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.

06 April 2015

Peter Hartcher and the kindness of strangers

Peter Hartcher thinks he has ascended to a high clear place where he knows our political leaders well and can trumpet their virtues across the land, reinforcing our respect for them and him and also, perhaps, improving our understanding of how we are governed. Only when you read his pieces do you realise how much he is kidding himself.

Take this, where he is trying to get you to accept the fact that Scott Morrison is on the rise and there is nothing you can do about it: you have to accept Hartcher's premises unquestioningly, just as he accepts Morrison's.
A boatload of asylum seekers had crashed into the rocky cliffs of Christmas Island in stormy seas. Forty-eight people died. Forty-two survived. When some of the survivors travelled to Sydney for the funerals of their relatives, the federal government paid some of their travel costs. Morrison complained about it.

It was a formative moment in the public's impression of Morrison, then opposition spokesman for immigration.

"I was wary of dealing with Morrison after that," says Xenophon. "His comments were appalling." Many others had the same reaction. The former Liberal leader, John Hewson, called his remarks "insensitive, lacking appropriate compassion, even inhumane". I described him at the time as "the greatest grub in the federal parliament".
Morrison diminished the humanity of those who died, and their grieving relatives. His comments then gave an insight as to how he would behave as minister, and someone like Peter Hartcher should have been awake to that. Instead, Hartcher was peeved at the then government for dumping his best source ever, Kevin Rudd. Anyone who opposed both Gillard and Rudd, as Morrison did, and who talked the language of polls and talkback radio (which people like Hartcher, and Michael Gordon from The Age, regard as the epitome of political sophistication) did not prompt scrutiny on Hartcher's part but instead a simple awe.
Once in power, Morrison went on to do what Labor had said was impossible. As immigration minister, he stopped the boats. Totally. He was effective.
Rubbish. He stopped announcing boat turnbacks. He held farcical press conferences. He was effective only in fooling gullible clowns like Peter Hartcher and those who report to him.
His treatment of asylum seekers appeared to be exuberantly harsh. He was effective, but he was ugly.
His treatment of asylum seekers has been catalogued by the Human Rights Commission, the Moss Report, and international agencies including the UN. Hatcher is wrong to gloss over that, and to elevate Canberra impressions over realities on the ground.
Second only to Tony Abbott, Morrison became the most divisive figure in the federal cabinet. When his alma mater, Sydney Boys High School, invited him to appear as the guest speaker at a fundraising dinner, nearly three hundred old boys signed a letter demanding the invitation be withdrawn. The dissenters did not want to "endorse the actions of a man who has demonstrated callous disregard for human rights".
He's not a 'divisive figure', he's an arsehole. Do what a real journalist should have done and go to Sydney Boys High School, ask the boys about their migration stories and those of their parents, and realise that Morrison was a poor choice for a role like that.
Morrison suggested ...
Who cares? The interests of hundreds of boys, old or not, is not trumped by some half-baked quip. Hartcher is wrong to frame this issue in this way.
"A lot of people are now asking, who is Scott Morrison?" a Labor frontbencher posed this week.
This is Peter Hartcher's favourite type of journalism: anonymous source. Anonymous sources insisted for years that Costello would challenge Howard, they were there when Labor and Liberal underwent leadership challenges, they chewed up space that should have been devoted to policy - and then Peter Hartcher wrote sonorous pieces about how successive governments could not do policy because leadership. Even after Rudd was trounced in leadership ballots, Hartcher's anonymous sources were the artificial resuscitation for his political career. Rather than examine his own reporting practices he declared the whole country to be adolescent, rather than his reporting method. If you cut anonymous-source articles out of Peter Hartcher's backlog he would be left with a slender offering indeed.

Media organisations in the US and Britain apparently have rules surrounding the use of anonymous sources. These rules are frequently broken - Woodward and Bernstein's reporting of Watergate relied entirely on an anonymous source - but in Australia there are no such rules. An Australian journalist who has a story rejected due to over-reliance on anonymous sources should count themselves unlucky. Hartcher's underlings at the SMH lined up to bag this anonymous-source article online, not daring to take on Hartcher nor do anything to put their own house in order (see The proper use of anonymous sources here).
Consider three Morrison actions.
Yes, let's.
First, Morrison persuaded Tony Abbott to euthanise his long cherished but half-dead pet, his forlorn paid parental leave policy ... Abbott had protected his PPL from Liberal party assassins, sustained it through six years and two elections, and spent enormous amounts of precious political capital to keep it alive. But the Senate would not endorse it.
Why is Morrison not an 'assassin'? When does a Liberal Party policy become a policy? Why don't Senators get the credit that Hartcher would sheet home to Morrison?
But Abbott's new minister for social services convinced the prime minister that it was time to let the PPL die. This would free some funds for a more important purpose – improving childcare.
No it won't. The 1.5% levy on big business that was to accompany the PPL has been abandoned. No funding that would have gone to PPL will go to childcare or anything else.
Second, Morrison conducted emergency surgery on an even more urgent policy disaster that he inherited.

Three days before Christmas last year, his predecessor, Kevin Andrews, had quietly started to cut off a quarter of a billion dollars' worth of federal funding that had been expected to support community services over four years ... Morrison announced that all the community groups would keep their existing funding till June 30 while the government reconsidered the policy. He is working now on a longer-term fix.
This is not policy, or even surgery; it's a cat-and-mouse game. Morrison is not a builder of policy but a stunt man attuned to the media cycle.
Third, Morrison amazed many by doing something rare among Abbott government ministers. Instead of trying to ram poorly conceived policies down the throats of a reluctant country, the new minister for social services sat down and listened.
Having failed to scrutinise the Abbott government in any meaningful way, Hartcher is trying to make a virtue of a necessity, to render basic competence extraordinary and deserving of gratitude.
Nick Xenophon again: "There is a public perception that Morrison is a mean, uncompromising bastard, but I've found him to be terrific to deal with."
Xenophon voted before Christmas to have children released from immigration detention, as Morrison promised they would. They haven't been released. Xenophon has been made to look foolish once, and now twice with that quote; the fact that children are still in detention and that Morrison used them as bargaining chips is still the issue here.

Again, where the 'public perception' differs from reality is a failure of journalism.
The cost of the age pension today is the equivalent of 2.9 per cent of GDP. The Intergenerational Report found that this will rise to 3.6 per cent over 40 years. That equates in today's terms to $14.5 billion a year in extra spending. As Morrison points out to welfare advocates, that's equal to the cost of the full-fledged National Disability Insurance Scheme.
Or, equal to the cost of 15 F-35s, or [insert your idea of $14.8b of public sector bloat here]. While Morrison isn't the Minister for Defence, but the political editor should bring a wider perspective.
... Morrison has adopted an ACOSS idea to tighten eligibility for the pension. At the moment, a couple can own their home, have $1.1 million in investments and still receive a part pension. ACOSS proposes reducing the extra assets threshold to about $800,000 instead. This measure alone would save the budget $1.5 billion a year without hurting the poorest pensioners.
Morrison has accepted nothing of the sort: no announcement, no commitment whatsoever, another 'consideration' designed to disarm ACOSS and fool Hartcher.
Morrison is also working to improve childcare.
Childcare is an issue of direct interest to my family, and I'm not convinced Morrison won't make things worse. Note Hartcher does not know or care enough to investigate what the problems are and who the knowledgeable stakeholders might be. Even if you give Morrison the benefit of the doubt, sincere and well-meant measures can be counterproductive; Hatcher can't tell, relying entirely on Canberra shenanigans rather than policy outcomes.
Labor has been surprised and a little taken aback at Morrison's new collegiality. When he first sat down with Labor's childcare spokesman, Kate Ellis, to seek common ground, she, like Xenophon, was wary. Was Morrison wanting to meet just so he could say he was meeting? Look at me, I'm the new, warm and friendly, bipartisan Scott Morrison! But eventually Ellis decided he was serious. He really does want to put together a practical and responsible childcare policy, she decided. And he's not being nice for the sake of it – he wants to get it through the parliament. Bipartisanship is practical politics.
Bipartisan outcomes can be impractical, as Manus Island shows. Policy does not end once a bill passes through the parliament; this is so obvious that it ought to go without saying, but only if you could negate it could you support Hartcher's belief that "[b]ipartisanship is practical politics".
Childcare is expected to be the centrepiece of a families package that the government plans to announce in the next month or so, before the budget.
Covering off with people who know about childcare will enable you to evaluate this package, otherwise you rely entirely on he-said-she-said from Morrison and Ellis. On this government's form it's likely that the budget will undercut the package, and that Hartcher will not notice until someone in the sector points it out (and then the coverage will be about "controversy" rather than the issue itself).
But the government will also demand offsetting concessions from the Senate on some cost-cutting measures already before it.
Morrison won't sit down and listen to them, it would seem, just demand. This goes against Hartcher's leopard-changing-spots narrative, doesn't it.
Morrison sees childcare as a social issue, but also an economic one. A key aim – to give more single parents the childcare support they need to get into the workforce. It's about participation. Single income families with young kids need extra help with childcare to hold down a job. Morrison wants to give it to them.

This economic theme of participation is to be a recurring theme in Morrison's approach to reforming social services.
Morrison isn't entitled to be taken at his word, as Hartcher unwittingly demonstrates later in his piece by reference to Morrison's promise-everything-deliver-nothing approach on asylum seekers. He can't imagine why children would need education, or even to be free of abuse and neglect; that such a man now wants to look after children, or would even know where to start, strains the credibility of everyone but Thirsty Pete.

Tony Abbott's whole political outlook assumes that Australia's mothers are, and want to be, stay-at-home-mums like his own wife. Any "package" put up would not have the comprehensive policy reinforcement it would need to succeed. Hartcher can't pick that because he has no respect for policy in that area.

Peter Hartcher has been lost since his career high-point as Rudd's apologist. He couldn't get any inside running from Abbott. who didn't need Hartcher. Hartcher tried Joe Hockey but Hockey faltered, ceasing to be a leadership contender after the 2014 budget and then suing Fairfax.

Hartcher tried a Woodward-style imagined dialogue with Julie Bishop and Abbott before the latter's leadership was challenged - but Julie Bishop doesn't need him either. The Sydney Morning Herald barely reaches into Sydney's western suburbs, petering out long before Bishop's powerbase in Perth. Hartcher can't go back to Labor; they're awake to him. He can't go beyond the major parties because he regards them as freaks, notwithstanding a longterm decline in support for the majors that Abbott and Shorten look to accelerate.

Now he's lit upon the idea that Morrison is the coming man, and is giving him the green-light absence of scrutiny. We'll see whether a deft media operator like Morrison needs a clapped-out groupie like Hartcher, to what extent, and to what ends.

04 April 2015

Press gallery narrative and the 2015 NSW election

In the lead-up to the NSW state election last month, I knew that the Coalition stood to lose almost all of the seats they won on the Central Coast and Newcastle in 2011, thanks to the largely uncontested allegations of improper fundraising exposed in ICAC (or as Guardian Australia would refer to it, Eyeseeaysee). I knew that Labor's new leader, Luke Foley, was a more formidable competitor for the government than the burnt-out drone John Robertson, but that the ALP (Ayelpee) in NSW (enough now) had credibility issues in governing the state that a single term in opposition could not fix.

Beyond that, I was guided by the traditional media. My focus is on federal politics (and the way it is reported) and this is true of most bloggers on Australian politics. I used to enjoy Mr Tiedt's blog on NSW politics but he gave it up before it got interesting - before the downfall of Barry O'Farrell and Robertson, and the Coalition's vulnerabilities in social services, TAFE and ICAC. In making this I had left myself open to the enthusiasms of the press gallery, rather than any real idea of what was going on. I thought I was better than that.

The traditional media are suckers for bipartisanship. Under a set of assumptions that have long since died without them noticing, they assume measures supported by both Labor and the Liberal-Nationals Coalition must have some sort of broad support and legitimacy among the community represented in the parliament. With the rise of a relatively homogenous political class, bipartisanship leads to dumb and damaging policy in areas like asylum-seekers, data retention, and corporate tax. Journalists sneer at oppositions that oppose government measures, calling them populist, while they also sneer at oppositions that accommodate government policy, calling them weak*.

During election campaigns the press gallery can only think in horse-race analogies, presenting an often weak and/or populist opposition as though it were on par with the incumbent government, and ooh it's going to be close and marginal seats and you just never know. Journalists assume that voters are as impressed by stunts and announcements as they are. This method of reporting usually reinforces the status quo: the incumbent government usually gets re-elected with a bit of a swing to the opposition.

This is what happened in NSW in 2015. I was sucked in to the idea that the race was going to be close when it clearly wasn't. At the 2013 federal election I had believed that the then government and the press gallery would see through Abbott, and I was wrong; I interpreted the surge of interest in Foley as a self-interested press gallery adjusting to a real alternative government, rather than playing a bipartisan horse-race narrative at odds with the policy and political reality.

The NSW parliamentary press gallery were so busy with their own narrative that they couldn't tell us why we are governed as we are, and how we will be governed from hereon in. There is some sort of systemic problem with the way journalism is practiced in such an environment. Both democracy and effective government depend upon better coverage of state and federal policy issues.

My apologies to regular readers for offering nothing better than, say, Mark Kenny, one of Tony Abbott's most abject apologists. The poor bugger thinks he's being balanced when he said in February that his idol was living on borrowed time. He now claims Abbott has refashioned himself when all he's done is rededicate himself to his only real constituency, the press gallery. Resurrection and redemption are awesome, divine powers that neither Kenny nor Abbott can comprehend, let alone abrogate or even describe effectively.

Labor governments usually have at least one top-class lawyer in their ranks who is on a promise of becoming Attorney-General, which they don't now. They were clever in turning the dumping of Jodi McKay into a kind of martyrdom to show how much they'd changed. Mostly, however, they put up hacks to match the Liberal hacks, so that voters stayed with The Hack You Know and, again, the incumbents were returned. They were never ready this time and a better press gallery should have been honest about that, rather than wasting time on polls or the campaign bus.

Labor might have done a bit of work on their internal structures but they have done no work at all on policy. They put stale hacks onto policy in education and transport, and the capable ministers in those portfolios wiped the floor with them. They don't have donors telling them what they want in planning or asset privatisations, and so they're at a loss. They have apparently no opinions on law-and-order, the first campaign I can remember where it wasn't all-important. Labor has spent so long telling its members to shut up that they have either left, can't speak up if they wanted to, or have nothing to say anyway. Chances are Foley will drive policy from his office, but he is starting from a low base and will have to seek out voices that are not obvious to Labor insiders.

The Coalition have, for the first time since 1988, put their best team into their ministry:
  • Gladys Berejiklian has shown that she can master detail and work across a statewide canvas, and (for what it's worth) deal with he media. This is why Mike Baird has put her into the Treasury to deal with the big issues of privatisations and dealing with Canberra at a time of economic downturn and a federal government increasingly prone to gaffes and games. Neither the state nor federal press gallery will wake up to back-channel relationships between Berejiklian and Joe Hockey that will see NSW better placed than other jurisdictions.
  • For the first time in who knows how long, the state government's Big Three Portfolios (Health, Education, Transport) are occupied by ministers based far from Sydney, and nowhere near its western suburbs.
  • Transport is safe with Andrew Constance now that Berejiklian has done the heavy lifting. If your local railway station needs a new lick of paint, he is your man.
  • The relationship between Attorney-General Gabrielle Upton, and Justice and Police(!) Minister Troy Grant, will be fascinating.
  • Departure Lounge Lizard: Anthony Roberts. Not strong on policy but has the most political heft of anyone in the Liberal Right, and has gone as far as he's going to go. If electricity privatisation gets up his services as a consultant will be in demand, and if not you can be sure Gladys Berejiklian won't cop the blame for it. The other part of his portfolio is good relationships with business(!); and TAFE, which he has shunted off to John Barilaro.
  • David Elliott will be the Scott Morrison of this government, the strutting tough-guy journos can't say no to even when he freezes them out. He is the sop to the Liberal Right after the dumping of Jai Rowell (I mean, I ask you) and Matthew Mason-Cox.
  • The dumping of Katrina Hodgkinson and Melinda Pavey in favour of western-plains newbies like Grant and Paul Toole is an interesting story: one that divides the press gallery into those who don't know and can't run the story, and those who do but won't run the story.
  • Nats are overrepresented on the front bench anyway. Leslie Williams' portfolios should have gone to a Liberal.
  • Ageing and Disability is designed to focus on the former, making elderly voters think well of this government; but increasingly the disability sector will demand greater focus with the coming of NDIS, and the hasty and so far little-examined deal to shunt disability services off to the outfit that runs asylum-seeker detention centres.
  • Health accounts for more than 30% of the state budget. Jillian Skinner decided to concentrate on health policy when she was first elected in 1995 and, 20 years later, is still at it because nobody else has the same policy focus. Skinner was due to retire but couldn't because the factions put up candidates who overestimated their own cleverness and have been shunted back into advisory roles. People dissatisfied with Skinner's policies have nowhere to go but the opposition, and even they are unclear about how to even start engaging with the sector. Her portfolio will go to one of those ministers in minor-league roles who really step up (I mean, Multiculturalism? Sport? Better Regulation? Honestly); or to Pru Goward, who is of similar vintage to Skinner but much less policy prowess. Watch the dynamic between her and Brad Hazzard over community services policy.


* This did not apply when Tony Abbott was leading the Federal Opposition. Everything he did was fine by the press gallery. He was statesmanlike, apparently, in his meanly personal attacks on Rudd and Gillard. He was equally statesmanlike in brushing off the few derisory questions journalists asked him about policy. Those who regarded him thus are unable to explain why he's such a dud Prime Minister. They point feebly to the last budget, as though it as a cause rather than an effect of policy and political ineptitude. These people are not to be trusted on important matters such as how we are governed.

29 March 2015

How I voted 2015

I went the polling booth with my young son, who has seen documentaries about the Great Barrier Reef and had the basics of the electoral system explained to him. He is convinced that voting Green will save the Reef, and having taken the how-to-vote from the Green person at the polling booth he waved it at me and said "this one. This one, Dad". It was the first time I had been actively lobbied for my vote since I left the Liberal Party 15 years ago.

The last Liberal preselection I voted in was the one for the state seat of Manly in 1999. The seat was held by an independent - one who had conspired to bring down Nick Greiner - and it was kind of depressing as there was no stand-out candidate. Half of them were outright fools, claiming fealty to Tony Abbott and implying that he was returning the sentiment. I voted for one of my contemporaries who I thought would make a useful MP - not Mike Baird. I had heard Baird would be one of the stars of the preselection, but his speech was a patchwork that he seemed to find unconvincing. When the questions came, rightwing delegates played him like a trout and made him look rattled and defensive. I was tired of voting for losers who got chewed up by sharks in the NSW ALP and picked off by the clowns on the right. As voting went on, my preferred candidate went down and I voted for another guy who seemed nice enough, and worthy, but lacking in the colour, the vision and the mongrel to make a truly effective MP. The winner of that preselection was a boofhead who made Abbott look like a Rhodes Scholar, and who went down screaming against the independent.

That defensive Mike Baird was on display again in a radio interview on Friday. Thankfully for him it was on Radio National so nobody heard it. You will be seeing more of that Mike Baird going forward. He has charmed the press gallery individually such that they do not come after him collectively, and he faced a weakened opposition. The opposition has now been strengthened and the press gallery regards him as less of a novelty. Having no ability to question Baird on policy, and not having put him under much pressure thus far, the press gallery will act all surprise when Baird stumbles. This isn't to say he's a cream-puff - he isn't - but he just won't do that well explaining lots of complex ideas in non-technical terms under sustained pressure.

John Robertson went in hard against Barry O'Farrell and ended up looking like a prick. When O'Farrell fell it had nothing to do with Robertson, who was still a prick, and Baird only made him look worse. Luke Foley was smart not to try and rip away Baird's nice-guy persona, learned from having the blood of three Labor Premiers under his fingernails. If he goes in too hard against Baird then he too will go the way of Robertson; you can do that stuff in Labor backrooms, not in public. Is Foley a nice guy? We don't have enough information where to put him on a scale from Abbott to Baird, much less trust those judgments against policy positions.

Baird even makes Tony Abbott look like more of a prick than he already is. This effect will be enhanced when Abbott plays silly-buggers with COAG, leaving Labor Premiers do the hard yards advocating for state-delivered services. By bringing forward the rollout of NDIS while privatising disability support services, Baird is creating a whole lot of mixed messaging that will come back to bite him over this term.

Anyway, I went to the polling booth and got my two bits of paper. The Legislative Assembly (lower house) paper brought on an immediate bout of hate-voting: no representatives of the various flavours of marxism or blatantly racist parties, but Fred Nile's franchisee (increasingly racist now that homophobia is a non-starter) and No Land Tax immediately took [5] and [4].

The next choice was harder. Jerome Laxale is a young guy who wants to be a MP and he's ticked all the right boxes: joined a major party (Labor), moved into the area and got elected to the local council (a deeply dysfunctional one, which local government reform will almost certainly sweep away). He is still just a political-class muppet and I am doing him a favour by forestalling him becoming Penny Sharpe or Mark Coure.

NSW Labor just aren't ready. Their message of dump-Baird-and-Abbott-goes-too was redundant as Abbott is finished anyway. Their only real objection to the donations that have bedevilled the Libs is that none of it is going to them. Their transport policy was empty, as I said last week, politically and policy-wise. They had no education policy worth the name, they had a real lacuna in law-and-order hysteria to float some new ideas, a bit on health and a few other snippets here and there, but nothing to show for four years in the wilderness. They promised to build a new high school in the area, but they closed the last one and I have no more idea than they do where it might go. I don't believe them on power or disability services or anything else, really; the flirtation with xenophobia regarding Chinese state-owned enterprises was revolting. NSW Labor just isn't like Victorian Labor or SA Labor or Queensland Labor, no good pretending otherwise. Labor [3].

This left the Green and the Liberal. Greens talked a good talk on local issues and have started to think about policy from the ground up. They seem to link bits and pieces from different policy areas into a coherent whole, which it hadn't as a smaller fringe party, yet you can take bits of that agenda and leave others (which wasn't possible as a smaller, more intense outfit). Their third candidate for the Legislative Council was a dux of Duntroon; their other candidates are, increasingly, the sort of impressive, professional, well-educated candidate the majors used to attract.

The old saw that the majors will put together all the governments from now until the end of time is not, as it were, sustainable. They continue attracting impressive candidates who rethink what it is to govern from the ground up (which attracts impressive candidates - an upward spiral opposite to that facing the majors). They deserve the benefit of the doubt, Labor doesn't: Green [2]. My son was disappointed with that but more disappointed that he didn't wish a Green government into being.

The local MP, Victor Dominello, takes his constituency responsibilities seriously and seems to like people, unlike Federal MP John Alexander. He represents a government that has quite good education and transport policies, adequate ones in other areas, and some terrible ones (e.g. disability services, women's refuges) which may be turned around by strategic voting. This isn't the best government can get, but it is the best one on offer at this time, which is why I voted Liberal [1].

In the Legislative Council (the upper house - I wish journos would stop referring to it as the Senate), I voted below the line for a whole lot of candidates who may push to ameliorate the very issues nominated above as weak issues for this government. This is called tactical voting and it beats the hell out of voting the party line and having that line shift without reference or recourse to you. In the Coalition candidate list there are some who will do well at negotiating policy through the Council (but mostly they are just making up the numbers, put to most effective use shutting up and doing as they're told): they can earn their money dealing with a multiplicity of views.

Across safe Liberal seats the Greens came in second. Wealthy areas are described in media cliche as 'leafy', and however much it bemuses Labor die-hards from industrial suburbs it is no surprise that Green activists come from sylvan glades and are well-educated and articulate. It isn't true to describe Greens as the new moderate liberals but it's less of a stretch that it was when the party was dominated by watermelons. Now that you can vote Green without sending the entire economy and social services into perdition, they are the real alternative to Liberals - far easier to imagine a Green as your local MP than Labor.

Only when you understand that can you clarify the hysteria behind this:
Many commentators have seen the Greens' victory in Balmain and Newtown as a sign of the progressive shift to the left in the inner city seats.

But Dr Burgmann says it's actually a sign of a conservative shift away from working class Labor politics that will eventually see those seats held by the Liberals.

"It's a demographic change of the inner city," she said. "It's the very wealthy, well-educated who will never need the services of the state but who can't quite bring themselves to vote Liberal.

"But eventually they will be Liberal seats."

It's worth noting, however, that the Liberal primary vote in Balmain was down by 6.7 per cent at this election, back to roughly what it was in 2007. The Liberal primary vote was also down by 4.4 per cent in Newtown.
Old woman shouts at cloud. A Green voter is someone who "can't quite bring themselves to vote Liberal" in the same way that Dr Burgmann can't. The Greens Political Party offer a starker contrast with the Liberal Political Party policies than the Labor Political Party (all right, I'll stop it now). In inner-city communities Greens are committed users of public transport and education, more so than old-school Labor people who have long since left education (public or private) behind and who accepted ALP blandishments that a dollar spent on public transport should be spent anywhere but in the inner-city. The idea that Dr Burgmann's niece was defeated by a proto-Liberal is bullshit, but if it helps her sleep at night the theory may have some value yet.

Quite why inner-city Sydney turned away from Labor, while inner-city Newcastle and inner-city Wollongong turned toward them, is unclear. Expensive flats may yet create a Liberal constituency that does not exist today, but this would imply the Liberals will develop sophisticated appeal mechanisms that, frankly, does not exist either. We are not yet in speculative fiction territory but you can see it from here.

It seems a shame that the traffic can run only one way: Labor-to-Green-to-Liberal. Why Labor cannot use Green preferences to turn Liberal seats into Labor ones over time, or imagine a Green incumbency that lasts only until Labor can wait it out, is unclear - and probably a failure of imagination on Labor's part.

Why the north coast turned toward the Greens is clearer, and CSG is only part of the answer. Over time the Greens have put themselves in a position to take the advantages that Lismore and Ballina presented them this time.

North coast communities were dominated by rural conservatives who got wealthy selling tract housing to people on lower incomes than they. That new housing became urban communities not very different to sub-urban communities in the cities, but without the infrastructure of those communities. Labor were the first to twig to this demographic shift and what it meant politically; Liberals wrung their hands over invading National turf, leaving it to hayseeds who defined themselves against urban communities to try and represent them.

The Green base thought about government and community and environment from the ground up; people who move to an area are more likely to do this than those who unquestioningly accept it from childhood. Greens started with dessicated old hippies but moved out beyond them as communities changed. Nationals found validation in fossils like Thomas George. Labor's incrementalism worked against them as the Greens offered the more substantial alternative than Labor (without being scary or politically unrealistic).

The Liberals couldn't tell the difference and couldn't afford the aggro with their "Coalition partners". If they are to replace newly-elected Greens in Ballina and Lismore (and, going forward, in Port Macquarie and Coffs Harbour) they will have to start from scratch, today, and somehow persuade their "Coalition partners" that their future lies west of the Dividing Range. Again, this requires Liberals to be bold and innovative and ... you can see the problem here.

I have no idea what Indigenous people want from the NSW government, or what anyone was offering them, if anything.

How do you plan cities in a real estate market like this, and for whom? None of that is clear. The traditional media weren't asking, and the Political Parties can only avoid questions that nobody else asks.

We have in NSW a state government that wants to sell electricity distribution networks at the very time their value is collapsing, and which won't get the political support necessary to do so. It may go into debt to fund big-ticket infrastructure but they won't be around when it comes on line. It will come under pressure on health at the very time that their resident expert, Jillian Skinner, has had her best shot at reform and no-one else steps up to show what the next steps look like (the most likely alternatives being niggardly, self-defeating budget cuts that create more problems than they solve, much like the 'reforms' coming from the federal government). Its mixed messages on disability services, and small-scale donations, will wear it down without a clear way forward.

Foley seems disciplined but will make mistakes. He's already gone further than his Young Labor antagonists Reba Meagher and Joe Tripodi, but that will count for less and less over time. He didn't get where he is by entrusting policy development, electoral tactics or anything else to the wider ALP membership, so forget that. It will be interesting to see the extent to which education and health bureaucracies start leaking to Labor, and of course once the police do so it is all over. I trust Labor to make political capital from prison facilities that are both increasingly decrepit and overcrowded, but not to do much about it.

Still, where else would you be, etc.

26 March 2015

Two good stories today

I might be 'a formulaic takedown artist' but I promised to be better at recognising good examples of political commentary. There were two examples today.

The first was Jason Wilson's description of Abbott and the way he is reported. Journalists will stop at Wilson's description of what a weirdo Abbott is, and stop short of considering their own role in persuading a sceptical public that whatever you didn't like about Gillard/Rudd, Abbott was the better choice. In a country where most people were biased against Abbott, and had those biases reaffirmed since September 2013, what even does it mean to be 'balanced' in covering Abbott? What does it mean to note that he did something that attracted criticism when you can't assess or even distinguish different types of criticism? Wilson has written a cut-out-and-keep article on traditional media failure, well worth reading right now. See you when you get back.

The other masterful piece of commentary today came from Peter Greste, in his address to the National Press Club. He was effusive in praising Julie Bishop for her work, and that of the Department of Foreign Affairs, in gaining his release from prison in Egypt. His warm thanks of others, and detailed explanations of their tireless behind-the-scenes work, truly shows the benefits of living a generous life and receiving generosity in turn. Toward the end of the speech he effectively rounded on Bishop and the government: Greste criticised data collection for its impact on journalism, and successive cutbacks (by all recent governments, and by traditional media) of Australia's engagement with the modern world.

Strangely, the NPC's fearless camera put Bishop out of shot at the point where the government and the media copped some well-earned stick. The questions from journalists were inane, as they usually are at such events. One of Australia's most respected press gallery journalists twat actually wasted his opportunity by waving around a post-it note. Greste pandered to them by describing journalists as cantankerous and competitive and difficult to organise. The press gallery are the exception: they are eager to please, fearful of imagined consequences of not being so; they are herd animals who all report only one story a day, and from pretty much the same angle. Part of the reason why Greste is so highly regarded as a journalist must be because he puts out stories under conditions that would reduce almost all of the press gallery to shrieking wrecks. He played the press gallery masterfully. He had that Abbott ability to make them utterly suspend what feeble powers of scrutiny they have, by giving it more praise than it deserves.

It will be interesting to see how traditional media report that speech. They'll be all over the Bishop-praise, and Peter Hartcher lapped up that twaddle about journalists being cantankerous and competitive. They are unlikely to report that speech for the boomerang that it was, whirring off forcefully at the start only to smack them in the backs of their heads at the end. But hey, maybe this time will be different.

13 March 2015

New South Wales twenty-fifteen

This NSW election is a bizarre one for me, on a number of levels. My Young Liberal contemporaries are in positions of power. Labor have sprung back with a series of positions that simply don't stand up to scrutiny. They are complaining about dodgy donations, particularly as none are coming to them. It's becoming increasingly clear what a politics that transcends the governing parties looks like, one with sufficient depth and ballast to pull the majors into line rather than the reverse - and the Greens play a smaller part of that (and Fred Nile a greater one) than I thought. This election is more important than the inevitable last one or the weird, tentative one before that.

Blindsided

Mike Baird and the Liberals have been blindsided by the idea that 'asset recycling' is unconvincing. They should have developed a narrative that explains and defends it (and why asset sales are to be preferred over debt in an era of low interest rates and investment capital seeking solid projects. They should have foreseen that Labor would do well in Victoria and Queensland opposing asset sales per se, and that the same magic would work in NSW (particularly as business is all but ignoring Labor).

Just as the party had cauterised the bleeding from those self-inflicted wounds at ICAC, up pops Joe Hockey suing Fairfax and reminding everyone about the big-money donations flowing into the Liberal Party. Nice one Joe! Even if you do have any money for no-hopers in seats like Oatley, they won't thank you.

There are a number of reasons why they didn't. Their membership base is so small that they don't represent a large cross-section of the community any more. Like any dysfunctional organisation, they equate questioning, challenging individuals with fifth columnists and incompetents and manage them out accordingly. To engage with an idea for the purposes of probing its weaknesses, stealing or concealing its strengths, and overcoming its advocates, is no longer seen as useful work; far easier and quicker to assemble dirt files and background the more gullible remnants of the press gallery, who can't cope with policy anyway.

Power

The NSW electricity grid is ageing and almost entirely energised by burning coal. There have been several attempts to privatise it over the past two decades, depreciating in value each time. It is likely that households will be powered by solar or other small-scale power-generation systems, backed up by large-scale distribution systems that will depend less and less on burning coal, poles, wires, and all that nineteenth-century crap on the auction block right now. To flog it off now would see private industry bear the risks of transition that can only be borne by the public; and there will be public 'sweeteners' to mitigate that risk, which is what I'm worried about.

The relevant minister, Anthony Roberts, isn't a policy innovator like Gladys Berejiklian or Adrian Piccoli are, and the wide boys from the merchant banks will pull the wool over his eyes and pick his pockets before he has worked out what's happened. He thinks he's being clever by downplaying renewables, but history won't be kind to his dithering.

I'm not being hard on Robbo, I'm just holding him to standards he could never meet. Sometimes when you set the bar really high, people like him do the limbo under it and laugh at you: that's politics, baby.

The NSW electricity grid is a depreciating asset. There is a significant element in Labor (probably the majority of its remaining members) who regard it as 'sacred' or 'iconic' - but if they really believed that they would never have let it deteriorate to this extent. They let it deteriorate because they know it's a depreciating asset, and that the jobs are all in renewables - and that those workers won't be easily herded into union membership like employees of the old Electricity Commission were.

I agree with Peter Wicks when he says:
If Mike Baird wins the election on the 28th and the electricity sell off occurs, I predict that within a few years the boardroom of whatever corporation ends up running our power network will not only be made up of greedy profiteering businessmen, it will also be loaded with former Liberal Ministers.
Yep - and if Labor are in government then, one or two old hands who can pull the young pups into line.

If ever there was a time to hedge your bets until the future becomes clearer, now is that time. Such a choice flies in the face of that great political imperative, Being Seen To Be Doing Something. All the soft options in this area have been whittled away, leaving only cynical and empty group exercises that political-class smarties regard as the only role for mass participation in modern politics.

I just don't believe NSW Labor

Luke Foley was up to his eyeballs in the rise and fall of the last three Labor Premiers, just as John Robertson was. Labor's framing of him as a cleanskin is bullshit. Labor's insistence that he is to be taken at his word, just like Tony Abbott was before the last federal election, is bullshit. I don't trust Foley to avoid some sort of Damascene conversion to tollroads or coal-seam gas or selling poles-and-wires or banning all abortions.

NSW Labor has reformed itself considerably in the last four years, except when it comes to policy. I don't believe that Labor has learned the lessons ICAC and the voters tried to teach it, in the same way that the federal Coalition under Abbott avoided learning the lessons that Howard's failure was trying to teach them. It's all stunt work: handing back Goat Island to Aboriginal communities with bigger priorities, demountable classrooms, penny-ante stuff worthy of Bob Carr at his most diffident.

Art and culture

Yes, art and culture. I wish there were more evidence of local community art projects, embassies and training-grounds from the cultural powerhouses of the inner city: not just repositories of local kids' paintings from three years ago, nor seniors' crochet work, nor half-baked productions of Oh What A Lovely War!. Neither of the majors deserve the benefit of the doubt on this.

The Powerhouse Museum should be relocated to what is now an abandoned school site by O'Connell Street, Parramatta, on the northern side of the river. It should be much, much better than it is - better than this, dream big! - hopefully without being some glistering mockery of deindustrialised western Sydney.

Transport

This is what all election analysis should be like: the focus on state and community and what it needs, not fluffing aimed at keeping up press gallery relationships. Penny Sharpe has received more publicity than almost anyone on Labor's frontbench, as you might expect from someone who learned their politics at the National Union of Students, but once again NUS has thrown up another hack who succeeds at nothing but attracting publicity for its own sake. Sharpe was up against one of Baird's better ministers - you can see why, on election night 2011, Barry O'Farrell wanted to talk only to Gladys - but that's no excuse. Sharpe concentrated on nitpicking current transport policy and couldn't even do that convincingly. If the Greens get up in Newtown they may have done Foley a favour.

The Newcastle rail line, the Pacific and Princes Highways, Westconnex - there are other issues, of course, but Labor are pretty much absent from them all. The Coalition is doing or has done all it intends to do. Few independents are out there galvanising those issues, which is a pity.

Education

While Federal Labor deserve praise for their commitment to Gonski's school resourcing proposals, state Labor don't deserve to insinuate themselves into voter assumptions that they would support those proposals. Adrian Piccoli is the country's best education minister and he wears the crown of thorns bestowed by Pyne and Abbott for showing up those arseclowns in Canberra. He seems to have learnt from a debacle like this, the sort of thing that pole-axes governments elsewhere and which gives some indication of what a future in participatory politics looks like.

Disclosure: While TAFE is a huge issue in this election, and I have lots of opinions and feels about vocational education, there won't be any comment on it in this blog. I've worked for TAFE NSW, and sometimes knowledge and insight comes with a determination not to make a tough job harder for those who remain. Plenty of other avenues for you to read up and comment about that.

Health

When Jillian Skinner beat off the independent forces of Ted Mack and restored the Liberals to the lower north shore, she focused on health policy and was (eventually) rewarded with the ministry. When Labor was wiped out in 2011 its only remaining member who knew anything about health, Andrew McDonald, became shadow minister. There have been a few changes and a few blow-ups but no real shift in emphasis. There have been no big epochal debates despite being a huge, politically sensitive, fast-moving and interesting area; again, political-class smarties regard this as a sign of success, but fuck those people. McDonald is quitting at the next election and apart from some Victoria-style union stunts by and for nurses and ambos, there is no real alternative policy.

Aged care and disability services

Baird was stupid and wrong to outsource these services to the private sector, and I note that Labor won't restore the status quo ante; maybe that's why Linda Burney was a non-starter to replace Robertson. But no, since you asked, I don't have a better idea in my back pocket either.

Policing, Justice, Law and Order, Gaming, Alcohol licensing, Drugs, Indigenous people in detention, ...

(covers face with hands, groans as though gut-punched)

Prognostication time

Read on at your own risk. Regular readers of this blog know that I am rubbish at forecasts, going on feels rather than polls and underestimating the extent to which people are taken in by press gallery coverage.

The upper house

The lower house might propose but the upper house disposes, and frankly one of the glaring weaknesses of political coverage (state or federal) is its lack of understanding and reporting of what goes on in the upper house.

First, read this. Antony Green is the master psephologist but he hates minor parties, they always blindside his software on ABC election night coverage. He is right to say that NSW has limited the impact of minor parties to a greater extent than in federal elections, but this election will see a stronger showing from parties other than the majors. This isn't only because there are so many candidates and minor parties.

If the Coalition was going into this election with the same sort of momentum that they had in 2011, they might win 11 of the 21 seats on offer in the Legislative Council and hence control the upper house - but they aren't. They will need to control both houses of state parliament to sell off the electricity grid - but they won't. So much for that.

The Shooters and Fishers have overplayed their hand with free-fire zones in National Parks and with their support of this government's less popular measures. They may yet attract conservative voters who think Baird's too moderate but Nile's too preachy and anti-Muslim, but S+F aren't doing much to hold those voters.

Nile hasn't gone forward or backward, he will remain in place like a little pebble.

While the anti-CSG forces won't win any seats in the lower house, they will coalesce in the upper house - and it is almost impossible to to believe that someone opposing coal-seam gas won't also oppose selling the electricity grid. This person may or may not be Green, but they won't be the inner-city denizen thrown up by that party on the mainland. They may be someone who's clearly rural and working-class and defiantly anti-political-class, like Ricky Muir.

Prediction: the majors 8 each, Nile, at least one Green - and, uh, another three not to the major parties.

The lower house

There are 93 seats of the Legislative Assembly (the lower house), so you need 47 to get a majority in that house to form government. See, I'm not totally innumerate.

Again, read Mr Green. Go to the list of Coalition seats on the left-hand side and scroll from the top down to The Entrance: that's 20 seats. Give them all to Labor, except Coogee and Kiama. Give Labor Port Stephens too.

Too hard to call from this angle:
  • Blue Mountains
  • Mulgoa
  • Parramatta
The Nats may retain Tamworth, and they may hold political-class girner Steve Whan out of Monaro if Barilaro has kept up his local-boy-done-good schtick. Or not.

It looks like independents have missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to punt the Nats from Upper Hunter. Thy are, however, starting to rattle the Nats along the north coast, learning lessons that will do for Hartsuyker and Gillespie at the next federal election.

That gives the Coalition 45-50 seats out of 93, a kick in the teeth but most likely still in government. Abbott is gone no matter what.