11 February 2017

King of the castle

Smiling as the shit comes down
You can tell a man from what he has to say
Everything gets turned around
And I will risk my neck again, again


- Crowded House Four seasons in one day
In theory, Parliament is the forum for the great debates on where the nation is headed. In practice, debates on where the nation is headed are had behind closed doors; what is put on show is bad drama badly acted, in Australia's best-subsidised and best-equipped theatre, where it is reviewed by the Australian media's last contingent of professional paid drama critics.

Legislation and policy lags public debate by its very nature, where deliberations about good ideas, measurements of political forces alive in the community beyond Canberra, and how new initiatives fit with wider strategies like the budget or the PR imperatives of the incumbent government. It's complex and best described by people far from Canberra who focus on one aspect of it. I am so being fair and broadly accurate when I say those who cover politics up close, day after year after parliamentary term, do an important job very, very badly.

Press gallery journalists know nothing about policy and governance - some of the more conscientious ones will do a quick Google search on the topic at hand, as though they don't realise we all have Google. What value is there in consuming traditional media once you've had to do your own googling? What time is there? Does anyone wonder why traditional media is going out of business? Have they really chosen the best journalists available to cover federal politics?

But let's not have your standard rant about the press gallery, and what buffoons they mostly are. Instead, let's go to source materials and work outward from there.

This brings us to Wednesday's wide-ranging debate in parliament, ostensibly a motion on Centrelink payments. The motion itself is on pages 59-60 of this transcript; Shorten's much-vaunted speech is at pp. 60-61, with Turnbull's response at 61-63.

Shorten's speech was not the wonkish affair some on social media have pretended, as though Turnbull had mugged him on the way home from the library. It begins with the epithet "Mr Harbourside Mansion"; Shorten is trying to make the case Turnbull is out of touch, but he hasn't made the case adequately or directly and starting the speech with that phrase was arse-about - you build up to a notion like that, so the killer phrase becomes embedded and unshakeable rather than just another cliche. Just a personal attack, the sort of political news that washes off most people. It practically invited Turnbull to turn it around on Shorten which he (kind of - see below) did. Other gobbets like "this slippery fellow", the mock sympathy for Abbott, being baited by an unworthy interjector in Christian Porter, ensure that no journalist would claim this speech gives Shorten that most elusive quality of politics: Looking Prime Ministerial.

That speech, taken with his earlier one at the National Press Club, has this value: Shorten is clearly calibrating, testing, and recalibrating his message. What we learned on Wednesday is that he is getting under Turnbull's skin.

When Turnbull became Prime Minister in September 2015 he was miles ahead of Shorten in popularity, trustworthiness, and that vague but potent gallery-appointed quality of Looking Prime Ministerial. Turnbull assumed he could crush Shorten in an early election in July 2016, but didn't. It's 2017, and Shorten is still there, plugging away. He hasn't been consumed by some personal failing nor by the roiling tumult of the Labor Party. Abbott and Dutton might be irritants to Turnbull, but Shorten is a mockery.

Turnbull too started off on the wrong foot with the "sycophant" thing, which carries the tinny resonance of Pyne. Turnbull has supped with a few billionaires in his time and it would seem that's the sort of thing one has to do in order to become Prime Minister; it did not work as an opening salvo. It is unclear why Dick Pratt or other billionaires might cultivate someone who wages some sort of class war against them.

The repeated references to "sucking", the almost racist designation of "manual labour", is the only time Turnbull could be said to have failed to uphold the decorum of the Prime Ministership. Well, apart from his petulant speech in the early hours of the morning after the election - and it is unclear why anyone would regard that speech as a disaster while hailing Turnbull's 8 February effort as a triumph.
Some of the lowest paid workers in Australia, cleaners working at Cleanevent — he sold out their penalty rates. And what did they get? They got nothing. But what did the union get? Cash, money, payments.
Kathy Jackson apparently did something similar at the HSU and was lionised by Pyne and Abbott. Strange that the Heydon Royal Commission was unable to make the sort of case against Shorten that is underway against Jackson. It's funny how things turn out, really.

Energy policies are a cost of living expense, but far from the only one. This government lost that battle when the carbon price was axed with no benefit flowing through to households. Turnbull talking about Viridian or Portland Aluminium doesn't even address household power. Turnbull bagging the AWU - well, a Liberal leader would, and besides have you seen how few private-sector employees are even members of unions?

That final paragraph is how Turnbull should have begun a carefully targeted attack: the idea that Shorten is inconsistent and can't be trusted. It might be rich for Turnbull to make such a case but it didn't stop John Howard. The difference is, though, that Turnbull is not testing and recalibrating like Shorten. Turnbull has been confirmed, with backbenchers and press gallery falling over themselves to congratulate him, and we can expect to see more of this as a result.

Turnbull isn't really worried about the social climbing thing, he's aspirational himself. It does indicate a deeper vulnerability. Shorten is not aiming for wealth or for some echelon of social status, he is aiming to hold a single office: Prime Minister, the office currently occupied by Turnbull. It's a zero sum game: Shorten can only become Prime Minister if he displaces Turnbull, or whoever else might occupy the office. It might be useful for Labor publicly to denounce Turnbull as a snob, but far more useful tactically to know Shorten earnestly calibrating, testing, and recalibrating puts the wind up Turnbull.

This is why Latika Bourke's comparison of Shorten-Turnbull with Julia Gillard's 2012 misogyny speech against Abbott was particularly silly. Abbott wasn't trying to become a woman. People can become women without displacing Gillard from womanhood; gender is not a unique state, there are billions of them. In 2012 Abbott was trying to displace and replace Gillard as Prime Minister, and he was happy to use anything he could throw at her - the death of her father, various other niggles arising from Abbott's demonstrated belief that femininity is inimical to leadership. Gillard's response showed that she knew misogyny when she saw it, thought it had no legitimate role in politics, and called Abbott on it.

By contrast, you may or may not agree with Shorten's idea that Turnbull is out of touch, but the topic is within the bounds of legitimate debate in a way that anything-goes misogyny isn't. It's one thing that Bourke's judgment is so bad, but her assumption that her experience counts for more than it does is genuinely funny.

Turnbull's insecurity was on show the following day when he upbraided Adam Bandt, the sole Green MP:
As [UK PM] Theresa May said in the House of Commons, the honourable member [Bandt] is part of a protest movement. I am the leader of a nation.
This is the parliamentary equivalent of the schoolyard taunt, "I'm the king of the castle and you're the dirty rascal". May directed her remarks to the Leader of the Opposition rather than a minor party outlier. A Prime Minister should be above this. Malcolm Turnbull palpably isn't.

Turnbull's invective was surprising to the press gallery who had long been seduced by his charm. And yet, it only takes a quick review of all those profiles on him before he entered parliament to see that he really does snarl like this when he's cornered. He was snarly and superior in public when he was losing the republic referendum, blowing what seemed like a historic inevitability on his own shortcomings. It's stupid for any journalist to take someone on face value, particularly a politician; it belies the very idea of journalistic experience not to measure the man before you against the one known well by others.

What also belies the better ideas of journalism - relied upon by the press gallery for its 'fourth estate' malarkey, and the access privileges that go along with it - is the near unanimity of the theatre reviews giving the contest to Turnbull. It's one thing for some to give it to Shorten, others to Turnbull, and yet others to neither; this is what intelligent, reasonable and diverse people of goodwill and good sense would do. It would be what happened if the press gallery was as intelligent and diverse as its fans insist it is. This is what the debate on Twitter was like: broader than the press gallery and often equal or better in acuity.

Almost all of the press gallery used this event to give themselves license to write the sorts of uncritical, gushing, adverb-heavy praise they gave Turnbull in September 2015. Two exceptions were important:
  • Michelle Grattan applied her experience to place less importance on those speeches than, well, every other journalist. She talked about the government's "cost of living" message while overlooking two things: the welfare cuts that disadvantage low-income earners, and the games over electricity where cost of living (and supply reliability to South Australians) are collateral damage.
  • Katharine Murphy's theatre review recognised Turnbull came from a position of weakness rather than strength. Alone in the press gallery, Murphy recently seems to have taken to heart social media jeering at the press gallery herd and realises there's no future in passing on the same received wisdom from all outlets: mind you, this is the point where new year's resolutions tend to fall away, so we'll see if she can sustain this.
Both Grattan and Murphy do quick comparisons with Question Time players of yesteryear, but they seem to have drawn the wrong lessons. Let's look at previous governments in decline and compare them with the performance of this one:
  • 2013: Gillard and Rudd laid into Abbott, who grinned and winked at the press gallery.
  • 2007: Costello and Howard laid into Rudd, who calmly sat there taking notes.
  • 1995: Keating laid into Howard, who sat there calmly or laughed that odd mirthless laugh of his.
  • 1982: Fraser laid into Hayden and Hawke; the latter at one point fled the chamber in tears. If Shorten did that today he'd be finished.
Far from being a sign of strength, a Prime Minister laying into an Opposition Leader indicates that the government is on its way out. A secure government ignores the Leader of the Opposition. An insecure government treats that office and its holder as a mortal threat, with the focus and severity one would hope a government might bring against economic disadvantage or racist violence.

Malcolm Turnbull never wanted to be Prime Minister. Being PM involves leading an unruly party through tough and uncertain times. He wanted to be President, and only went for the Prime Ministership once that wasn't an option. Being President involves cutting ribbons, making polite and occasionally droll remarks that don't involve references to sucking or protesting, traveling around, and giving obligation-free advice to politicians. Turnbull has opted for a lesser role than he hoped, maybe even a role that is beneath him. You can see why what he offers us is less than we might have hoped, and why his policy offerings in every portfolio - and now, his parliamentary behaviour - are beneath us.

12 January 2017

Credit where it's due

Annika Smethurst from the Herald-Sun did the investigative journalism that led to Sussan Ley standing aside as Health Minister. I was wrong to declare on Twitter that there was no press gallery involvement in this, when Ms Smethurst is based there. I had read/heard plenty of different stories on this matter by non-gallery journalists, and though I read/hear/see more political news than pretty much anyone who doesn't get paid to do so, I was wrong to extrapolate my experience across the gamut of Australian media coverage.

I'd link to her articles, but I don't have access.

At a moment like this, there is nothing else to do but don the ashes and sackcloth and defer to a press gallery journalist who - literally and figuratively - wrote the book on what it is to be stupid:


I'm not kidding you, Bernard, you're kidding yourself. You blocked me, remember, to spare yourself the obloquy of my ill-informed tweets. It's like you've gone out of your way to be offended.

I do like his signoff, even if it's somewhat above his station. When Julia Gillard was Prime Minister, most of her tweets were prepared by her staff. Tweets composed by Gillard herself were suffixed with her initials, JG. Keane almost certainly has no staff and writes his tweets himself; it appears he has signed off the tweet above with the description his (unnamed) press gallery colleagues (probably) give him. It emphasises just how much this issue really is all about Bernard Keane.

Now is not the time to be so uncharitable as to ask how Smethurst decided to target Ley, who appears to be a Nellie No-Mates if we are to believe the sub-Massola and his secret sources. Hardly surprising she spends so much time on the Gold Coast. No wonder the Prime Minister, neither fish nor fowl in the modern Liberal Party himself, moved less than decisively against her.

Before entering Cabinet, Ley was widely regarded as one of the smarter members of the Coalition. She seemed to lead a full, non-political-class life before joining the Liberal Party and losing preselection for the Victorian seat of Indi, to Sophie Mirabella. When Tim Fischer retired after representing the region for a generation in state and federal parliament, the Nationals could not find a more compelling candidate than the Liberals' Ley, who won Fischer's seat of Farrer (across the river from Indi).

As Health Minister she has not developed, and nor has the government developed for her, an overarching strategy: her record is pretty much all cut this, cut that, and cut again. Ley's breadth of life experience, independence of outlook, diligence and brains do not to have been brought to bear on the nation's health system or other functions of executive government - but as you know from the above dear reader, and not being a press gallery journalist I can admit this - I may be wrong about this, too.

It's like there's a difference between how Sussan Ley is - was - perceived inside Canberra, and how she's perceived outside.

The difference is starker still with Ley's replacement, Arthur Sinodinos. Inside Canberra, Sinodinos trades on his reputation as Howard's chief of staff. He fobbed off ideas he deemed unworthy of Howard's consideration, and translated those that were into outcomes through his understanding of the public service. He was critical of Abbott's inability to engage the public sector in failing to realise his agenda, and failing to consult Sinodinos. When Turnbull brought Sinodinos back from oblivion and talked up his Canberra skills, the press gallery agreed as one that the return of Sinodinos was a Very Good Thing.

Outside Canberra, Sinodinos has no political experience at all. Unlike Howard or Ley or most other politicians, he doesn't have experience in engaging with people about issues and asking for their vote. He became NSW President of the Liberal Party by fobbing off factional warriors similar to the way he operated in Howard's office; had a few of the smarter ones from either side chose to do so, they could have united to finish his political career. He was parachuted into the Senate by the NSW Liberals after Helen Coonan retired.

His use of the Alan Bond/Christopher Skase defence of "I don't recall" and its variants before ICAC doesn't enhance one's wider reputation for cleverness, but rather diminishes one's credibility and trustworthiness. He fell in with Eddie Obeid over Australian Water Holdings with a naivete that makes Oliver Twist look like Machiavelli. I hope he learned from that experience, otherwise the sharp operators in the health sector will do him spectacularly.

As Health Minister, Sinodinos will address journalists without Howard's sense of performing for a wider audience, because he's never had to court that wider audience to get where he is. He won't be able to craft some overarching vision for the Health portfolio, because this government is running out of time: in media terms 2017 will be a repeat of 2012, where each Newspoll is a clanging chime of doom, and where the press gallery uses recent/upcoming Newspolls as their excuse to cut their already scant coverage of policy.

The government will look for A Great Story To Sell when it comes to health, but all they'll find are niggardly cuts and fobbing-off of journalists - not a solid place from which to start the 2018 election campaign. Backbenchers and candidates won't want him campaigning for them (unless for fundraisers with already rusted-on Liberals and industry stakeholders) because his Canberra magic simply does not and will not translate.

Keep in mind how small is this government's majority in the House of Representatives. Here is Ley's electorate. If she resigned to spend more time on the Gold Coast:
  • Who would blame her?
  • Which press gallery veteran would disgrace themselves with shock/horror at such a foreseeable outcome?
  • Who would the Liberals/Nationals run in that seat, were there a byelection?
  • Even if Barnaby Joyce demanded the Liberals run dead, would the Coalition win?
  • Is there an independent like Cathy McGowan or Tony Windsor, or an insurgency like the Shooters Fishers and Farmers, who'd win a strong local following?
  • Would Sarina Russo still invite her to parties?
That would be the stuff of real finger-on-the-pulse journalism, where national politics meets the local, and would not require a cent of additional expenditure by traditional media - and it is utterly absent here. Albury has strong local media; the press gallery aren't reaching out to them because they can't.

That difference, where someone is a legend in Canberra but a nobody beyond it, is the point where the press gallery fails. The reverse is also true with someone like Pauline Hanson, and the press gallery is no less a failure there too. The reasons for that failure are multi-faceted, not the least of which is that it's everyone's problem and no-one's. This failure isn't just seen in incongruity; we see it in the disappointment when supposedly well-informed people vote on the basis of press gallery information (e.g. Malcolm Turnbull is a moderate liberal with exciting ideas and strong convictions; Tony Abbott is the best Opposition Leader ever and is more Prime Ministerial by the day; Kevin Rudd is a policy wonk; etc.) which turns out to be false, and that falsity has real consequences for the nation. Disappointment is compounded when the press gallery fail to appreciate the consequences of misinforming their audience, both on their employers' ratings and on perceptions of the political system more broadly.

The systemic failure of the press gallery, where sub-Massola bullshit is the norm and Smethurst-like investigations the exception, means any acts of journalism come as a surprise when they arise from such an unexpected quarter. It means Bernard Keane's personal brand, where he's in the press gallery but not of it when it suits him, is doomed.

I'm open to surprises from the press gallery, and again I should do a better job of calling out the good stuff and seeking to build on it - but approaching 11 years on this blog it is fair to expect navigating Australian political journalism in 2017 to be like a trip across the Hay plain in Ley's electorate - monotone, featureless, boring, way too much of it, and not something you'd miss if you never saw it again.

24 December 2016

Cory & George's excellent adventure

Mmmmm, standin' at the crossroad
I tried to flag a ride
Standin' at the crossroad
I tried to flag a ride
Didn't nobody seem to know me
Everybody pass me by


- Robert Johnson Cross roads blues
I am growing tired of professional paid political commentators who don't actually understand how politics works.

Conservatism is largely about cultivating a fug of complacency and wallowing in it. Complacency becomes impossible for conservatives when a growing groundswell of opinion leads to non-conservative outcomes. When that happens, they have to rouse people to action, conservatives often use the crossroads metaphor: we have come, ineluctably, to a point where a decision must be taken on our future direction.

The trouble with Cory Bernardi is that he does this so regularly, the call to action loses the immediacy it needs to take action. If you're going to rouse the silent majority to speak, to motivate a peaceful and industrious people to take to the streets, you do not do so lightly. Yet, Bernardi does so every time he misses the kiss of the limelight upon his face. Why would it do so? He's not a minister, with decision-making power. He is not a novelty; he has been a Senator for a decade now. He lacks both the freshness and youth of, say, Senator Patterson, as well as the gravitas of, um, pick any Senator old enough to be his parent. Bernardi is about the same age as Joe Hockey or Nicola Roxon, who entered parliament about a decade before him and - whatever you think about Hockey or Roxon - achieved more than Bernardi has. South Australia's Liberals keep sending Bernardi to the Senate on the basis that he's a man of promise; but apart from threatening to leave the very party that put so much faith in him, it's hard to see what that promise is. Some ministers in the government, and the current Leader of the Opposition, weren't members of parliament when Bernardi started crying from the wilderness Senate backbenches.

The same applies to George Christensen. A Young Nat who worked for the previous National MP for the seat he now holds, George Christensen has no prospects beyond remaining in the position he is now. He regularly threatens to cross the floor, yet as a Whip (with a pay increment) his job is to prevent other Coalition MPs doing so. He lacks Bernardi's comfortable middle-class background. All around him in post-mining-boom mid-north Queensland lies economic uncertainty, with declining farm and mining jobs and low-paid service jobs in tourism the only alternatives to not having a job at all (fears that will not be alleviated by the spectre of the Adani mine). He has the best job in town, and every couple of years Labor and a bunch of other bastards try to take it from him.

Christensen should have lost all credibility when he threatened to vote with Labor over a royal commission into banking, failed to do so, and the motion was lost by a single vote. Right there is your proof that Christensen's principles do not extend beyond his own advancement or preservation. Yet, press gallery continue to cover his every utterance as though they were important than they are.

There is no such thing as a slow news day. There are dumb editors, and there are lazy journalists, but no day can really be said to have little or no news. Maybe some of that news that fell outside space constraints on busy days, or timed deliberately to avoid scrutiny, could get a go on 'slow news days'. Yet, the press gallery always jumps like maggots in hot grease at the idea that Cory Bernardi will leave the Liberal Party, or Christensen the LNP. They never twig to the idea that they might not be able to cope outside the Coalition - not even after decades of experience in the press gallery.

Conservatism has never been popular in a country that trashed its traditional owners, failed to replace it with a meaningful "bunyip aristocracy", and which still gives lip-service to egalitarianism and a tall-poppy syndrome. It works best when it is spread thinly but broadly across the political spectrum.

Over the first two decades after World War II, Menzies' Liberal Party and Evatt's Labor each had substantial progressive elements that might have created opportunities for women, public health systems, or other progressive outcomes manifested in other countries. When John Howard was Prime Minister, he faced a Labor Party with a substantial conservative presence: the SDA controlled key preselections in Victoria, NSW and South Australia, with cautious leaders in Kim Beazley and Simon Crean (sons of Whitlam ministers). Conservatives speak well of Menzies and Howard eras, and seek to emulate and perpetuate them. Conservatives succeeded in making conservatism look bipartisan, and we know how the press gallery can't resist bipartisanship.

To illustrate the same point by contrast:
  • Those who think the Whitlam government was so progressive and dynamic should look at the actual ministers Whitlam commissioned in December 1972; few shared their leader's commitment to dynamic, progressive causes.
  • When Howard-era Liberals Russell Broadbent and Judi Moylan spoke out against cruel and regressive asylum-seeker policy, Labor stayed silent or sniggered at Coalition disunity (then cried rhetorically "but where are all the so-called liberal moderates?").
Today, our political system is not particularly conservative. Labor has largely dismantled its SDA machine, and found popularity with positions such as same-sex marriage or renewable energy that appal conservatives. Within the Liberal Party, Turnbull is not trusted by conservatives to stand up for conservative ideas. Merely reaffirming his hope for an Australian republic, without any commitment to doing so while he is actually Prime Minister, sends conservatives into a tizz.

When conservatives go into a tizz, the foundations of the Turnbull government begin to quake. Like the man himself, those foundations are a mile wide, an inch deep. Conservatives gain their power by stopping progressive Liberals from doing progressive things. The worst thing you could do to conservatives would be to corral them into one party.

The poverty of their ideas and their inability to translate them to practical policy or legislative outcomes would become obvious even to the dimmest lights in the press gallery. Conservatives can stop same-sex marriage within the Coalition; outside the Coalition they become a token, impotent protest to a unity ticket between progressive/pragmatic Liberals and the ALP, which can assert its party platform now that the SDA has been weakened. Conservatives can disdain multilateral foreign policy arrangements and admire kick-arse nationalist leaders like Duerte or Trump; progressive/pragmatic Liberals and the ALP agree that this is simply not how foreign policy is done. Conservatives want extra payments for nuclear families, church organisations, or conservatively-inclined older voters; progressive/pragmatic Liberals and the ALP agree the Budget cannot afford it. Conservative would screech at moderate Liberals who voted with Labor; Labor would reap the political credit, as happened in the early 1970s.

The one area where they will lunge for credibility - and where the press gallery will follow, given optics etc. - is with national security and xenophobia. While earnest progressives will wrestle with complexities, they will play up national-security theatre and xenophobia, and because these are bipartisan the press gallery will give these undistinguished politicians the benefit of the doubt, grilling and disparaging genuine experts from beyond the political class.

Bernardi, Christensen, and other conservatives believe they can keep the Coalition in office by uniting what we might call the broad right and bringing it within the Coalition, and that this is both easier than and preferable to moderating Coalition positions to compete with Labor. They believe that they can bring together Family First, Pauline Hanson's One Nation, the Citizens' Electoral Council, Fred Nile's Christian Democrats, what remains of the Democratic Labor Party, and sundry other religious, anti-immigration cranks. They believe those groups can flush out moderates within Coalition ranks, and that the public will vote for the Coalition much as it has but with extra votes instead of preferences.

It isn't at all clear that Pauline Hanson would give up being leader of Pauline Hanson's One Nation to Bernardi or Christensen, not even if they asked nicely. Fred Nile has been in NSW's Parliament since Cory and George were little boys, having built his political machine and fended off usurpers, with his bare hands; like Cory and George, he has achieved little apart from getting re-elected. Same with Bob Katter in far north Queensland - you'll notice he isn't embracing Christensen. Bob Day did something similar with Family First in South Australia - but Bernardi has failed to exploit the chaos that has come from Day's resignation and financial woes to build his own machine beyond the Liberal Party. If he can't do that in South Australia how might he build and lead a national movement? Tony Abbott is a former Prime Minister - if he leaves the Liberal Party to hang out with drongoes like Cory and George, Peta Credlin and other hangers-on will fall away and his legacy will be less than Malcolm Fraser's.

As for the DLP - Bernardi isn't even Catholic, but both Turnbull and Shorten are, and the Catholic Church could use a bit of bipartisanship right now.

Uniting the right would be an impossible task at the leadership level, at the membership level it would be a joke. Bernardi and/or Christensen would not attract capable and talented people, for they would threaten their positions. They would not attract the sort of people who have been overtaken them within the Coalition. They would not attract the capable people who made effective politicians of Tony Windsor or Cathy McGowan. They would attract the sort of political jetsam that flakes off One Nation like dandruff. Bernardi and Christensen might resent being left behind by people they disdain, and who disdain them - but is it really better to be in the sort of role in which Hanson finds herself and revels: leader of a bunch of ding-dongs? Bernardi once described Jacqui Lambie as "thick" in a diatribe that veered very close to snobbery; you can't build a national movement if that's your attitude, if you have more in common with Christopher Pyne than either dares admit.

Bernardi, and Christensen to a lesser extent, have spent years mincing around trying to balance their self-belief against the political oblivion yawning before them should they fail. They throw the idea out to the press gallery on slow news days, stop returning phone calls once they've overplayed their hands, then repeat until the press gallery wake up to it. It's interesting that none of them have actually asked Bernardi about what he was actually doing at the UN - yeah, Trump and all that, but you could have spent that time sleeping in a subway station and still picked up that stuff. The Australian delegation at the UN does real and important work - how did Senator Bernardi augment, or even observe, that work? Politicians usually insist they work hard and achieve much on their overseas trips; Bernardi seems to have used a foreign study tour for his own benefit, and no journalist has applied an iota of scrutiny.

The press gallery don't know anything about politics that doesn't happen beneath a particular hill in Canberra (and aren't even awake to most of that). Do the have any capacity to look at politicians' political bases in the far provinces? When conservatives insist the Liberal Party's base consists of conservatives, how could they question it - even if they were inclined to do so? When the press gallery clogs up time/space with antics from Cory and George, they might thrill those two as much as they thrill themselves, but they tell us less about how we are and might be governed than the secure futures of either might require. Still, Cory and George get a lot of coverage from media outlets with declining consumer bases, and that's the main thing.

20 November 2016

Trumped part I: America's gimp

Australian foreign policy has changed profoundly in the past few weeks, more so than at any time since 1942 - but with the important difference that the current Commonwealth government seems at a loss for how to deal with it.

Our information about what was important to US voters, and how they might use that information to choose their President and Congress, was poor. The government has sources of information that go beyond the traditional media, such as an Ambassador who was a recent member of the Cabinet, and a golf course designer who has done business with the President-Elect. The rest of us, however, are left with this sinking feeling that we've all been had in assuming US voters would head off Trump, and this will get worse as media both deny any culpability and assert an exclusive and indefinite right to misinform us under the guise of reliable, factual, and relevant information.

First, let's go around the media and work out how Australia's relationship with the US and other countries is likely to be changed. Then, let's aim squarely at those Australian media dipsticks trying to crawl from the wreckage of their credibility, and remind them of the conditions under which they are to go forward, if at all. Finally, I want to explore the media's obsession with this idea of the "alt-right", while at the same time failing to examine the idea in any depth.

---

Since US troops were first committed to the battlefields of World War I in 1918, Australians have fought beside them. In World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and other operations besides, Australia has joined US combat aims and suffered losses of blood and treasure. This relationship has shaped the foreign policy behaviour of both countries.

In Australia, it has bred a political monoculture across the governing parties that the US is the guarantor of Australia's political and economic success (and that of other countries, such as Japan or the Philippines) in the Asia-Pacific region. This is supported by a range of institutions, such as the Australia-America Leadership Dialogue or Fulbright Scholarships, which reinforce this relationship. Australians seeking a career in foreign policy, whether partisan (by becoming a member of a political party) or not (by eschewing party politics and following a career in academia or diplomacy), looked to US foreign policy as the star by which all vessels steered.

There is no way of regarding Australia's relationship with the US as anything other than closely intertwined with the broader aims of US foreign policy: outlooks and proposals that might have seen Australia break with the US altogether, or diminished the relationship (e.g. by closing Pine Gap or banning nuclear warship visits) were cast to the fringes of Australian politics and not entertained by serious careerist pragmatic people.

In the US, we have seen a bifurcation between official rhetoric warmly praising our alliance and a sub rosa commentary taking Australian support for granted, verging on contempt. "We think you're an easy lay", recalled Jack Waterford in outlining occasional Australian disagreements within a generally close relationship.

Yesterday we saw the Prime Minister admit that he tried and failed to secure a meeting with Trump, along the lines of Trump's meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Abe. One missed meeting need not have much long-term significance - but it hints at something more foreboding for the relationship, certainly as far as Australia's political monoculture is concerned.

Donald Trump's method of campaigning collapsed the difference between official high-sounding rhetoric and sub rosa contempt in almost every area of policy. While other conservatives were happy to mouth platitudes about freedom and equality while courting bigots through 'dog whistling', Trump was openly racist, sexist, and dismissive of people with disabilities - including veterans. Let's not pretend Trump is different to what he is. Let's have no truck with the fatuous media make-work scheme that is 'the walkback', and apply this pattern - seen throughout this campaign and beforehand - to US-Australian relations into the foreseeable future.

Trump will be openly dismissive of the Turnbull government and of Australia. Trump will openly state that Australia needs the US more than the reverse, and will make demands not even the most craven Washington-phile Australian could support, or even entertain. He and his Administration will be dismissive of the women who are Ministers for Foreign Affairs and Defence in this government, and of their shadows. Political opponents of the current government will titter at this new scope of failure, but the sheer effrontery will transcend partisanship and go to the regard in which our nation is held.

Nothing transforms a relationship (any sort of relationship) like stripping back the honeyed words and seeing it for what it is. It will be a massive break from the norms of the Australia-US alliance.

US Presidents have hung Australian PMs out to dry from time to time, as collateral damage for broader geostrategic reasons. In 1956, President Eisenhower refused PM Menzies' request to intervene in the Suez Canal crisis because of the US's wider interests in western Asia at the time. In 1972, PM McMahon condemned his political opponent Gough Whitlam for visiting and recognising the People's Republic of China - unaware President Nixon was about to do so, again playing a wider game.

Trump will wrongfoot Turnbull. He will do the same to any other putative Australian PM you might name. This is how the man does deals.

The best way to catch Trump out will be to catch him when he's distracted, as we've seen from his hasty and inadequate settlement of Trump University lawsuits. The current government may well be canny enough to do this - or not.

In his address to the Australian parliament in 2011, President Obama said that the US would be less inclined to unilaterally enforce international rules and norms and called upon allies in the region to do more to support shared aims, and expected allies to step up and share more of the burden. Australia is building warships at a rate never seen before because the US has indicated that it's in our best interest to do so.

Some commentators noted Trump's remarks along similar lines of making allies shoulder more of the military burden that had fallen to the US, and compared his approach to mafia shakedowns - but he was, in his crude way, aligning with bipartisan US policy. None of the Republican candidates Trump defeated in the primaries, certainly not Hillary Clinton and still less Bernie Sanders, were arguing for a Pax Americana where a rules-based global system is set up and enforced by the US military commanded by its President.

Criticism of Trump's rhetoric on this issue is just hype, snobbery, and bullshit: the central flaws of all his opponents' unsuccessful campaigns.

This isn't to normalise Trump. It's to do what the Australian media should have done, but failed to do: take his record and project it forward onto how a Trump administration might treat Australia within its view of the world. Australian journalists observing US politics, whether from Australia or on assignment in the US, tend to avoid original sources of information: they read The New York Times and The Washington Post and other established media outlets, not realising the audience in Australia for US politics can and does access those same sites - and more.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation covered the US election by sending reporters to Washington and having them relay banalities from CNN and Politico, which they could have done from Ultimo or Canberra. Shipping those people all that way gave no additional insight at all (except that ABC News thinks their audience are mugs, and should stop gibbering about resource constraints).

Most of the reasons why this deeply weird man was elected have nothing to do with us. The political class in Australia will hunker down and wait for him to pass, assuming the Democrats can and will come up with a candidate in 2020 that can beat Trump. The hunkering down will mean Australia both misses real opportunities in Trump-led US, and underestimates benefits awaiting us after he goes. They will underestimate the extent to which Trump has and will change the landscape, rendering "back to normal" impossible: there is no normal, there is no back.

Our leaders will not, however, do the hard but necessary work of rethinking the Australia-US relationship from first principles. The information isn't available; the very act of doing so is way outside our Overton Window.

Foreign policy wonks have said for a long time that we are moving from a world where the US calls the shots to a multipolar world, where other powers (e.g. Russia, China, India - maybe the EU if they can hold it together) play an important but not final role, along with the US playing a similar, diminished role. The trick, as they saw it, was to manage the transition peacefully. Part of this managerial assumption was that the people of the US would go along peaceably with their country's diminished role, diminished expectations thing. What else are they wrong about?

Australia will have to operate across a much broader front than they have; there will be fewer (expected, positive) options from Washington and more options from Beijing, Jakarta, Delhi, Lima, Nairobi, Berlin, etc. Politicians can't do this. Big corporates can't do this. "Pragmatic people" will blame everyone but themselves. There will be opportunities through sport or other means that are not directly linked to politics or trade, but which will open opportunities in those areas, which Australian politicians and corporates will miss and whinge about when their passing becomes clear. You won't need an app to disrupt foreign policy. Australians are heading into a time of missed opportunities. Coal and hobbled broadband will hold us back. Traditional media will barely notice.

For all its longueurs and ponderousness, foreign policy moves quickly when needs must. In 1910 Britain was indisputably the world's mightiest power: ten years later it was a whimpering basket-case of debt and pain, and Australian foreign policy (such as it was) didn't cope well then either. In 1941 John Curtin reached out to the USSR as the pre-eminent military power of the time; ten years later Australia's postwar consensus had hardened against the Soviets and the government sought to ban the Communist Party. We are again in such a moment of transition.

Nobody has any grounds for believing that our current ministers or their shadows have what it takes to set the nation on a new course in terms of foreign policy, defence, trade, or anything else involving the US; only hacks will pretend, only fools will believe them.

14 November 2016

The dogs' breakfast

Look, I have a long and winding draft on the US election that I'm still trying to work through, ok? What follows here is a diversion into the politics (and coverage thereof) of my native state of New South Wales, which is ready to go out now. I beg the indulgence of regular readers.

The NSW government committed itself to a significant building program of both public infrastructure and private housing. The departure of Troy Grant as Deputy Premier puts all that in doubt, and the coverage of this misses the point entirely.

In order to pull off an agenda like that, a government needs a nice-guy leader, personable but firm, with an offsider who is a bastard and an enforcer of the steely will the leader never fully shows the public. Everywhere that has successfully pulled off a vast rebuilding program - Haussmann's Paris, Robert Moses' New York, Max Brauer's Hamburg, Lee Kuan Yew's Singapore, Zhu Rongji's Shanghai - saw a charismatic leader with one or more arm-twisting bastard enforcers to get things done.

Grant was Mike Baird's bastard. A police officer for 22 years, he joined the Nationals and won the seat of Dubbo in 2011 from independent Dawn Fardell. He was a backbencher until Barry O'Farrell resigned in April 2014. Nationals leader Andrew Stoner had bought into the development ethos that had consumed the Liberals, insisting that some of the largesse from electricity sales also go to regional NSW; when Stoner stood down six months after O'Farrell, there was no succession plan. Grant had the numbers to become Nationals leader and Deputy Premier.

Being new to politics did not stop Grant taking advantage. He became Minister for Police, leapfrogging his old colleagues who had avoided being posted to Dubbo. He became Minister for Justice as well, breaching the old protocols where the minister for one could not be minister for the other; he outranked the Attorney General, Gabrielle Upton, whose namby-pamby concerns about due process were swept aside by a copper's pragmatism. He combined this with the ministry of Gaming and Racing, putting him in charge of real power with liquor and pokie licencing - as well as Arts, because hey why not and who else in the government wants to do that? Grant aggregated all this power at a time when the Coalition had a vast backbench, full of apparently talented and hard-working potential ministers.

When Baird wanted to curtail liquor trading hours in the inner city, Grant backed him. Police and health workers cheered the move, but the denizens of the city's bars and clubs hated it - and seemed to have no recourse, not to nice-guy Baird, not to the bastard enforcer Grant.

When Baird resolved to ban greyhound racing in 2015, it was to please the same skittish urban base that had embraced Julia Gillard's ban of live cattle exports to Indonesia in 2011. A once working-class past-time had been forced from the inner city to the urban fringes and to rural areas that aren't desert, or pricey prime land, or subject to fracking, or too far from traditional greyhound racing centres in Gosford, Dapto, and Wentworth Park. It was never a big industry and had no champions who were big donors with access to the political class. No migrant group embraced it, it attracted few young people, and with a cut to its subsidies and a bit of compensation it might well have been dispatched into history with its ageing adherents. Grant backed him, and developed the legal and policy mechanisms to make it happen.

As with urban planning or electricity sales, the consultation was broad, but firm; the government isn't backing down on this, but by all means let's talk and money will be available. The legislation passed, and the machinery whirred into action.

If greyhound racing didn't matter, it didn't matter if the ban was overturned. Nobody was asking Baird to go back on something big and important, like WestConnex. By championing greyhound racing, Alan Jones emboldened conservatives who needed votes from lower-income earners and helped them to an easy, low-consequence win over the powers-that-be grinding through the big projects. Jones gives most governments free rein but he expects them to kowtow when he jerks the chain, seemingly at random, whether the issue is large or small. Baird saved his government with the backflip, even if he lost the sky-high ratings a Sydney politician needs to brush off Alan Jones.

Baird didn't want to look like either the bad guy or a backflipper; Grant, who had put the anti-greyhound mechanisms in place, had to undo broad and careful planning and write off the compensation. Labor embraced the greyhound cause for the same cynical reasons Barry O'Farrell used against electricity privatisation in 2008, ending the career of then-Premier Morris Iemma and sending the Labor government into a death spiral. The Orange byelection, brought on when state MP Andrew Gee went to Canberra, came when Grant was exposed and vulnerable.

The trouble with sweeping aside protocols and niceties to make big things happen is that you have to bring people with you. Grant had successively alienated long-standing members of the Nationals such as Katrina Hodgkinson and serial boofhead Andrew Fraser. The Orange byelection is an excuse for getting rid of Grant, not the hill he chose to die on. Grant did not have Baird's residual nice-guy image, nor the depth of experience within the Nationals to smooth ruffled feathers. Hodgkinson and Kevin Humphries had been dumped as ministers, in a party not exactly replete with talent and which needs to have its best members tackling the Liberals, Independents and other forces threatening the party's very existence. Grant's country copper instincts, to start with a chat but end with a boot up the arse if needed, had gone so far but no further.

Grant rose like a rocket and fell like a stick, at which I neither mourn nor revel. I never imagined we'd have a Deputy Premier named Troy; I just assumed it was unconstitutional or otherwise unfeasible. It will be interesting to see what happens now:
  • Apparently the new Nationals leader will be John Barilaro, who like Baird comes across as a nice guy and not at all an arse-kicker like Grant.
  • As Vocational Education minister, Barilaro had his run-ins with Education Minister Adrian Piccoli; we'll see how things change when the difference in seniority between these two men is reversed.
  • Interesting to see who becomes the new Police Minister, a source of real power vastly underestimated in state politics. Will the Liberals bring back Mike Gallacher, or is it too soon? Is he content to join the Liberal Right's factional silly-buggers over preselections, angling for a Federal role?
  • Will the Attorney-General be able to reassert due process over the new minister(s) for police and justice?
  • What of the regulation of liquor, pokies - or greyhounds, for that matter?
  • Will the momentum of big road, rail and other "once in a lifetime" infrastructure projects stall?
  • Will arts funding (increasingly important to the sector since federal cuts) stay close to the city's elite, or be dispersed by a new minister from far beyond?
  • In Dubbo, Grant had learned to speak Wiradjuri. No other NSW government minister, apart from Linda Burney and some 19th-century Renaissance men, learned an Aboriginal language.
  • Imagine Andrew Gee regarding his old seat, in the heart of his federal electorate, that has registered a 30% swing against the Nationals. Gee had entered state parliament in 2011 as Grant had, but never became a minister. He has joined a government less popular than Baird's, with a Nationals leader more cunning but less capable than Grant. No federal MP is safe from a 30% swing.
  • Speaking of people considering their future - Grant has been forced out of the Deputy Premiership and faces the undoing of two years of work. Why should he stick around until the next election (in 2019)? His seat of Dubbo adjoins that of Orange, with similar demographics and issues ...
Apart from the prospect of a byelection in Dubbo and a bit of soft-soap work on Barilaro, NSW political journalists haven't started on any of the above issues. NSW politics has been reshaped almost as profoundly as New Zealand's South Island. Grant was significant enough, in less than five years, to leave a vacuum in his wake. State political rounds should be across all of those issues and plenty more, yet they've just clustered around the same set of talking points which make no difference to anyone but the journalists themselves.

03 November 2016

When zombies attack, again

You hear the door slam and realise there's nowhere left to run
You feel the cold hand and wonder if you'll ever see the sun
You close your eyes and hope that this is just imagination
But all the while you hear the creature creepin' up behind
You're out of time ...


- Michael Jackson Thriller
It was appropriate that Tony Abbott should lunge for public attention at Halloween, when the dead make their presence felt without offering the wisdom of their experience, when children extort for lollies.

By contrast, Sean Kelly wrote a rather good piece on why putting Abbott back into Cabinet might not be a good idea from a political point of view. It's hard to disagree with any of that, but let's look at how the media covers this sort of thing, and how useful they are at showing us how we are governed.

Abbott and Indigenous Affairs

Abbott thought that he'd like to be Indigenous Affairs Minister. He didn't say why; he didn't say what he could do that the incumbent Minister, Senator Scullion, couldn't do or hasn't yet done.

We live in a time when a large and diverse number of Aboriginal Australians can and do mix it with political and other leaders in articulating the wishes and needs of their people. Previous generations of Indigenous leaders, from Bennelong to Geoff Clark, could articulate the problems Indigenous people faces but could not deal with the complexities of Anglo-Australian government sufficiently to secure the lasting outcomes that they wanted.

When Abbott was Prime Minister he seemed to acknowledge only Warren Mundine and/or Noel Pearson as Indigenous leaders. He had only platitudes to offer on violence, incarceration, lack of economic opportunities, early death rates, and other issues articulated by Indigenous people themselves. Consider Tom Calma's denigration of both Scullion and Abbott on Indigenous policy, and how such a knowledgeable and nuanced examination will have no impact whatsoever on the reporting of Indigenous issues by the non-Indigenous press gallery. Yet, the press gallery as one remains convinced that Abbott has a passion for Indigenous issues - and being stupid people, no actual evidence from beyond the press gallery poses any danger of changing their minds. They are stuck on the idea that Abbott has a genuine passion for Indigenous issues.

(c) The Australian

Consider what is going on in this cartoon. What sort of people don't acknowledge their own children? How can such people exercise sovereignty over land, or deny others access to economic resources in it? How can such people even act in their own interests, let alone those of others or the land itself? When ill Leak and his supporters insist this cartoon is 'true', they are arguing for defeatism in good-faith dealings with Indigenous people, and a continuation of a situation where it is best for non-Indigenous people to act in the best interests of such broken people.

Tony Abbott has been more critical of his own sister than of any output of the Murdoch press. Abbott's support base in the Liberal Party are those who want to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, of which the above cartoon is probably in breach for its sheer absence of good faith. Abbott cannot claim to have any sort of commitment toward Indigenous people so long as he has no opinion on the bad faith of Leak and his supporters.

This isn't a matter of culture war garbage that places Leak and his supporters at the centre of their own melodrama. This goes to the issue of Abbott's good faith in dealing with issues raised by Indigenous people, which matter to them. It goes to the reliability of the press gallery notion that Abbott has a real and deep commitment to Indigenous issues - and that the sheer force of this belief has real political consequences in terms of policy outcomes, if not the shape of the government itself.

It is genuinely pathetic that The Sydney Morning Herald can only represent this story as a spat between Tony and Nige. At least the threat to Scullion's job, however feeble, piqued his interest. Conflict in politics is a given and does nothing to attract readers. Framing this story to such a degree of dumbness so the journalist understands it does not make for a popular, well-read article capable of supporting ad revenue.

Abbott and Defence

A week before the election, Abbott pulled a similar trick - this time with the Defence Minister, Senator Payne, using the same extortionate lines about healing the rift and loyalty. Again, there was no wider discussion about Australian defence policy more broadly, nor any specifics about what Payne might have done badly or well; so much for coverage of government by an experienced press gallery.

Nobody in the press gallery has linked Abbott's latest shot (at Scullion) with his prior one on Payne. Nobody seems awake to the idea that Abbott might try and pick off the Cabinet one by one in a similar manner, or that such behaviour (a week before an election!) makes nonsense of any claims Abbott may have to being a stable, team player.

Presumably because he was interviewed by an experienced military officer, Abbott declined to repeat the Defence thing at Halloween or explain why he abandoned such an ambition.

A waste of talent

Oh, please.

Abbott was an indifferent minister, and shirked any notion of responsibility between what he said before the 2013 election and what he did afterwards. His pronouncements on foreign policy should be viewed in light of his stated aim of a Jakarta-centred foreign policy, scuppered by having to leave a meeting with the actual President of Indonesia in order to console his chief of staff, freaking out at the sheer extent to which she and he were out of their depth. To play up the importance of Abbott pronouncements means you have to forget what he was like - to set aside the very experience press gallery claim is valuable in covering politics.

When former prime minister Malcolm Fraser commented on issues like Australia's relationship to the United States, or treatment of asylum-seekers, nobody was more dismissive than Tony Abbott. When Paul Keating criticised the foreign policy of the Howard government it was Abbott, with no foreign policy experience, who was trotted out to provide a countervailing quote for journalists.

One of the funniest aspects of press gallery journalism in recent times was to see Peter van Onselen carry the flag for disgruntled Liberals who leaked to him. Every six months or so in the first half of this decade, van Onselen rehashed the same article that the government would be so much better off with the promotion of his pals Kelly O'Dwyer, Josh Frydenberg, or Christian Porter. Well, all of those people are in Cabinet now, and the government and nation are scarcely better off.

To see the proper treatment of former prime minister Abbott, let's look to the former prime minister he most resembles: Billy McMahon. McMahon hung around for ten years after his defeat as Prime Minister. He made the odd pronouncement which was of no value to anyone, including the press gallery at the time and even himself. Fraser awarded him and Gorton the sparkly bauble of Knight of the Grand Cross of St Michael and St George; Gorton took the hint and retired, McMahon did not. His electorate became a festering sump of right-wing Liberals; when he finally retired they lost the byelection.

Liberals in Warringah (Abbott's electorate) tend to be a rabble, led by the kind of disruptive right-wingers who look up to someone like Abbott. In 1998 I was a preselector for the state seat of Manly; the Liberals who lived outside the area were more serious about winning the seat for the party than those who lived there, which is why a) they didn't and b) I gave up on them. If Turnbull wanted to reform the Liberal Party, rather than just being its frontman, he would cultivate a potential candidate who would work the fiercely parochial electorate and its branches, with a view to challenging and beating Abbott at preselection. Instead, he abandons local branches to clowns who will come to repel local voters at a time when the Liberals will need all the votes they can get.

Wyatt Roy is more likely to become a Liberal cabinet minister than Abbott is to return.

When zombies attack!

Next time Abbott resurfaces, realise that his cry for "Brains! Brains!" identifies what he lacks, rather than what he has to offer. If press gallery experience means anything, its denizens should have their wooden stakes and garlic ready; better than being just another credulous screamer.

Next time political-class tragic Cate McGregor offers an opinion on defence policy, or cricket, or anything really - recall her piece on Abbott and Indigenous affairs (no I won't link to it) and wonder what her judgment is worth.

Never mind the pantomime, just tell us what is going on. If nothing much is going on, say so; stop pretending bullshit is a big deal, otherwise people won't believe you when you do have something worth saying.

01 November 2016

Proof of life

I got legs I can walk
All the way down the dirt track
I fell down, I got up
I turned around then I walked back

I walked to the sea
I stood there and looked for a sign
It took time but it came
I added up and took what was mine


- The Cruel Sea Better get a lawyer
The fantasy that Malcolm Turnbull is a moderate liberal and a wise and effective leader is held dear by many in the press gallery, despite an absence of evidence. While absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, the fact is that skill in business is not the same as the political skill of being able to move large numbers of people with you. Recent events have put the government in a position where Turnbull must demonstrate his reaching-out skills to a group of people who have good reason to be ticked off with him and his government, but who are not implacably opposed like, say, building workers.

Now is the time for Turnbull to demonstrate the common touch his supporters insists he has in spades.

The Attorney-General, George Brandis, has clearly failed. Every announcement by the government must be questioned for its legality and its vulnerability to judicial challenge, which makes confidence in government impossible and hampers the ability to work with/around it. Respected lawyers such as Gillian Triggs or Justin Gleeson can't work with him, the sniggering from the nation's lawyers that greeted his appointment has hardened into contempt, and the nation is both less secure and less free due to his tweaks to the law. It's too early even for a blogger to comment on Senator Day, who knew what when and did or did not act, etc.

Insidery insider journalism intimates that Turnbull is displeased with Brandis, but so what? The difference between that and him not being displeased is not readily apparent, or even explicable by those who draw salaries on the assumption that they understand politics and government well enough to explain it to the rest of us.

Paddy Manning described those of us who couldn't see how his skillset translated to politics as 'haters'. If you have some idea about politics, and have seen a number of occupants of the Prime Minister's office come and go, it doesn't mean that you hate Turnbull to say that he isn't up to the job and probably never was. It means that you have some respect for the office and its role in the country's governance, and that you measure occupants and aspirants against that - and that you are right to insist that coverage of politics apply similar measures.

If you believe in Moderate Malcolm, an effective operator who contrasts sharply with the ditherer and bumbler before us, it's time for proof. Let us see in objective reality how moderate and effective Turnbull can be.

It might be too much to ask to expect Turnbull to tackle vast wicked problems that have beset Australia for decades, if not fundamental flaws: the place of Indigenous people in modern Australia, say, or the tax system, or housing. If it's bare competence we're testing here, something intrinsic to Turnbull, then let's see how he reaches out to people he should know and be comfortable with.

Malcolm Turnbull was a barrister in the 1980s. As a businessman he engaged the nation's leading commercial lawyers. As leader of the Australian Republican Movement he sought far-reaching change to the Constitution. He should be able to relate to lawyers. Many of them are his constituents. They are, if you pardon the lapse into sociological theory, members of his socio-economic class. If he can't reach out to the legal community what reaching-out and problem-solving skill do you imagine he might have?

Turnbull needs to reach out to leading lawyers and assure them they need not fear their careers or important legal principles being subject to the whims and caprices of George Brandis (or George Christensen, for that matter). He needs to secure the confidence of well-respected, capable lawyers to take key legal roles, and shield them from political interference - which is traditionally the role of the Attorney-General, more breached than observed by the incumbent and in no way honoured. Personally, I'm not confident Turnbull can do this; but I've been wrong before.

George Brandis used to be besties with Senator Brett Mason, another Queensland Liberal lawyer but regarded more highly than Brandis. When the two fell out it was Mason who was shunted off to an embassy in Europe. Perhaps Mason can be prevailed upon to return. It shouldn't be hard to get the LNPQ to endorse him again, and he can do some politico-legal heavy lifting while Brandis does something harmless but within his competence, like cocktails with Geert Wilders.

If Malcolm Turnbull can reach out to the legal community and get them to work with him on reforms he and they see as important, it augurs well for the country's legal system and its ability to operate independently of the party in power at any given time. It shows that Turnbull boosters were right, to however limited an extent, to judge him as a wise and capable leader with the better interests of the nation at heart, with a vision that extends beyond the media cycle.

If Turnbull cannot reach out to the legal community, if their distance and discomfort harden into suspicion and even hostility, if their leading members continue to become chew toys for politicians not good enough to be ministers, then those who thought Malcolm Turnbull might be an effective Prime Minister have a lot of answering to do - particularly if they and their employers continue to assert the soundness and experience of their political judgment and reportage.