge that is their Northern Australia Dreaming.

This effect is felt at state level too. In 1998 Queenslanders sent 11 One Nation MPs to their state parliament: half were from sugar seats.

Media organisations other than the ABC are cutting back their coverage of regional areas. The 2016 election will see regional electorates play a more decisive role than any election since 1961. This is further proof that major media organisations are run and staffed by idiots. When you have to do your own political background on the events of the day, you realise just how grievously political journalism has failed, and how impertinent is the demand that those who have faile be maintained in the manner to which they've become accustomed.

The very idea that government might levy a tax on the sugar industry is frankly unbelievable. A reduction in their subsidies would have the same fiscal effect as a tax, but that won't happen either.


* Allowing for boundary changes etc over time