21 August 2014

A modest proposal for NewsCorp

When pictures circulated on social media of journalist James Foley being executed by the Islamic State, journalists came over all sniffy about how vulgar social media is.

Once those pictures were published in the Murdoch press - first The New York Post, later in Sydney's Daily Telegraph, the snobbery about social media seemed to have gone into abeyance. In its place is some sort of general malaise about the world that we live in, rather than experienced people identifying the problem and calling it out.

The IS is posting those pictures because it wants to draw the United States and other western powers into another war on their territory in western Asia. This does not oblige the Murdoch press to run those pictures. What obliges the Murdoch press to run those pictures is the fact that its business goes up slightly when its major markets (the US, UK, and Australia) are at war.

The sales of newspapers have been in longterm decline for many years. That decline is lessened slightly when there's a war, or the prospect of one. People tune in to small-n news outlets to find out what's going on, and to hear the ploughshares beaten back into swords.

The Murdoch dynasty was forged in the First World War, and the pattern of its coverage was set at the time. It belittles politicians who oppose war, or who work to avoid conflict, as gutless and treasonous. It praises politicians who wantonly splash around blood and treasure as courageous and patriotic.

Over the period 2001-03 we saw the US government decide to go to war over a very slender pretext, the so-called 'weapons of mass destruction'. The Murdoch press was sufficiently powerful in all its main markets to force those markets to war in Iraq regardless. It destroyed politicians, including some with decorations for battlefield bravery, who urged caution or at least other means of removing Saddam Hussein. It praised fabulists who made silly promises that the war would be a cakewalk and that western armies would be welcomed as liberators. It invited itself to military funerals and splashed images of grieving, powerless widows across its pages in the hope that product ads on those pages might somehow be more attractive to consumers than they would be otherwise.

The Murdoch press wants war again.

For some years now, Sydney's Daily Telegraph has been playing a double game with its readers: it claims to represent western Sydney and rails against misrepresentation of it, while at the same time misrepresenting Muslims in the area as violent extremists. It has insisted that Muslims denounce extremists without similarly demanding that Christians denounce, say, pedophile clerics. Now it is doing the IS's dirty work for them, in the hope that its business model might be boosted by social discomfort, exclusion and maybe even violence on the streets of Sydney and other Murdoch markets.

It should be unthinkable that a major news organisation should succumb to propaganda from the self-declared enemies of its audience. Yet, the IS wants war, Murdoch wants war, so Murdoch outlets run IS propaganda as though it were 'high quality content'. It wasn't as though intrepid Murdoch journalists leopard-crawled across hundreds of miles of desert to capture those images; they were fed them by IS. Foley worked for GlobalPost; Daniel Pearl worked for The New York Times; there are journalists who put themselves in harm's way to get the big stories, and then there are Murdoch journalists. Murdoch outlets were happy to help the IS in its call for war because it shares those aims.

When journalists from Al-Jazeera English were imprisoned in Egypt, journalists around the world protested at the abrogation of their colleagues' rights and dignity. When the same journalists were confronted with the execution of Foley, a sentence from which no appeal or pardon is possible, there was no protest. Some declined to turn a dollar from the ordeal, but Murdoch outlets happily did.

If you're a journalist - and you put yourself in harm's way doing your job - keep in mind the possibility that Murdoch will turn a dollar from your crisis and stalk your relatives in their grief.

When Tony Abbott left open the possibility that Australian military forces were not only open to engaging in humanitarian missions such as aid to the Yaziri, but could well participate in conflict in the region, he is not acting at the behest of the US Administration. He is acting at the behest of the Murdoch media, who want Australia involved in any such war as they successfully pushed in 2003. Abbott is Murdoch's Manchurian Candidate.

Murdoch outlets are running the IS images because they are gunning for war. It is extraordinary that they are so weak, so unprincipled, that they allow a small bunch of semi-literate bullies far from their traditional markets to dictate their corporate tactics like they do. Their readership will complain, but they will flout the wishes of their readership because the wishes of Rupert Murdoch are for provocation to war. When Murdoch executives excuse their behaviour as though they were mere vessels of their audience, and as though the audience is to blame for Murdoch vulgarity, consider today's output and think again.

Those who do not believe Australians should go to war in IS territory will be marginalised, and the smarter ones are ready for that.

There is, however, a solution that is right and proper. One which plays the IS at their own game and which slakes the almost satanic bloodlust of those who run the Murdoch press.

It's traditional to say that there are some Very Fine Journalists 'working' at the Murdoch outlets - but who are they? Gideon Haigh, perhaps - but he's a freelancer rather than someone in a position to set the tone of a masthead or the organisation as a whole. Samantha Maiden sat on this until ordered to Make Glorious Propaganda Against Running-Dog Hockey and lacks the courage to pursue that rort wherever it might lie, like the non-Murdoch elements of the UK press did with that country's MPs. Malcolm Farr is asleep and Simon Benson is a joke. Sharri Markson is Brynne Edelsten without the wit, talent, or news sense. Paul Kelly said in 2012 that the Coalition had fifty fully-costed policies ready to go, but the evidence from this government is that they've never had any. None of Murdoch's journalists content providers are worth anything, as journalists or in any other capacity really.

It is undeniable that the best possible use of any and all Murdoch employees, those with bylines or without, is to issue them with giggle hats and rifles and drop them into the area around Mosul dam. Maybe they could capture a printing press there and churn out some of that high-quality content that nobody wants to read. Joe Hildebrand and Miranda Devine could disport themselves like Rudd and Hockey on Sunrise. They could bust their buddies Glenn Mulcaire and Andy Coulson out of prison for some Dirty Dozen-style redemption. You can't think of a better use for such people, and neither can those who employ them.

Maybe they might see that Muslims in Mosul are mostly people going about their business and no threat to social cohesion, neither there or in Australia. Their employment, however, depends upon them not seeing it, which is a pity: more so than the fact that nobody else has a more constructive proposal for NewsCorp than that in the preceding paragraph.

Journalists can get very sniffy about social media, but rather than finger the Murdochs when they step out of line they assume - wrongly - that they are acting in accordance with the audience. They see opponents of Murdoch manipulation as cranks. They were fooled last time, and are gearing themselves up to be fooled again, as though misleading the audience they are supposed to serve was a lesser tragedy than them losing the jobs they have no right to occupy. Start noticing that Murdoch is beating the drum for war and that he has no grounds to do so. Once you do that, you can empower decision-makers to go against Murdoch. And if you can go against Murdoch on a big issue like war, you can go against the old bugger on other issues too, and get on with your life.

In the olden days newspapers were sold on the basis of hype and bullshit. People are awake to this now, which explains the decline of newspapers and other traditional media. War should be an instrument of state policy, a resort when politics has failed, rather than a (poorly executed) business model. A company in the information business should be dominating the information age but it is barely getting by. The idea that we have to get stirred up and go to war to pump a few extra bucks into an exhausted business is pretty sad, but those who get stirred up in service of that are sadder still.

NewsCorp is like the Soviet Union: it might seem overwhelmingly powerful to some, especially those unable to laugh at its flaws and contradictions. One day the whole farce will be over, leaving a whole bunch of people who yearn for leadership of whatever quality without it, while the rest of us will adapt to its historic downfall much easier than might be imaginable today.

19 August 2014

Don't blame Amanda Vanstone

Amanda Vanstone tried to defend Joe Hockey in his attempts to implement the policies of the Audit Commission, of which Vanstone was part. She only demonstrated her own intellectual poverty and that of the politico-media environment which sustained her career.
Sometimes the banal aspects of life are just too much to ignore.
What a great opening! Dear reader, this column will be banal: aren't you glad you buy the paper?
When the gods conspire to load them up into a short time frame and throw them at you, it can seem overwhelming. I feel that way now about so much of our media coverage of politics.
The first two sentences could apply to anyone, anywhere. Stop someone in a supermarket or waiting for an elevator and they would probably say something like that to make polite conversation.

As to the last sentence - why now? Did this not happen regularly during her time in politics, or even before that?
There can't be a crisis next week, my schedule is already full.
- Henry Kissinger
The next four paragraphs of her article were a pathetic attempt to say that, well, a Liberal smoked a cigar but then a Labor person smoked a cigar too. This is the sort of childish tu quoque that denigrates politics and democracy as a whole, and then people like Amanda Vanstone then write articles saying what a pity it is that politicians are held in such low esteem.

Here's the significance of the cigar: it denotes a man who is out of touch with most others, and who does not care. For a retiree, the symbolism is less significant than for someone in a position to know better. Hockey has brought down a budget that shows him (and the government that approved it) to be out of touch with ordinary people, and who maintain entitlements for those who are already wealthy and powerful. Vanstone has tried Dr Freud's line that "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar" and it just makes her look like she doesn't get it.
If you think I am kidding myself, consider a reversal of the stereotyping on others. How about users of illegal drugs as an example. If someone were to stereotype them all as useless losers who sponge off society on welfare, break into our homes and steal from us, there would be an outcry. You see, apparently it is OK to engage in stereotyping of a senior conservative politician, but not of others.
I still think she's kidding herself. On one hand, we have a guy who has 20 years' experience dealing with the media, and who employs people who deal with the media on his behalf. On the other we have people so deluded they think drugs and other criminal activities are what their life is all about - people who can't defend themselves from themselves, let alone others.

Mind you, the actions of drug addicts is only illegal because of the way our laws are drafted.

If Vanstone has a point I can't tell what it is, and she can't either.
There’s a free kick on offer, and plenty of the lazy journalists take it. Hollow infotainment tries to get away with looking like sensible media comment. Stereotyping and ridicule pass as substitutes for informed debate. It adds nothing to the substantive political discourse.
Valid points in some general sense, but it doesn't fit the situation here. Keep in mind Vanstone has been both victim and beneficiary of such laziness. Hockey did not get where is with media engaged in constant Socratic dialogue; nobody does, not even the media themselves.
Another example is the media reaction to Joe’s recent comment to the effect that people with lower incomes don’t drive as far and thus would not be affected as much by a small increase in the fuel excise. In many cases, in an absolute sense, that would be true, although there would of course be exceptions. It would be equally true to say that, in some cases, lower-income earners would be affected more in a relative sense. Yet again, amid all the information we could be looking at, one remark is brought to the surface and has a spotlight trained on it.

In the discussion on this from so many journalists we see little about the overall merit or otherwise of raising the excise on fuel. Do we want fuel to get relatively cheaper and cheaper so the so-called rich, who in absolute terms may well consume more petrol, get a bigger benefit? Even that is not the question.
Clearly, if you want a serious discussion of issues, you're wasting your time dealing with the press gallery. Vanstone is not the first to make this complaint, and it's not even the first time she has made it. Over the last half-century at least, the political parties that govern us have come to rely more and more upon the press gallery to maintain their relationship with voters. By using a demonstrably inadequate means of connecting with people they compromise their position. Either find a way of going around the press gallery, or stop bellyaching, and no there is no third option.
The real issue we face is: Can we keep going as as we are? Can we keep spending at current rates and have a sustainable economy? Do we just hope things will pick up, or do we start to put our house in order? If we don’t want to collect more money one way, how would we like to collect it?
There are several questions there. I'd add questions of spending versus investment, too, among others, but then I've not seen a lot of evidence that Amanda Vanstone is open to engagement with new ideas, or that a newspaper column is the forum for such a debate. Like most major party politicians, Vanstone's idea of a debate is to talk past an idea rather than engage with it or modify behaviour in any way.
Much of the difficulties Joe faces are a consequence of the Senate with which he has to deal.
(I would have said "many" rather than "much"; in any case multiple things can't be "a consequence". This, from an expensively-educated person whose entire professional life has been about communication, in a newspaper that is supposedly authoritative on such matters. Anyway.)

Joe Hockey has been dealing with the Senate for two decades. During this period it has faced seven half-Senate elections and numerous turnovers on account of resignation etc. He is not the first Treasurer do deal with a difficult Senate. It's part of the job.
We elected some people who in their wildest dreams never expected to get elected. We didn’t expect it either. They had no coherent set of principles that would guide their decision making. These senators seem very much focused on simple political posturing and bargaining.
Amanda Vanstone was Education Minister in the Howard government. She once hired Chris Pyne on her staff. Today, Chris Pyne is Education Minister and trying similar 'reforms' to universities that Vanstone tried and failed to get through. What principles are at work there?

Amanda Vanstone was Immigration Minister in the Howard government. What principles guided her decisions? Keep quiet, do as you're told, don't rock the boat and we'll give you an embassy.

What are Joe Hockey's principles? I've known him for as long as Vanstone has, and unlike her I confess freely that I do not know.
Now Joe has to deal with [Senators] in order to get some common sense. Making sense of that isn’t easy.
Nobody said it would be. Malcolm Fraser said it wouldn't be, back when Joe was in short pants. I've found that if you want to get some common sense, you have to bring some: could that be the issue with the budget?
What do the independents and Palmer United Party members want for the long term in Australia? Do they think we should future-proof the economy against another global financial crisis, or not?
What does it mean to "future-proof the economy"? It used to mean protectionism and keeping out non-whites. I think it's a nonsense to say that the economy can be future-proofed, and a lie to say that the way this government is going about it is the only/best way to do it. Maybe we could've had some journalist ask the before the last election.
Just how did Clive Palmer achieve such prominence? He’s a rich man, but so what. There have been and still are rich people in Parliament. That alone is no claim to fame.
Every time a wealthy man has entered Parliament, they have attracted media attention. Every time. Never once has Mr Moneybags rolled into Parliament and rolled out without troubling the scorers. I can feel a straw man coming on ...
First, his party always had a prospect, even likelihood, of holding the balance of power in the Senate. That alone makes you of interest. Some in the media actively built his profile.
Imagine a dark and stormy night, with a black-clad old woman hunched over the horoscope of baby Clive. Her bony fingers reach into his cot and she feels the bumps on his skull. "This boy is destined to hold the balance of power in the Senate!", she cackles.

Nope, doesn't work for me either. Why, pray tell, was it so likely? Did you wager a yellow note on such an outcome Amanda? How did some LNP Queensland tiff lead to this scenario, or predicament? Perhaps it is a Queensland thing, given that in recent years Queenslanders such as Andrew Bartlett, Cheryl Kernot, Mal Colston, and Vince Gair have held the balance of power in the Senate.

I have no idea why a cruel electorate would taunt Joe so, and fail to elect as many Coalition Senators as possible.
Second, sadly there was precious little scrutiny of what he stood for.
Oh, that's rich. Joe Hockey and the rest of this government coasted into office on the back of this "precious little scrutiny". He is now under a great deal of scrutiny, as is Palmer, but one is handling it with more equanimity than the other.
Being a potential thorn in Tony Abbott’s side made him the darling of good portions of the media.
Julia Gillard was a thorn in Abbott's side and large portions of the media of varying quality treated her very badly. Nobody becomes a 'media darling' by criticising Abbott. Even his successor as Leader of the Opposition doesn't qualify for such a title. The idea that the media is out to get Tony Abbott reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the media that constitutes the press gallery. They've observed him up close for many years and they don't get him at all.
Third, Clive is a master at manipulating the media, at getting the spotlight – and like moths to the flame, they fly.
The same can be said for Tony Abbott, and it's a shame it can't be said for Hockey. They said lots of nice things about him when dull policy wonk Wayne Swan (another Queenslander! Was he a likely prospect too?) held the job he holds now. You'd think Hockey would have learned media manipulation skills after all this time.
All of this contributes to coverage of the froth and bubble of politics, not the substance of policy.

Of course, in the great conversation of life that is politics there is room for discussion about people, their personalities, attitudes and quirks. How we say things can matter as much as what we say; it can unintentionally cause offence and it can affect what people think about us and our ideas. That’s no doubt why Joe has apologised for any offence caused. We just need to remember that these things are about the game of politics but they are not the main game, not the substance of government.
It was the substance of government that is making life hard for poor people. It was the substance of government that doesn't know or care enough to find out about how they live, or leave them alone, or perhaps even help them a little bit.

One does not apologise for offence caused; one apologises for one's actions, and let the apology go the way of the action itself. There has been no change to that substance, which is more offensive than a thousand word-games of this type (see previous post). Or not apologise, as the case may be.
The Hockey budget seeks to put Australia’s house back in order. It seeks to do that in a measured way over quite a few years. Sure there are, as there always will be, some tough decisions. Personally, I am in favour of future-proofing us from the next GFC, and very much in favour of stopping the selfish "spend now, make our kids pay" policies.
It seems to have made the house more disorderly, not less so, even without having been passed. Hockey seems to want the same tenure that Swan had, but unlike Swan not promising a surplus at the end of it, nor making any innovation on the revenue side. Amanda Vanstone was a Cabinet Minister in the Howard government and she sure as hell did nothing to protect Australia from the global financial crisis of 2008 (the one Hockey denied we had).

I still don't know what it means to future-proof anything, let alone a national economy, and it would appear Hockey is making our kids pay with fewer opportunities in what should be a brighter future for our country.
Some will pillory Joe over his cigars or something he said. I think we should offer him some praise for recognising that we need to clean up Labor’s mess.
These are not the only two choices. He overstated "Labor's mess" and is doing too little to address it, and other important aspects of our future. At the first sign of the scrutiny he should have faced in last year's budget - if not earlier - he has resorted to self-pity and a mutually embarrassing intervention from Aunty Mandy.

Vanstone is understandably upset that someone she's known and liked for many years is being pilloried. She is wrong to expect better from the media, wrong to expect policy debate when she can't even ask the right questions, and wrong to assume that whatever the government is doing must be right. The idea that she's succeeded at anything when muddying the waters over the cigar imagery is just sad. Politics is changing around her in ways she doesn't understand, and all she offers is her befuddlement - which is what she offered when in office. Why Fairfax are strapping themselves to both her irrelevance and the things she rails at is unclear.

17 August 2014

Spoiled

It is seriously difficult to understand how the government has come to be as bad as it is. Yes, it is hugely tribal, its ministers are convinced they know better than anyone else, and it has a faith in “spin” that has dramatically underestimated the public’s ability to judge for themselves.

- Michelle Grattan, 15 August 2014
And you expected what, Michelle, after 43 years reporting politics at close quarters? After six years of listening to them bellyache about the previous incumbents, did you never wonder whether they might be any better? When you have no idea what's going on every tale must be strange.

Srsly.
Even taking all that into account, Hockey’s Wednesday blunder is hard to explain.

Why – leaving aside such provocative language – did he think he could get away with just talking about ...
It isn't hard to explain at all. Hockey, and those who now comprise the government, have been spoiled.

Ever since Tony Abbott became Liberal leader in December 2009, Joe Hockey has been able to say almost anything and be taken on face value. This is the politicians' dream: autocracies around the world spend billions on secret police, semi-official bands of thugs and vicious prisons to achieve the effect that Tony Abbott had secured effortlessly from opposition over the past half decade.

Hockey has become intellectually lazy as the glorious sunshine of an unquestioning media simply transcribed anything and everything he said, in deliberate contrast with the doubt cast over anything and everything Labor said and did. Swan could say that water was wet and Hockey would pooh-pooh it, and the press gallery presented the pooh-pooh as further evidence of superior competence at government.

Hockey thought he understood poor people, or had sufficient understanding to fob off questioning. It has worked for him time and time again. Before the past week or so he had not been seriously questioned on any knotty question of policy since he was a minister in the Howard government. Nobody told him he wasn't paying attention; he didn't become Treasurer by paying attention. He became Treasurer by glibly fobbing off whatever the then government said.

Abbott constructed the opposition as some sort of second house of review to the then government. This is what John Howard did when he was in opposition - whenever the Hawke government proposed something, he'd say "I'll have a look at it" as though he had the power to override them. He and his shadow treasurer Jim Carlton declared that government to be "the worst in history", "leading this country to disaster", etc. The difference was that the then press gallery thought about what politicians said, and if it was bullshit, they called them on it: people like Paul Lyneham and Laurie Oakes brushed Carlton and Howard off with "he would say that, wouldn't he". The press gallery today lacks that ability to think about what politicians say, but simply transmits what is said because direct quotes chew up wordcount and airtime.

The other important difference was that Wayne Swan was far more gentlemanly than Hawke's treasurer, Paul Keating, who eventually rendered Carlton as a kind of chew toy. This further discouraged herd animals in the press gallery from seeking his input into the big debates of the day. When Keating said to John Hewson that he would do him slowly, it was no idle boast - everyone in Parliament had seen it happen. Swan had been beavering away in Labor backrooms when Coalition governments just fell, federally in 1983 and in Queensland in 1989; Keating knew that internal battles are all very well, but nothing shuts them up like holding aloft the freshly plucked heart of a Liberal. Chris Bowen will never rise above Grocery Watch until he learns this lesson.

It goes against the press gallery narrative to say that Wayne Swan lacked a killer instinct, but Joe Hockey is proof and you know how much regard I have for press gallery narrative.

Joe Hockey has been carried into office on a sedan chair. I read the section of his biography over the period when I knew him (pp. 57-63), from student politics through the Young Liberals and into parliament. Madonna King writes about those steps as though they were foreordained, as a journalist would, rather than with the historian's knowledge that every step is fraught and contingent. His winning personality was put to use in smoothing over ruffled feathers from the backroom deals that brought him into politics; the Liberals have used him in a similar capacity ever since, to smooth over harsh decisions made by awkward backroom people.

Young Liberals would have set-piece debates about endemic global conflicts, but it took Joe to invite people from the ANC and what was then the Palestine Liberation Organisation to address us. That sort of initiative was what the backroom operators lacked. He sang dirty rugby songs with gusto, but could also talk engagingly about the social dislocation behind the rap of Schooly D (yes I'm serious). He liked the idea of ideas without necessarily engaging with them directly. His opponents in student politics feebly attempted to pin him down on specific commitments, and the Mack machine in North Sydney made the same mistake.

If he were in student politics today, he would probably back himself with his ability to win on campus and resist the increasingly discredited major party machines.

In the early 1990s the Liberal Party in North Sydney had been smacked around by Ted Mack's hyper-local machine, but it got its act together and Mack gave it away with minimal involvement from Joe. With the pro-Liberal momentum building across the country in 1995, even a piece of wood like Paul Fletcher could have won that seat.

Howard took a risk appointing him to the ministry in 1996 but it paid off. He was a capable Business minister, pulling together complex and binding corporations law, and bringing Sydney business doyen Ian Burgess down a peg when he sought government insulation from his own ineptitude. He was a safe pair of hands as a minister, and it was understandable that Howard would turn to him to sell WorkChoices. When he whimpers today that the business community isn't helping him sell his budget, this is the experience on which he draws - in recent years people like Tony Shepherd provided the Liberal Party with the ideas and policy-development apparatus the party could no longer provide internally.

The people who were most sceptical that Hockey would make a capable Treasurer were outside the press gallery pack, in business and among business/finance journalists. The press gallery assured everybody that he was a great guy, so good at batting away the convoluted compromises of the previous government's budgets and economic policies. When Hockey becomes unpopular after the budget measures, and gaffes like parking in a disabled spot or whatever, he is falling from a pedestal which the press gallery built and maintained for him.

Wayne Swan delivered six budgets with no surplus, and was regarded by the press gallery as a failure. Joe Hockey delivered one budget with five forecast, none in surplus, and until now was given the benefit of the doubt.

When he delivered the budget Abbott looked smug while Hockey looked nervous. As I said earlier, that budget came from the IPA and big-business cowboys like Tony Shepherd, not from anything intrinsic to Hockey. It's a sign of the meaninglessness of the 'moderate' tag, and of Hockey's ambition, that he embraced that malarkey, and overestimated his ability to get it through parliament and to the public. It was a grievous fault, as Shakespeare might say, and grievously is Hockey answering it.

Soon after the budget Hockey claimed that a young person could survive for six months without benefits because of "severance pay". That was when I knew he'd been cosseted for so long that he could not connect Canberra policy-making apparatuses to people, and vice versa, which is the basic task of the politician. He was always going to make a stupid mistake, one which revealed the sheer absence of thinking before, during, and after the budget, and into the foreseeable future. Peter Costello's comments about childcare in 2007 were reminiscent of Hockey on petrol costs today.
Does he really believe the rest of the world – including (John Howard’s) “battlers” with lived experience of petrol prices, as well as economists who love quintiles and the like – wouldn’t be onto him in a flash?
Yes, because the press gallery and the Coalition cocoon insulated him from that until now.

The central conceit of the Credlin machine is that they develop ideas and that Abbott, Hockey et al just have to go out there and sell them - and that selling is a one-way, transmission-only process. The fact that the press gallery took every word the Coalition said as gospel, and disparaged every word coming from Labor, was an extra layer of insulation that appears to have disappeared overnight - and to which Hockey has to adjust fast, while his adjustments are played out in public.
Some are blaming weakness in Hockey’s office for what happened – he’s a couple down on senior staff – or even saying it’s about time for a ministerial reshuffle.
'Some' might say that. 'None' are giving the press gallery their due for their volte-face on Hockey, it would seem.
As for ministerial reshuffling: well, there would have to be quite a few demotions if performance were the yardstick. A reshuffle after a year and when things are so messy would be a sign of panic, create bad blood and instability, and not necessarily improve the situation. The idea of moving Hockey would be inconceivable, however poorly he’s travelling.

There is no one transforming solution to the muddle across the government. It just has to be worked at, minister by minister, issue by issue, driven by better leadership from the top.
On what basis do you think that leadership will suddenly manifest itself? Is the leadership of this government not at its maximum capacity already? Now that Abbott has a taste for the foreign junket and the oafish blundering into other countries' internal issues, is he seriously going to ask Chris Pyne where the bloody hell is that report from Wilshire and Donnelly, or consult Maurice Newman about anything? Abbott is every bit as popular today as Julia Gillard was eighteen months ago, when everybody (but me) knew that she was finished. That lack of popularity limits his scope for 'leadership'; Grattan should know this better than anyone, if her experience counts for anything.
This weekend Abbott will be on the Pollie Pedal, a familiar and comforting excursion. He gives the impression of a leader for whom the core task of governing and delivering has become very hard.
This is why the Coalition has been so complacent about adverse consequences from its actions. Again, if Michelle Grattan's experience counts for anything, she should know - and convey - that a Prime Minister without a budget is very, very vulnerable. Besides, the Pollie Pedal warrants more scrutiny than it has received. The core task of governing and delivering was never within Tony Abbott's skillset, and Michelle Grattan and her press gallery colleagues were wrong to infer/ claim/ assert that it was.

This brings us to Hockey's apology, or lack thereof. In normal life you apologise for your actions, not for someone else's feelings or any other consequences. This, however, is a political apology; complaining that it isn't "genuine" is beside the point. Read it carefully; it is a classic Howard apology, where the apologiser is being rational and realistic while those apologised to are irrational and unrealistic. The idea of such an apology is not to mollify those who were (or who merely felt) wronged, but rather to kill the story. Having issued an apology (of sorts, however imperfect) you can now say to journalists who would pursue the matter that they should drop it and move on, and that they are being unreasonable should they refuse. The press gallery, being weak and shallow people, will comply - they always do.

One thing the press gallery has failed to notice is that any minister who stumbles will get no support from Abbott. Howard knew that his ministers reflected on him; even Peter Costello got some tepid support in getting the budget through. All ministers are now on notice that you get no help whatsoever from Tony, even if he's known you for thirty years. Abbott and Pyne hung Hockey out to dry. Hockey is perfectly entitled to regard both as pricks. Hockey's friends are right to regard him as a better man than either, or both put together. When Abbott's leadership becomes more vulnerable than it is, this will be remembered.

If this is how Abbott treats someone he knows as well as he knows Joe Hockey, then millions of people he doesn't know at all have no hope. We saw this with all those images of Margie-and-the-girls. He put his arms around them as though he was going to scrum with them. Any woman - even Michelle Grattan - who fancifully extrapolated those images to some general understanding of Australian women on Abbott's part must surely realise their error by now.

It does not mean the government's problems are over once the press gallery has been herded into the next paddock. Hockey is ostensibly visiting minor party Senators in the hope of getting the budget through. After last week, every one of them is in a position to laugh in Hockey's face and give him nothing. Thanks for nothing, Abbott and Pyne.

The trouble with this budget, and pretty much everything else that the government has done, is that it is a product of a government that has never had to understand the country it is governing. The press gallery exists to challenge politicians on this. The $7 GP fee, the Lasseter-like pursuit of a budget surplus, none of those measures relate to Australia today. Whenever Abbott visits the UK he disappears from view for days, and junketeering journalists following him don't follow up.

The Liberals have always had the business community and the IPA hovering in the background but they have had the wit to choose which policies they would take on and when was the best time to champion them. There is an inverse relationship between Liberal political success and IPA success at getting their policies up. Neither Hockey, nor any other member of this government - including often-mentioned backbenchers - has that discretion based on a deeper understanding of the country and the challenges facing it in coming years. Hockey has spoiled his visionary claims with his insistence on the 'budget emergency' and refusal to address revenue.

Hockey has no future in his current role. If he wants a future in politics, his only hope is to retire to the backbench and do a lot of reading, and make a few thoughtful speeches. Otherwise, he will stumble along until Abbott cuts him down and end his career in 2016, 20 years after it began so promisingly, angry and bewildered and misapportioning blame and credit. If he stays he will continue to be a punchline, the cigar-chomping blunderer who doesn't even think about people significantly different to him - let alone the effects his decisions might have on them.

The failure will be his, when it is a failure of the Liberal Party more broadly in not making better use of his considerable skills and talents, and in not effectively complementing (not covering) the sorts of shortcomings that do not prove fatal in far less capable people.

(See? It is possible to write about Hockey without mentioning his weight or his privileged North Shore upbringing.)

10 August 2014

The futility of anger

The far right of the Liberal Party contributed little to the Coalition's election victory last year, and its reward was a smaller representation in ministerial ranks than it thought it deserved. In the past week Abbott has added insult to injury on two fronts, alienating a core conservative constituency.

First, the government's decision not to amend or abolish section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act has apparently caused "white hot anger" among many conservatives:
Mr Abbott phoned [Andrew] Bolt and John Roskam from the IPA to tell them he would be announcing the government would be abandoning its reforms ahead of Tuesday's public announcement.

Mr Roskam from the IPA urged the Coalition not to underestimate the "white hot anger" of the Liberal faithful in response to the "broken promise".
Further proof of Charlie Chaplin's belief that there is nothing funnier than impotent rage. The IPA has had the best of this government, and its tantrum at not getting absolutely everything is all the more disgraceful for that. By raising money for a newspaper ad to promote their persuasive failure the IPA have, as @fakeEdButler said, reduced themselves to the right-wing GetUp - and why they did not ask for, and receive, free advertising from The Australian is a mystery.

NewsCorp, the Liberal Party, and Network Ten have created for their own reasons the impression that Bolt wields enormous political power. On Tuesday, Abbott shirtfronted Bolt: he took the chance that there was greater community acceptance for leaving s18C in place than for changing it. Abbott, who holds the country's highest political office, showed that Bolt can be slapped down publicly and will cop it quietly.

George Brandis is a close supporter of Abbott's; Abbott shows he can slap him down too, having carried him through the wedding travel concessions thing and the bookcase thing, and now forcing him to carry the electronic surveillance proposals despite Brandis' clear disdain for the online world.

As he did in his court case, and when his employers told him they wouldn't fund an appeal, Bolt cultivated an air of disappointment at this news (which came ahead of the public announcement). He has to do this. Bolt might be perpetually furious in print but in public he has to appear genial and considered because seething will erode his audience over time. His fury becomes less entertaining if he develops a reputation for snarling and if images of his hate-contorted face make it into other media. He leaves that to John Roskam (note the picture here), which may be why the clubby Victorian Libs gently discourage him from preselection contests.

Second, Eric Abetz's claim of a medical link between abortion and breast cancer was a red herring. Abetz is the Employment Minister in a government that promised to create jobs, but unemployment is at a 12-year high. Yes, he's a Cabinet Minister, but he is not the Health Minister, much less an expert in obstetrics or oncology. Abetz has succeeded in diverting attention away from the issue at the heart of his portfolio, and it's disappointing that experienced journalists chose to be diverted.

Both Prime Minister Abbott and Health Minister Dutton have denied any link between abortion and breast cancer. To suggest a link between these conditions is a desperate ploy to reverse public support for women's access to abortion that is not only legal but funded publicly.

Neither Abbott nor Dutton wants an influx of women to the health system seeking expensive and unnecessary tests. Having also 'shelved' PPL, the government wants to limit further damage to women's perceptions of this government.

When it was revealed that asylum seekers in offshore detention centres were having abortions, I expected anti-abortion groups to be right onto it. The Prime Minister has been careful to avoid having his Catholic faith drawn into abortion debates, but I thought his proxies would step up and work toward a solution that didn't force this option. They were silent.

The World Congress of Families in Melbourne has attracted two federal Cabinet Ministers, Abetz and Kevin Andrews, as well as Victorian Attorney-General Robert Clark, and no doubt many other conservative politicians besides. The hue and cry surrounding political involvement in this event is reminiscent of a similar event before the 2007 election, addressed by then-Treasurer and putative PM Peter Costello, which also only served to alienate swinging voters. A speaker at WCF will put the case for the abortion-breast cancer link, Eric Abetz will host a reception for her, and he has diminished himself by his denials of support for her views.

Again, the fact that the panic merchants have been shown up as impotent rather than powerful is at the heart of anger like this. The WCF is designed to demonstrate enormous power by conservative Christianists. The dismissals by Abbott and Dutton make Abetz, Andrews, and Clark look like they're pandering, or engaged in some frolic of their own: neither of which reflect well on the Federal or Victorian Coalition governments.

The fact that the Christianist far right are angry with the government generally, and with Abbott, is neither here nor there. They are a small presence in Australian politics, cashed up to some extent but far from the leviathan that they are in US politics. They repel swinging, centrist voters.

When Christianist cash is withheld from Liberal coffers, this is noticed by Coalition backroom operators and steps are taken to see how Christian organisations may be enticed to boost their support.

When the Coalition gets into trouble, the leader should be able to rally the faithful to the aid of their party. Having been shirtfronted publicly by this government, Liberal fundraisers and preference negotiators may find their jobs hard when dealing with those who had received them warmly. Howard regularly acted against the interests of conservative Christianist groups - as Health Minister, Abbott did nothing significant to limit abortions - but when Howard called on them at times of need they always rallied.

This is why the support of the small but noisy community of conservative Christianists matters: fundraising, preferences, and the perception of a broad and unified movement with momentum. The presence of all three favours the Coalition at the next election, while their absence boosts the chances of 'one-term Tony'.

Abbott runs the risk of burning bridges to a core conservative constituency. Last year, Labor faced not only a resurgent Coalition but the lukewarm support of unions and other normally Labor-friendly organisations. When those organisations are keen and motivated Labor does well; observers could use this lack of support to justify their own lack of support for that government. Abbott may overestimate his ability to mollify conservative Christianists later, and underestimate how much political capital he may have to do so. Today, Abbott is already unpopular; if his mates desert him, why should you rally?

Joe Hockey was a happy bloke who put people at ease when I knew him, and many people have a similar experience of the man. In the past three months that has changed: the grave demeanour in the face of cuts, the gravity of budgeting for the government of the world's 12th/13th biggest economy. Now he's complaining that he's doing it tough, and that the media consensus that once worked for him is working against him.

The media always turn, and business goes to ground in the face of political storms, which is why cultivating media is so futile: you can only stand or fall on your own merits, and hope to divide the press gallery consensus wherever possible. Hockey can only go around the press gallery and its rapidly hardening consensus Narrative by reprising that friendly, constructive and engaging persona that drew people to him in the first place. Consumer and business confidence cannot rise and nor unemployment fall while Hockey wrings his hands over the 'need' for cuts.

The main reason why people vote Coalition is security: economic and physical. Economic security is in peril as unemployment rises. Physical security is not guaranteed - MH17 showed that, and too much more banging on about it will work against the government. The bipartisan proposed surveillance program, where we are all to be under suspicion for the sake of a couple of dozen might-be terrorists, will make people less secure rather than more so. Without security, what else does this government offer?

This government was always an angry government. Having been angry at being chucked out in 2007 and at being kept out in 2010, the Coalition's joy at winning could never translate to calm and magnanimity because their lack of preparation for government meant they became floundering and reactive (and therefore angry). Anger can be a spur to action, but having declared a 'budget emergency' last September and not starting work on it until May (and leaving it undone at time of writing) has dissipated that energy. Unemployment is going up, and the Ministers for Employment and Social Security are having tea with their churchy friends. It doesn't inspire confidence.

Also not inspiring confidence is the Murdoch press, which goes into paroxysms and/or flogs the dead horse of Gillard's domestic arrangements from years ago when this government stumbles yet again. People who are angry/sad are four times more likely to buy things than those who are content, so advertising platforms like the Murdoch press at least have a commercial interest in getting people upset. Like Abbott, the Murdoch press does destruction, not advocacy. The government has no interest in making people angry/sad with its performance, but people who aren't angry/sad aren't conservative. The Coalition has left themselves exposed for outsourcing their advocacy skills to the Murdoch press.

They are going to be so angry when chucked out of office again - but so what?

05 August 2014

Reset

I wish that I could push a button
And talk in the past and not the present tense
And watch this hurtin' feeling
Disappear like it was common sense

It was a fine idea at the time
Now it's a brilliant mistake


- Elvis Costello Brilliant mistake
Insofar as the Coalition was honest at all before the last election, it is fair to say that the Abbott government is pretty much doing what it indicated it would do - and what the IPA said it should do.

It just hasn't done this very well. The Abbott government basically outsourced its capacity to generate ideas, and in doing so it has lost the capacity to advance and defend and modify ideas, and to keep to a basic set of beliefs through the tempests of politics and compromise without selling out.

When Chris Berg frets for the government, he is being disingenuous. Chris Berg is Policy Director at the IPA, yet he has given up directing policy and opted instead for the disguise of a passive, disinterested observer. He rattles through recent history and illustrates that policy ignorance, far from making you more politically flexible (as Abbott clearly believes) actually makes you much, much less so. Then there's this:
The Medicare co-payment is going to have to be restructured and revised if it is going to pass the Senate. (Even that may not be enough. Clive Palmer yesterday announced he would vote against any co-payment, no matter how small.)

The mining tax will have to be decoupled from the measures it was supposed to fund - the schoolkids bonus, for instance.

The changes to welfare are unlikely to pass in their current form, so it'll be back to the drawing board with those as well.

The Government hasn't even begun the university fee deregulation debate, but when it starts it will be bruising.

And then there's the paid parental leave scheme - not formally part of the 2014 budget but its generosity casts a shadow over every austerity measure. PPL is meant to be up and running next year.
With the possible exception of PPL, not one of those measures is inconsistent with the urgings that the IPA have put to this government. He mounts no defence of them at all, merely cataloguing them as political roadkill as though he were part of the press gallery.
What makes the Government's problem even worse is that it's trapped by both legislative forces and public opinion.
Not to mention a third force, at its back, ready to squeal that the government has sold out and stands for nothing were it to depart from any of those policies - the IPA and commentators like Andrew Bolt comprise that Praetorian Guard, fully supportive so long as the government sticks to the agenda they have written for it.

The Abbott government is in a similar position to the Lyons government of the 1930s. A Roman Catholic Labor voter found himself hoisted atop a government of conservatives, whose agenda was driven by a business cabal (including Keith Murdoch) with the politicians responsible for providing the PR necessary to secure community acceptance. Rupert Murdoch, Tony Shepherd, and others who run the IPA and BCA are the business cabal of today, fizzing with ideas but unable/unwilling to execute them; Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey et al are perfectly willing, but far less able than Lyons or his largely inept ministry to execute the deal, within Parliament or in the country beyond.
Tony Abbott's prime ministerial predecessors have only had to deal with one ["legislative forces and public opinion"], rather than both ... Howard didn't have an obstructive senate. In fact, he had the opposite problem - a compliant upper house that offered no check on his government's longstanding urge to centralise labour market regulation.
From 1996 to 2005 - nine of the Howard government's eleven-year tenure - the Coalition lacked a majority in the Senate. It was not as legislatively paralysed as the Abbott government is now. Its contrast with the previous government, which almost passed one legislative instrument for every day it spent in office, is stark. When you consider that a majority of the Abbott ministry were in Parliament over that 1996-2005 period, their deficiency in managing the default state of the Senate (where no party or formal coalition has a majority) is absurd.

Perhaps this is the wrong metric for Berg, of all people, to apply. In my day libertarians cheered governments that legislated as little as possible. From the US we saw pictures of President Reagan riding a horse, or Bush I playing golf, or Bush II clearing scrub - they were demonstrating to their supporters that they were not jacking up taxes or clamping down on freedoms, which are the only two things that libertarians believe governments do. Berg and his fellow-travellers should be pleased at Abbott's lack of success at a process they tend to disdain.
The bottom line for Abbott is this, and it's dire: the Government is unable to legislate policies that voters don't want anyway.
Yep, it coasted into office with a compliant media that didn't test its ideas or its ability to get them through, lest the then opposition go the way of the Labor Opposition in 2004. The Abbott government has failed its side of the bargain: it has failed to sell the ideas handed to them by Berg and others.

Berg does not resile from or re-examine those ideas, for their applicability to the position facing Australia today (the Lyons government did not set Australia up well for World War II or its aftermath, either). Abbott rightly bears the responsibility for failing to get his agenda through. Unlike previous Liberal leaders, he also bears responsibility for not using the Liberal Party (and for lacking the sense and wit himself) to challenge the half-baked agenda of the IPA and other rentseekers. Berg must be disappointed in Abbott and his gang. It would be one thing for Berg to castigate Abbott for departing from IPA ideas, and to suffer in the polls as a result; it is quite another not to admit his own agency here.
So it's hard to see any alternative. The Government has to affect a policy reset - a mini budget. The budget needs to be redone and relaunched.
A newly elected government resets the agenda with a mini-budget after it gets elected. If the Abbott government was going to do that it would've had one before last Christmas, fitting with that 'budget emergency' stuff. As it stands, any 'budget emergency' is well and truly down to this government rather than its predecessor.

I can't think of a single instance where a government has successfully "reset" itself after a poor start; governments that stumble as badly as this one has. Toward the end Kristina Keneally was resetting her NSW government several times a week, pushing an overworn button that was disconnected from any source of power. Governments in this dire position tend to rely on outside help, such as the opposition splitting and/or choosing a poor leader.
The budget needs to be redone and relaunched. Contentious policies have to be revised, and, critically, argued for on their own terms. If the Government wants to reform Medicare, then great: let's hear the case for reform. We haven't yet.
That whole paragraph is oddly passive. Peter Dutton was the Liberals' spokesman on health for six years; his predecessor in the role is the current Prime Minister. There is no evidence that they have done any thinking on health policy at all, except to entertain IPA disparaging the very idea of public universal coverage, and to dishonestly deny Labor accusations that they would "cut, cut, cut".
The longer the Government delays that reset, the more trouble the festering budget is likely to cause.
"Festering"? It is full of the purest essence of IPA policy. Surely the IPA would regard the budget as "misunderstood" or "underappreciated". If I was a member of this government I'd be livid at Berg's gutless attempts to distance himself and the IPA from it (maybe even to the point of briefing Peter Hartcher, see below). Berg is trying to tiptoe away from a disaster he helped create.

This blog invalidated Chris Berg's very first gobbet in The Age and has found him a rich source of both a-musement and be-musement ever since. It is one thing to float silly ideas but the actual enactment of them should be taken up with those in more responsible positions than Berg's, and those who ought to know better. Berg, however, it rightly a target when he veers into hypocrisy.
There has been an uptick in anti-PPL sentiment over the last few weeks. Madonna King's Joe Hockey biography - which revealed that Rupert Murdoch knew more details of the scheme than Abbott's treasurer before it was launched - didn't help.
So now he's a poll jockey?

The idea of that was that Murdoch would promote the government's PPL policy while Coalition candidates got themselves photographed, with government as content-provider to the supposedly free enterprise NewsCorp. It didn't happen - NewsCorp turns on hysterical pro-Abbott pieces when the government falters but otherwise won't stick its neck out for particular policies. Or when it does, it's confused - it supported the axing of subsidies to the car industry, with mawkish pieces on despairing workers as a sop to their readership. It agreed with having naval vessels built overseas without looking at the exorbitant cost of the foreign-built F35 (or the aforesaid despairing workers looking for future employment). If only there were some way to test the utility of having Murdoch on side.
Paid parental leave has, perhaps, been an exception for which disloyalty is excused. It was the subject of internal grumblings from the moment it was announced by Abbott.
Who is being disloyal to whom here? Was Abbott disloyal to the party he led by failing to consult them and expecting their unstinting, unthinking support? Would Abbott's leadership survive having him or Credlin demanding full support from all quarters of the Coalition?
Yet we discovered yesterday that the culture of dissent around PPL is spreading to other issues. Coalition backbenchers are now freely floating ideas about how to adjust the co-payment to make it more equitable and popular.
This is called politics, Chris. It's been going on for years. Basically, ideas get thrown around until there's a decision, and then that decision (which often can't be foreseen exactly at the start, even by the smarter pundits) is implemented. The idea that all ideas are handed down from the leader's office and are implemented in full with a tokenistic endorsement is a recent development, and one that appears unsustainable.
And more concerning still is the infighting revealed in this piece by Peter Hartcher - backbenchers and ministers lining up to apportion blame for the budget's unpopularity. It is apparently easy to find Government members willing to anonymously rag on their colleagues.
That, too, is part of politics - both the anonymous backgrounding, and the fact that Peter Hartcher (and his editor) regard this as the very essence of his job.
Something needs to change. Some commentators have called for a reshuffle. There are, after all, a large number of young and talented politicians in the outer ministry and backbench, and a few too many Howard-era holdouts in the cabinet.
Again, the passivity: something, someone, just not this.

For example, take the government's self-inflicted wounds over the notion - urged on them by the IPA - that section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act be repealed or significantly amended.  Berg wrote a very silly book about this, titled something like There Were No Aborigines In Ancient Greece But Plenty Of Racists, Why Can't Melbourne Be Like That Today?. If you want to understand why there's so much hoo-ha within the government over that issue, I'm sorry but you'll have to read it.

Brandis may well be a dead Attorney General walking on that issue. Would the issue be significantly advanced were he replaced by, say, Julie Bishop or Malcolm Turnbull? What about Steve Ciobo, or Berg's erstwhile IPA colleague Alan Tudge?
A reshuffle is a drastic thing, especially so early in a first term of government. Yet it wouldn't fix the budget gridlock, or make the individual items in the budget more popular.

The problem, in the end, is that budget. And the only way to resolve it is to reset it.
Trying to survive for six months with no income support, or fielding thousands of applications from people in that position - that's drastic in a way that a reshuffle really isn't.

The problem is the ideas behind what came out in the budget - the idea that taxes and subsidies to companies and higher-income earners, the false economy of cutting aid while over-egging Defence, the social vandalism of cutting support to low-income families while issuing marriage counselling vouchers, to name but a few. Those ideas came from, and are sustained by, Chris Berg and those who maintain him in the style to which he has become accustomed. When those ideas go back to the drawing board - as they will, before the next election or afterwards - Berg will be waiting there with pencil in hand, as he was when those ideas were drafted.

He believed that Abbott, Hockey, and others in the Coalition could negotiate both the public and the parliament better than they have. He was wrong to do so. When Abbott was a minister under Howard he frequently had to invoke Howard's authority rather than stand or fall on his own. His failure to negotiate government in the hung parliament of 2010 was telling. It was not an unlucky flip of the coin, nor was he dudded by a capricious Gillard as the press gallery had it at the time. He did not become PM in 2010 because he was crap at negotiating ("sell my arse" indeed). The PPL was the only policy development they did in opposition, and it was rubbish. Nobody has any right to expect that such people would be competent, let alone capable of driving far-reaching but sustainable reform across multiple policy areas - not the press gallery, not Chris Berg, not anyone.

That said, and though he doesn't let on in this article, Berg watching the current Coalition government botch his agenda must be a bit like watching that Monty Python skit where The Gumbys do The Cherry Orchard.

Let us look to what is possibly his most strident and comprehensive piece of policy advocacy, along with "Third Preference" John Roskam, and its reflux. By my count, the Abbott government has gone a long way toward fulfilling these Hundred Theses:
  • Already enacted or well advanced: 1, 2, 10 (effectively if not ceremonially), 11, 19, 29, 30, 69 and 71. I would not be surprised if IPA people spent budget night playing bingo with those numbers, with economic incentives of course.
  • If it was possible to "quietly shelve" 4 without Andrew Bolt turning on the government, it would have done so. This is what happens when a political party outsources its capacity to generate and advance ideas.
  • Bit late for 5, and somewhat overtaken by events.
  • 15 is honoured more in the breach than the observance.
  • Let us be fair to IPA alumnus Tim Wilson and assume that he is fulfilling 82 by example
Credit where it's due: the IPA has a fantastic record of success in driving the agenda of the Abbott government. No branch of the ALP, no union organisation, no coven of lefty academics nor any other NGO can boast a comparable record of getting its agenda through any Labor government within its first year in office.

But back to Elvis Costello:
She said that she was working for the ABC News
It was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use ...
The IPA will miss the ABC. Lenin said that the capitalists would sell the rope with which the socialists hanged them, but I have no idea who paid for the ropes that in the 1990s pulled statues of Lenin from their plinths. In that spirit, Berg has once again used ABC resources to advance an agenda that is hostile to it. Thank goodness for that gibbering dupe Chip Rolley, who only engages brand-name writers for ABC's The Drum without really considering what barrow they're trying to push. I'll do what I can to boost his web traffic, enhancing his position and Berg's; it's the least I can do.

There is a Chinese saying that says having your wishes fulfilled can be as tragic as not having them fulfilled, but I doubt Chris Berg sees it that way. He has gone the full dingo on Abbott and Hockey, who relied on him and his ideas more than they dared admit. Berg has done so in such a charming way that you can see why he will survive the fall of a government that is dedicated solely to advancing his ideas, and will be part of the future of the Liberal Party in ways today's senior members won't. Hardworking and dedicated local MPs will lose their jobs, prominent pollies will become taxeating retirees who get bored easily, staffers will be chucked into the Canberra cold - but Chris Berg, like death and taxes, just rolls on.

03 August 2014

Up for negotiation

The main problem with the Abbott government is that it cannot persuade. It can't negotiate with Senators, it can't bring people with them.

It could never bring people with them. Peter Hartcher is wrong to represent, yet again, this incapacity as something that has only happened in recent days or weeks, or that it could not have been foreseen before the polls handed this story to him. This country has been sold a dog of a government, and Peter Hartcher bears more responsibility than he will bear for that. Hartcher is attempting to scuttle back to a pose of even-handedness that he regards as his turf, but having spent too long in The Hockey Camp and previously The Rudd Camp, what might be called The Middle Ground is turf which Hartcher has never occupied.

It is time to write Abbott off as a persuasive leader. He has failed all the 'tests' and has learned nothing. It is time to write him off as a sustainable leader. Liberals might declare that they have learned the lesson from dumping Rudd before the end of his first term, but they forget how much credibility Rudd had lost by then, how frightened his party was (and is?) of actual voters. Rudd had lost a lot of faith with the public by mid-2010 but he had lost even more with a party that had closed ranks behind him until that point. The Coalition has closed ranks behind Abbott to a similar extent, and the loss of public face is also apparent at this point: after he goes you can expect an orgy of I Never Liked Peta Anyway pieces, many of them to be written by Peter Hartcher.

I was in the NSW Young Liberals with Joe Hockey in the early 1990s, and I understand why people who work with him in politics and media regard him as a nice bloke (I'll have more to say about that in a future blogpost after I've finished Madonna King's book). The idea that Hockey might yet build a public persona based on that niceness and carry the Liberal Party to victory on that basis is a Canberra fantasy, with neither Liberal hard-heads nor journos any wiser on this. Hockey will not be able to contrast himself as a kinder, gentler Abbott. Hockey is finished after that budget, and all the journos and other Canberra denizens who doubt this are fools.

At the very least it will take him years to rebuild his image as a leader in his own right rather than as a supplicant who does the dirty jobs others won't do, in the same way John Howard took years to shake off the punchline of having been Malcolm Fraser's Treasurer. When Hockey delivered the budget in May he looked rattled, while Abbott looked smug; Abbott was nobbling a political rival on that night and he knew it. The Liberals thought they had built their future on the rock by choosing Abbott now with Hockey in reserve, but both captain and reserve have the same flaw exposed.

When Howard lost in 2007 and Peter Costello refused the leadership, Julie Bishop was considered an outside chance for the leadership. When Brendan Nelson stumbled the following year, Bishop was again floated as a compromise to Turnbull, and when he in turn stumbled Bishop was floated again (under the perfectly fair assumption that Abbott was unelectable). Now she's being floated again. The press gallery simply note this without looking at the pattern:
I am not saying there is likely to be any leadership change in Tony Abbott's first term ... it's not unreasonable to suggest ... anything could happen.
If your idea of political commentary consists of as many weasel words as possible, it's hard to go past Peter Reith.

Reith was himself floated as a potential leader in the late 1990s, believe it or not. This was leadership speculation as its most idle. He neither posed much of a contrast to the then incumbent (Howard) nor did he trouble the then heir-apparent (Costello), but this sort of fluff has kept Peter Hartcher employed. Reith imploded in a piss-blizzard of dishonesty in 2001. Virginia Trioli won a Walkley for asking Reith the sorts of questions that should be standard fare in political interviews. Trioli's employer, the ABC, and the Fairfax press have resuscitated Reith without any contrition or discernible improvement in credibility on his part, which has the effect of diminishing those outlets as reliable sources of information.
The Coalition has not yet elected a female parliamentary leader but the day will come and it would not surprise me if it were Julie Bishop. But it would not be because she is female, nor because someone has written a book of her life story, but because she is a class act.
Peter Reith used to give those sort of tepid, lame endorsements to former Liberal leaders like Andrew Peacock or Alexander Downer. That he would damn future leaders in a similar way is boring, and the whole idea of being a senior political commentator is to call this out. Simply reporting this development as though it were significant is an act of professional failure by the press gallery and the editors who keep them there.
Needless to say, Tony Abbott has set the right tone and provided the leadership that was so needed given the reluctance in Europe and elsewhere.
That kind of crap might play well in the Murdoch rags but it is nonsense. Later in his article Reith praises Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans. Can you imagine Reith finding out that the Netherlands is, in fact, part of Europe?
What is now evident is that Bishop is a totally professional and assured foreign minister. She is already on par internationally with Gareth Evans and, more recently, Alexander Downer.
Not really. Evans dealt with the end of the Cold War. Downer dealt with the tricky diplomacy surrounding the downfall of Suharto in Indonesia and the rise of Timor Leste. Bishop has not dealt with anything on that scale.
The first thing to say is that she has not put a foot wrong from day one.
Garbage. The Chinese have said that she's an idiot. Our relationship with China is terribly important and has been damaged to an extent that she can't fix. It took a lot of work from professional diplomats at the UN to stop them vetoing Bishop's motion. As it happens, the Ukrainians seem to be using the anti-Russian thrust of that motion to push their advantage; it does not quite mean that Bishop's much-vaunted efforts have been in vain, but let's stop going overboard (as it were) by lauding mere competence.

Much of the purple prose about Bishop, Abbott and MH17 has arisen from embarrassment that commentators overestimated how capable this government would be. There was about 48 hours where the government did the job they are paid to do, and that time has passed without any momentum, for the nation or its current government.
She started with more than her fair share of tricky problems but she did a good job managing Australian relations with Indonesia
The second clause in that sentence is flatly untrue.
My spies tell me that it was not the only time she has been forthright in her views. She also has clear views on key topics.
That's nice.

Look, never mind Reith - what Bishop has and what Abbott and Hockey don't is that she can negotiate. This government lacks negotiation skills and it needs them if it is to survive. Bishop demonstrated these as a corporate lawyer. She might not be [$] the wheeler-dealer that Guy Rundle's paywalled article makes Clive Palmer out to be, but she could play that game if Abbott had the wit to put her where she's needed. Palmer takes credit for the government's achievements while avoiding blame and responsibility. Bishop would have dealt with plenty of people like Palmer in Perth. Abbott and Hockey don't know where to start with Palmer, and drastically overestimate their abilities (in one another, and themselves) to cut a deal.

According to Rundle:
Yet somehow, by the end of this sitting fortnight, the only two major multipart pieces of legislation – the carbon tax repeal omnibus and the Future of Financial Advice (FOFA) regulation bill – had gone through in the form [Palmer] wanted.
That isn't quite true. The minister who has handled Palmer best, and granted him fewest concessions, was the minister in charge of FOFA: Matthias Cormann. Like Bishop, Cormann is a Perthling who achieved national prominence by wheeling and dealing with the best of them. The Senate is where this government lives or dies, yet Cormann must defer to two clowns (Senate Leader Eric Abetz and Deputy Senate Leader George Brandis) who are rubbish at negotiating and clear failures at their portfolios.

Cormann's in the wrong house, he has the wrong accent, and he is up to his neck in WA Liberal intra-party shenanigans in ways that Bishop isn't. When the Barnett government implodes Cormann will be trapped in the wreckage, while long-time observers of WA politics will remember how that state's Liberals proposed to draft Julie Bishop from Canberra instead of the exhausted Barnett and flawed Buswell.

Despite the ringing endorsement of the commentators, Bishop, too, is in the wrong place:
  • No Australian minister seems to have met with newly-elected Indonesian President Widodo nor any senior member of his team. Same goes for the newly-elected government of India.
  • It is unclear why the hell the Australian Education Minister, with a major review of his portfolio due last month, is in Israel - and what this means for our foreign policy.
  • Thailand is in political meltdown, a country with tens of thousands of Australians at any one time and the location of one of this country's largest embassies; Australia's position, and its interests, have not been articulated.
  • Speaking of political meltdown: Egypt, Peter Greste - and other Australians beside him, no doubt.
  • The Treasurer has gone to Fiji, a dictatorship which is due to have elections this year - again, Australia's foreign policy is unclear.
  • Why our entire foreign policy can only be administered from some dingy hotel in Donetsk or a morgue in Eindhoven is unclear.
Is Julie Bishop really doing a good job as Foreign Minister, or even a competent one? Who would tell us, how would we know? Who else in this government, or in politics outside this government, would do a better job?

Having stumbled into foreign policy, humour me as I blunder into feminism: Bishop is every bit as "deliberately barren" as Julia Gillard was. Much has been made of the heartlessness of Bishop when acting as a lawyer for asbestos companies, playing hardball with plaintiffs dying of asbestos-related illness who were seeking compensation from her client; Turnbull has done that sort of thing all of his life, and people love him for it in ways that don't accrue to Bishop. Qualities of hers will be overlooked and flaws will be emphasised in comparison to Abbott and other men who seek to lead the Liberals, by those (men) who make those decisions. Liberals are still setting up and knocking down the straw figure of quotas - the day when a woman will lead the Liberals is farther off than Reith's glib prediction might indicate.

One of Bishop's flaws/qualities is that she is not now on a plane home vowing to sort out the government, and frightening Hockey, Pyne and others into doing likewise. If she can sort out the UN Security Council then can't she knock some heads together in Cabinet? Can't she tell Abbott to fix things (like the budget, the education and health systems, the upward creep of unemployment and fact that relations with big business are starting to sour despite their success in getting what they wanted, among others) - and that if he doesn't, then she bloody well will? She was there when Turnbull did that to Nelson, and Abbott in turn to Turnbull. Reith gave examples of where she can deliver a kick in the pants, but to be leadership material she needs to kick a few people in the teeth. Reith could only do that to asylum seekers, and couldn't even pull that off.

The coming of the 2016 election will focus a lot of dull Coalition minds who disdained policy content and consistency before the election. Those people don't, and can't, understand that the government's problems now result directly from that disdain, that lack of preparation - as though Textor and the PR dollies knew anything, as though they are any help now. If Bishop walks down the street of a marginal seat with a nervous candidate and people warm to her in ways they don't to Abbott, Hockey, Pyne or the rest of them, perhaps their minds may change ...

... but still, the pattern is clear. Liberals turn to Bishop only when male leaders (Barnett, Howard, Costello, Nelson, Turnbull, and now Abbott) fail. She is the stalking horse, not the thoroughbred; the bridesmaid and never the bride. Reith, Hartcher, and the rest of the press gallery are wrong to tell us to keep our eyes on a dead but shiny lure - the government spends millions on PR dollies but somehow washed-up space-fillers like them distract attention most successfully. The Coalition need Bishop's negotiation skills, desperately, but they are also desperate to hide just how great that need is. The Coalition do not do far-reaching re-thinking while in office, and in any case Bishop is a transactional politician rather than a far-reaching re-thinker. Like Jim Cairns after Cyclone Tracy, she has her moment but then has nowhere to go but down.

Julie Bishop represents a lost opportunity for this government, and that will remain the case after the government loses office. The Liberals, and Bishop, will never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. The first woman to lead the Liberals and become Prime Minister must learn which qualities of Julie Bishop's she is to emulate, which to leave behind.

27 July 2014

Capability, decency ... and the Abbott government

And for one crowded hour, you were the only one in the room
And I sailed around all those bumps in the night to your beacon in the gloom
I thought I had found my golden September in the middle of that purple June
But one crowded hour would lead to my wreck and ruin


- Augie March One crowded hour
Traditional media reviews the performance of a new government at the hundred-day mark, and at the first anniversary of its taking office. The hundred-day reviews of the Abbott government catalogued how petty and nasty it was, overlooking the inconvenient truth of the gap between what it said it would do and what it actually is doing. It's too early for the anniversary, but bugger it, let's have the review anyway in light of current circumstances.

The Abbott government was elected in order to:
  • Can the carbon pricing mechanism as its first order of business
  • Can the mining tax too
  • Stop asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat
  • Run everything else pretty much as the Gillard and Rudd governments said they were going to, but with a bit of political stability

Since last September the Abbott government has:
  • Finally abolished the carbon pricing mechanism, but with a lot of palaver and no credit for having done so
  • The mining tax still in place (consider this: the persuasive skills of this government are so bad that they can't even persuade a mining billionaire, who campaigned against the mining tax, to abolish it. It's supposedly a massive impost on our economy, yet ten months later its abolition simply fell off the legislative agenda)
  • Still dealing with asylum-seekers coming to Australia by boat, and there's no commentary about on-water matters until there is, and while Morrison is a minister in disarray the press gallery yearn to hear from him
  • Botched everything else - education funding, interference in the national broadcasters, welfare, health, has been trashed to the point where you're entitled to believe everything this government says is bullshit; and last but not least
  • Suddenly become destabilised. Unlike under the Gillard government, the press gallery is not implying that leadership tensions within the government are at fever pitch and that any moment now, the PM is going to be rolled. This means the government is stable, right? According to Madonna King, the leadership tensions of December 2009 have not been fully resolved, with Hockey, Turnbull and Abbott at weapons drawn like the warehouse scene from Reservoir Dogs. The press gallery had a) no idea about this LIBERAL SPLIT SHOCK or b) covered it up, before King embarrassed them for the higher cause of telling the truth about how we are governed plugging her book.
Given all that, and the feigned surprise of the press gallery about how we've all been had (how could they possibly have known?), the crash of MH17 ten days ago and the Abbott government's initial reaction to it was something of a surprise.

Since the fall of the Fraser government, the Coalition has stuffed its foreign policy with warmed-over US Republican suspicion of the United Nations. Certainly this government's disdain for UN refugee protocols, and its contempt for Rudd's quest for a Security Council seat, is a matter of record. Yet, the government was right to recognise MH17 as a problem requiring concerted international action through established forums; it dispatched Julie Bishop to New York without stating up front exactly what she was supposed to achieve by going there, a breach of its standard practice. This meant anything she did achieve was a bonus.

Bishop got all the credit for that motion before the Security Council from pretty much all of the press gallery. Little credit was given to Australia's permanent legation at the UN, and you had to go to foreign news sites to see the significant input from Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. One day the whole, nuanced tale might come to light, but for the moment it is jarring when the Dutch and others make the big decisions that flow from what, apparently, was an Aussie diplomatic triumph. So much for the first draft of history.

The press gallery has been deaf to the shifting global power relations evident in responses to this incident. Do the press gallery, and the traditional media outlets that employ them (for the moment) not realise that Australians can access foreign news sources?

Bishop couldn't even credit Rudd, Gillard, and Bob Carr for having put Australia onto the Security Council, and apparently she is denying a DFAT briefing to the Opposition (how she howled when she was in the post Plibersek occupies today). The woman who ran down the clock on people dying from asbestos-related diseases is now bending over backwards for victims of a much more abrupt act of negligence. For all her flaws, this could well be her finest moment.

Putin has been a world leader for as long as Abbott and Bishop have been frontbenchers in Australian politics - there are no examples where Putin has caved to world opinion, and Abbott won't and can't change that. People like Campbell Newman or Joe Hockey insisting that Putin might not be welcome at the G20 in Brisbane later this year has the potential to more than negate Bishop's diplomatic achievement.

Russia does not have the ability to project power beyond its borders that the Soviet Union did. In Georgia and Ingushetia we have seen that Putin relies on bands of thugs, with Kalashnikovs in one hand and vodka bottles in the other, roaming around making the territory ungovernable but in some vague way 'loyal' to Moscow. This is how Russia denied an intact Yugoslavia to the West, by arming marauding Serbs and reducing other players in the Balkans to their level. This is what he's doing in eastern Ukraine: given what we know now the shooting down of MH17 makes no sense geopolitically, but only as a horrible error. The audio evidence from intercepted communications, and the sheepishness by the Russian government, point to that conclusion. Abbott was dumb to paint Putin into a corner, this piece was a little too cute in ignoring Abbott, and The Daily Telegraph dumber still for making it appear that Abbott forced concessions from Putin.

All that said, the idea of Tony Abbott being competent and dignified is pretty surprising, and without seeking to verbal him Tim Dunlop takes a similar position.

Imagine there was a vicious dog living in your street, and that pretty much every time you and your neighbours went past it the dog reared up and barked menacingly. Imagine your entreaties to the owners were met with abuse, or jeers at your powerlessness. Now imagine walking by that house and, instead of barking, the dog began singing Donna e mobile pitch-perfect and enunciated beautifully - this is what it's like watching random acts of competence from the Abbott government.

Commentators are expected to have a response to every situation, but sometimes slack-jawed mute amazement is most eloquent.

After the amazement comes one of two reactions: either embracing the new situation, or a retreat into denial. However much I disagree with the findings of so-called "9-11 truthers", I have some sympathy with their inability to credit disaffected Arabs with such an event and their insistence on bigger targets like the Rothschilds or the CIA. However, as I said earlier, Abbott killed his golden moment with overreach.

The idea of sending armed federal police into a conflict zone was dumb, though understandable given the Dutch army's role in Srebrenica. It should have snapped the press gallery out of its "universally agreed" praise and support for Abbott, and reminded even its most consistently worthwhile correspondent that it too can be guilty of overreach:
Death and tragedy reset the national political conversation.
Tingle refers to the all-too-brief lull following the death of John Gillard and the low "died of shame" attacks from Alan Jones, Joe Hockey, and Tony Abbott against his daughter. Does this mean Australian politics - and the reporting thereof - will sink to a new low over coming days?
There is a restraint in what issues journalists ask questions about. A sudden observance of appropriateness rules.
Not really. Tingle's press gallery colleagues speculate whether MH17 (and the unqualified press gallery praise for Abbott's response) will give Abbott a "poll bounce", even while the dead passengers remain unburied. This is ghoulishly indecent and reflects poorly on all members of the gallery, and their editors, lowering their behaviour to that of the Murdoch journalist who rifled through passenger luggage spread across the steppes because they just can't help it. It negates whatever propriety Abbott and Bishop showed in the hours after the incident.
So whatever else is said about MH17, it stopped the noise generated by the Senate and Clive Palmer in its tracks.
It just did the same thing in a different form. The "noise generated by the Senate and Clive Palmer" was all about applying pressure to implement the government's agenda, to save an already failing government from itself. By contrast, the unstinting praise surrounding Abbott's initial response to MH17 was all about applying pressure to implement the government's agenda, to save an already failing government from itself.
Context is also playing a grotesque game with the portrait of Joe Hockey painted in Madonna King’s new book Hockey: Not Your Average Joe.
See above - the idea that this government, for all its shortcomings, presents a unified front is no longer true, and given the effect that polls have in Canberra the centripetal pressures on this government will only increase. Abbott, Hockey, and Turnbull are each diminished. None has any real incentive to pull together for any cause wider than themselves. Ten months after it was elected to supposedly address a budget emergency, no budget has been passed, and even the crisis has evaporated.

Tingle goes on to describe a critique of health policy by the AMA, but such criticisms were eminently foreseeable after years of policy dereliction from Peter Dutton (now Health Minister, Dutton had been Health spokesman for most of the Coalition's time in opposition; he has apparently done no policy work to speak of, despite its significance to the national budget and political sensitivities, leaving himself and the government open to criticism long before Owler's speech. You want context? That's context).

It seems 'context' is the press gallery's way of asserting that its interpretation of events is the only possible interpretation, a point echoed feebly by Annabel Crabb and Murdoch pissboy and propagandist Simon Benson:
What Abbott has exposed this week more than anything is the complete vacuum of leadership Australia had been living under in the six years of Labor government.
Rudd, Gillard, Combet - and yes, Shorten - any of them would have done what Abbott did, without the overreach and without having to fend off frantic attention-seeking behaviour from Tony Abbott (and Simon Benson). The rest of Benson's piece, and his body of work more generally, might fairly be described as crap.

The competence and decorum shown by the Abbott government was shown to be an aberration, reverting as it is to incompetent policy and indecorous politics. Those of us who (generally) aren't impressed by this government can draw no vindication as there is no safe, capable, real alternative. The adults boxed Abbott in to accepting things like UN Security Council resolutions, and there is some hope that may yet be replicated in health policy.

This government can only be rendered competent when its other sneaky, half-baked alternatives are firmly closed off. The press gallery are not yet awake to this, and may never be - they are waiting pointlessly but earnestly for a "poll bounce", a return to their 'golden September' of last year. The polls are, as ever, beside the point. All we should reasonably foresee from recent developments is "the tenderness of patient minds/ And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds".