31 August 2010

Old devils


This blog has long been down on Alby Schultz and Bill Heffernan. With this, the idea that they might make life hard for politicians with more guts and brains than they do would be genuinely astonishing unless you understood where they came from. The whole culture of modern political parties depends on bullying, now that policy is too hard. Civilised disagreements can only be had over impersonal matters; when ego fills the void where substantive issues were, folks are gonna get hurt and those who limp away shrieking are confused with those who give up in disgust.

Labor started it with the idea that caucus decisions could not be departed from, and the culture of the 'rat' for the freethinker who slipped the surly bonds of backroom fixers. The Liberals used to be a lot more subtle in a private school-fragging way until Howard instituted the full F├╝hrerprinzip. It's not just the majors: the Democrats did a nice line in passive-aggressive control learned in staffrooms across the country, and those Greens who came out of the various communist organisations love a good pogrom; they can't measure their own progress by trees saved etc., there must be self-criticism sessions for fifth columnists.

Peter Debnam was a big fan of tough dumb campaigning and look where it got him: John Hewson without the charisma. They don't see the link between poor campaigning and poor electoral outcomes. Schultz and Heffernan are frustrated that young Abbott is blowing their last chance, and even more so that he's not consulting them. They don't understand that they are making a Coalition government less likely, not more so; they don't understand why anyone would think that way.

Now you can see why election ad campaigns are so negative - bullying works internally, it has to work on those who are so wishy-washy they can't get involved. If anyone within that party had any misgivings whether or not they'd work, would they speak up? On what basis would anyone kybosh a dull and negative campaign? Who can you persuade that such campaigns don't work, and what proof would be accepted?

27 August 2010

Careering



This article from Andrew West has a lot of merit, so long as you don't think about it too much.

The most basic flaw is the assumption that the more money you pay for lobbyists the better the service will be. West also refers to mediocrities pulling in the large dollars, which doesn't fit with notions of cost decreases where the supply (of ex-pollies and staffers, with the prospect of staffers competing against their former bosses) exceeds the demand.

When the Coalition comes to office in NSW next year, one would hope that Labor ministers and staffers get short shrift.

1. West's first point overlooks a reality of particular relevance to Labor and increasing relevance to the Liberals, given their growing reach in areas like western Sydney and the Central Coast. Many labouring jobs and physical trades put such a burden on the body that people who start their working lives at 15 are all but forced into retirement in their forties. It is possible for someone to have done such a job with little to show for it in pension/ superannuation terms, enter Parliament for one term in a marginal seat, and be unemployed again by age 50.

One in four people elected to parliament becomes a minister, and thereby more likely to have the sort of marketable skills in lobbying: a two-term MP may be less marketable as a lobbyist than a staffer with eighteen months' intensive experience in a particular minister's office during the passage of a key piece of legislation.

2, 6 & 7. Well done - and the state-federal pension nexus in super should also be broken.

3. I don't want to pay for crappy ads and junk mail and shouldn't have to pay for them. There is no link between ad spends and market outcomes (in terms of votes won), and no incentive for party officials to improve that link if they have a guaranteed budget. You also end up shunting the kind of party operators you rail against away from public policy into backroom copy writing roles.

4. Let's wait for the outcomes of the experimentation, shall we? This needs further thought.

When I was a Young Liberal I'd have registered in Labor primaries and voted for the worst candidate running, someone who made Steve Fielding look like Pericles. I'd have backed Belinda Neal so hard that she'd have been Leader of her party for the past ten years, and the next ten. I doubt that I'm the only person who has thought of this.

It will be interesting to see whether politicians who have joined political parties and worked their way up through them are willing to vote for a system where future candidates owe little if anything to party structures, and where people who want to be politicians have to raise and spend their own money to fund their political careers (as in the US). The latter of these goes against West's aim of a broader representation of the community in parliament.

5. "... below a certain rank"? Really? I strongly doubt that a politician could return to a career as a police officer, for similar reasons to the military example that West himself gave. The very nature of many public sector jobs becomes impossible once parliamentary politics, with all the public exposure issues that go with it, become involved. Is this an anti-Rudd (former DG of the Qld Cabinet Office) thing?

8. I'm not sure about this, but in reading the example West gave I oppose it. If Roy doesn't perform, he's vulnerable to challenge from those who have the maturity and other qualities that Roy lacks, within the LNP or without.

The LNP have an understanding that sitting MPs will not be challenged, which also applies in the Liberal Party and probably also in the other right-of-centre parties that can actually win seats. This could well make these organisations vulnerable to restraint-of-trade litigation, similar to football players and the salary cap, particularly if you have a weakening of party loyalties as at 4. above.

You also have the phenomenon where people just get sick of politicians. John Howard became Federal Treasurer in 1977, and thirty years later people were just tired of the guy. Howard was of retirement age by then anyway, regardless of any feelings he may have of Relevance Deprivation Syndrome. Andrew Fraser is facing the same phenomenon today: if Anna Bligh is defeated he is the likely candidate to become the next Labor Leader of the Opposition in Queensland, but unless the Langbroek Government is spectacularly inept it is unlikely Fraser will lead his party to government. Likewise, Wyatt Roy is more likely to go the way of Bill O'Chee than, say, Robert Menzies.

9. Boundary changes could disenfranchise perfectly good candidates. Again, a nice idea badly thought out.

Thanks to West and others we face the prospect of much-ballyhooed public lobbying integrity legislation which is so compromised in the passing that it is easy for professionals those targeted to get around. If you think lobbyists work hard in acting for others, how much harder will they work in acting for themselves?

26 August 2010

Stand up, Joe


The KOWs want party costings to be slotted into the wider context of the economy, and there's Tony Abbott playing silly buggers over Treasury. If he wants to be in government, Abbott will have to deal with Treasury at some point. Relying on the costings of some accounting firm was dodgy tactics during the election campaign but is starting to look silly afterwards (and, frankly, like some sort of warmed-over Maoism: there is no truth, only your perspective against mine).

Accountancy firms are like Treasury for those of us who aren't in government. Those who want to be in government have to shape up to Treasury and put their proposals into the forecasting mix. You can be as frustrated as you like with the KOWs, you can even resent the fact that they have slipped the surly bonds of party discipline - but the game has changed, and the smarter operators in the Liberal Party know this.

Stand up, Joe Hockey. Stand up for the Liberal Party. Stand up for economic credibility. Take the Liberal Party's figures to the Treasury and put the Liberal Party back in the game, in a way they simply aren't now and won't be the way things are going. Stonewalling didn't work for Will Hodgman and it won't work for Tony Abbott: people will turn away from the stone wall and find something else that needs doing.

Stonewalling is a non-starter, and so is dumping on the KOWs. These are the only tactics open to the so-called leader of the Liberal Party. There is only hope in action. Stand up and lead the way forward: engage with Treasury and the KOWs, rope in that non-National National from the west, and you've got a government. Only you can do it, Joe.

Abbott will never be able to lead a government. Even if you had a majority of twenty seats he'd still be shilly-shallying and ambivalent - and you didn't get a twenty-seat majority, did you, and you won't get closer than this while Abbott is still in office. Punt him, Joe. You're the only chance for a Coalition government, one with you as Prime Minister.

You wrung your hands when Howard steered the Liberal Party into the rocks in 2007: don't make the same mistake again. If you meekly back Abbott this time he'll make you do credibility-destroying stunts over the next two years, twisted by his own bitterness. When you finally get your chance at leadership Abbott, Minchin and Abetz will have so trashed the Liberal brand that it will be two terms back (and you'll be dumped after five). You know it, don't make it harder than it need be already: rip the band-aid off in one go, put Labor on the back foot just as they did by dumping Rudd.

Take on Henry and defend your costings: show him that you've read his report and that you'll give his shopping list more credibility and respect than Rudd, Gillard and Swan have or can. Show the yokel MPs what joined-up Liberal government looks like. Show everyone, for that matter. You are a better man than Abbott, so be the better man; be the person the Liberal Party needs right now, not a truculent worm like the incumbent. If your first task as PM was to win a by-election in Warringah, this need not be such a bad thing.

Don't be a Costello. Don't follow two generations of moderates into the kind of irrelevance I'm often accused of. You could be Prime Minister by the end of August - otherwise Gillard will be.

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.


- William Shakespeare Julius Caesar Act IV Scene II
... but you knew that already. Go Joe. You're the Liberals' only hope, and only if you move now.

24 August 2010

Spring cleaning


The Liberals should have cleared out the dead wood after losing the 2007 election. They did this in NSW after losing in 1972 and were back in office within three years. During the Hawke-Keating years they did this in dribs and drabs, and were out of power for a decade.

Peter van Onselen revives his reputation as the Liberal Party's favourite stenographer with this:
QUESTIONS are being asked inside the Coalition about poor decision-making that might have cost it the chance to win the election outright.
Whenever PvO uses the passive construction you know he's up to no good.
Late candidate preselections, poor funding for key seats and large-scale campaigns in safe conservative electorates between Nationals and Liberals made Tony Abbott's job of seizing the prime ministership much more difficult than it needed to be ... The Australian has been told, however, that the Liberals and the Nationals spent close to $2 million fighting each other in seven electorates across the country.
Money well spent: beats having the Liberals wring their hands as Labor picks the yokels off one by one, which has been the case at the past ten elections or so.
In the seat of Banks in NSW, which the Labor Party only retained with 51 per cent of the two-party vote, the Liberal candidate, Ron Delezio, told supporters he had only $20,000 with which to campaign, and the party didn't do a direct mailout of postal vote applications.

Liberals also did not direct mail postal vote applications in the key seats of Greenway or Lindsay, giving Labor a considerable edge when those votes are tallied.
The Liberal Party has been eyeing off these seats for twenty years. This is sheer incompetence. Rather than quote such people and protect their anonymity, now is the time to identify the dead wood that will have no future in the next Liberal government.
Abbott is believed to have been furious with the slow candidate selections, something that happened because of factional wrangling.
Ha ha ha! As you live by the factional sword, like Abbott has, so shall you die by the sword.
Lindsay had been held by popular Liberal MP Jackie Kelly for the entirety of the Howard government until Kelly's retirement in 2007. Yet the Lindsay campaign team did not seek her advice during the campaign and Scott admitted to The Australian she had not even spoken to Kelly.
Rightly so: after the Ala Akba Troy Craig debacle at the last election, it would be absurd to go anywhere near Kelly.
The disappointment with the performance of the Liberal campaign in NSW has led some senior Liberals to question whether state director Mark Neeham's position is tenable, with the state election only seven months away. One senior source at state level said: "He has to go because while the state election is hopefully unlosable, we want to win big ... and after a performance like this, how can we have any faith he'll make that happen?"

In NSW, the Liberals had a net gain of only one seat from their 2007 performance, despite the unpopularity of the state Labor government and concerns in western Sydney about Labor's policies on refugees.
Barry O'Farrell will basically run his own campaign, Neeham will perform the sort of mennequin role he has always performed. Each time the Liberals have won office in NSW, first under Askin and then Greiner, the State Director has been sidelined by the parliamentary party leaders. PvO should know that and should've been smart enough to seek it out.
Victorian Liberals are also disappointed with their performance, losing the seats of McEwen and La Trobe to Labor. Liberals thought Labor had reached a "high-water mark" in Victoria at the 2007 election, yet it won two more seats this time around and almost picked up a further two (Dunkley and Aston) ... The poor showing by Liberals is being put down to a home state advantage for Gillard, the unpopularity of Liberal state leader Ted Baillieu and the internal warfare that has broken out since the once-dominant Costello and Kroger faction split.
LaTrobe was lost because Mitch Fifield went and euthanased Jason Wood. The Victorian Liberals is comprised of clowns almost entirely. Their Senate representation would embarrass a suburban council. Tony Smith, Josh Frydenberg and Sophie Mirabella hold safe seats, and are liabilities. Kelly O'Dwyer is the only Federal Liberal MP worth the price of her food. They need another 1989-style cleanout but there's no-one there to do it. No wonder Tony Abbott cites Labor 'civil war' in pitch to independents. He must do this to hope that fissures in his own side - which the KOWs know well - don't swallow him whole and suffer in comparison with Gillard Labor.

In protecting his sources, PvO fails to make the case that the disappointment experienced by the Liberals is down to their failure to get rid of legends-in-their-own-lunchtime who are largely responsible for the party's post-Latham decline. This level of self-delusion among the Liberals needs serious examination, which will yield far bigger stories than is possible by traditional journosphere nonsense like quoting anonymous sources.

Update 25 August: It's worse than anyone could have imagined. If David Clarke really stood between the Liberals and Federal Government, David Clarke must go. Barry O'Farrell has isolated this malevolent scum but Abbott can't confront Clarke except as an act of patricide, not even if everything depended on it.

23 August 2010

Lenore Taylor gets the Michelle Grattan Prize for assiduous research leading to the wrong conclusion:

Having ditched the emissions trading scheme because Labor was worried about losing a "carbon tax" election, then assassinating a leader because his credibility was destroyed by ditching the scheme, then thinking a citizens assembly was a good idea, then nearly losing the election anyway, a minority Labor government would most likely have to negotiate with four independents in the lower house and a Greens balance of power in the Senate.

And at least three of the independents appear to want a more ambitious carbon price than the one Labor proposed in the first place. The focus groups didn't predict that.
Never mind the focus groups: if people want to ask us questions, we'll answer them. The problem is the fools who (mis)interpret what we say, as well as others like Lenore Taylor who can't see their misinterpretation and call them fools, lest they lose their steady drip of, um, foolishness, which the journsophere apparently need to keep them in business.

Three reasons why the Liberals can't form government


The Liberals can't form government because the party that dominated Australian politics in the 20th century hasn't made the transition to the 21st. The Liberal Party can't form federal government in 2010 for much the same reasons that it came so close to forming state governments in SA and Tasmania, with one extra:
  1. Nick Minchin
  2. Eric Abetz
  3. Tony Abbott
Yeah, they're all hate figures among the centre-left, what American bloggers call RWDBs (Right Wing Death Beasts). With regard to 'the centre ground' (I might be politically homeless but it doesn't mean I'm alone here), and with regard to established and growing movements such as rural independents and Greens, these guys are impediments to government. They are holding the Liberals back. Winning government will not be possible until they, and what they stand for, are removed from the Liberal Party's offerings.

People who never vote Liberal are every bit as focused on these guys as their fans are. They jeer at them while regarding them as inseparable from the modern Liberal Party. Those who do want to see a Liberal Government will be disappointed this time, but there's only so much disappointment you can handle before you start questioning whether it has to be like this. The only choice for Liberals is either to give up, as I have, or to remove the impediments blocking your party from government. It won't be easy: these guys and their followers are among the few active members the Liberal Party have. Their record is baked into the party's DNA: only time and a new tide of members can consign them to the scrapheap.

Eric Abetz. Abetz has isolated and picked off the moderates in the Tasmanian Liberals one by one. He is now doing the same to the Christian fundamentalists who helped him gain and cement his power, which is why Guy Barnett is bleating about his loss: Barnett isn't big enough to hope Abetz enjoys his thirty pieces of silver.

Abetz is the reason why Tasmania has no Members of the House of Representatives; part of demonstrating one's fealty to Abetz is that those ranted his endorsement must not be more active, more intelligent, more innovative or more charismatic than he is. This is enormously difficult, but it means that the Liberal candidate in the seat which encompasses his state's capital came fourth behind a Labor scion, a Green, and an ex-Greenie who is either a traitor or a moral giant, and who didn't even live in Tasmania ten years ago (and who used to be a member of the Liberal Party).

Abetz is the reason why Tasmania does not have a Liberal state government. After the state's elections last year Will Hodgman was well placed to form a coalition, or some other form of understanding, with the Greens. An overwhelming majority of Tasmanians had voted against the return of a complacent Labor government, but good old Eric would rather have the Liberals out and Labor in than try and work with a political force that must be accommodated to some extent by any party wanting to govern in this century.

Abetz was Workplace Relations spokesman even though he has never hired anyone outside his own parliamentary staff, and what miserable mice they must be. When Tony Abbott was trying to bury WorkChoices, good old Eric was applying the calipers and making it jump. If John Howard had been directly rebutted over a key policy like that (having done exactly that to every Liberal leader who led him), Howard would have flown to Tassie and strangled Abetz with his bare hands. Taking the attitude that he made Abbott and could do what he liked, Abetz ensured that swinging voters in marginal seats wrung their hands over a Liberal vote, and that the Liberal message was obscured in the vital first week of the campaign because Eric wanted to play silly-buggers over an issue he didn't really understand, except in culture-war terms.

Eric Abetz is in total control of the Liberal Party in Tasmania, but it is not clear why Tasmanians put up with him. I have visions of him addressing a Liberal conference in Tassie somewhere, the crowd starts slow-clapping him, they don't stop ... and then there's a series of events that leaves Eric and his loyal retainers running for their lives, like the Ceausescus or the travelling companions of Alexander Pearce.

It's foolish to wait until he retires. The guy won't give up and power like that can only be taken, so rise up liberal Tasmanians and drop him cold. If the Tassie Libs had contributed just one seat to the national total, Labor would be gone. They couldn't because loyalty to Abetz made the party repellent to the state it was established to serve.

Nick Minchin. Hey Minchin, I thought your boy was ill - why aren't you in Adelaide changing bandages, remodelling your house to accommodate a disabled resident, and doing all those things a whittled-down health system can no longer do?

The Liberals had to win this campaign to maintain any semblance of a Minchin legacy. Failure to win this time means the review and at least partial erasure of his legacy. There he was on election night, with that cold smile of a man whose only humour is sarcasm, but as days pass he must know that more than three decades of backroom politics haven't prepared him for the situation before us today.

Minchin's legacy is this: he could have effected a structural separation of Australian telecommunications that would have made for a vibrant and competitive industry, not only within the telcoMinchin, and our economy today is retarded as a result of this lack of vision.

Minchin believed that a large and widespread class of Telstra shareholders would form a political constituency biased toward maximising that company's returns and against public-sector solutions generally. He still believes it, and has encouraged a large chunk of the politico-media complex (e.g. political staffers, lobbyists, journalists) that it is so - but there is no evidence that anyone anywhere votes Liberal on account of their $500 holding in Telstra. It's a phantom class of people, like all those unwed mothers in the '60s who happily gave their illegitimate children away and gave them no further thought: the fact that powerful people held fast to this belief, and scorned those who doubted it, does not make this phantom class any more real.

The Coalition telco policy, such as it was, was a homage to Minchin - and I've already had my say on that. Andrew Robb might pretend there's wriggle room in dealing with the KOWs but, frankly, there isn't; you'd have to scrap the entire policy and start again, and there's no time for that (besides any pragmatism of this sort would Look Weak). At this point Abbott would convert fibreglass batts into optic fibre if it meant he'd become PM, but you know that Abetz or Minchin would pooh-pooh that out of sheer bloody-mindedness.

Bob Katter has always said that a deregulated Telstra would be disastrous for the bush. He's complained long and loud since, and in dealing with such a man the only option is a credible statist solution: if you can bend over for Harradine to save the Liberals from opposition, you can do it for Katter.

I doubt that a privatised Telstra will feature highly on the list of donors to the Liberal Party.

Never mind that Liberal telco policy during Minchin's time and since has been lousy policy, and put the nation at a disadvantage. The contemporary Liberal Party has a long ad inglorious record (which it is perfectly capable of maintaining) in support of lousy policy if there are money and votes for the Liberal Party in it, with the most dog-in-the-manger obstinacy that Minchin, Howard and others mistook for strength and determination. That said, there's no votes in maintaining Minchin's Telstra policy, and no money either.

Why maintain the Minchin policy? Because Uncle Nick will yell at you, that's why. Call you names, say you're not really a Liberal. Eric Abetz might sool his people onto you, too. The only option for the Liberal Party is to put itself into a headspace where Nick 'n' Eric don't call the shots any more.

In Paul Fletcher the Liberals have someone who can't be bluffed by Minchin's command of detail on telco policy. If Fletcher has a free rein to develop policy for the next election, in a way that Tony Smith didn't (and couldn't have taken advantage of, even with totally free rein), then we might see a telco policy that rendered Nick Minchin as irrelevant as all those Postmasters-General who ran the portfolio under Menzies (which is what Conroy's NBNCo does anyway). He won't be as innovative as Conroy but hopefully he may add constructively to what Conroy has done.

This leaves us with one reason why the Liberal Party won't and can't form government:

Tony Abbott. It just isn't fair (you lefties! Stop laughing at once!). Here was a man who was screwed down tight, who plugged and plugged his negative lines while deflecting questions about what he might do. Frustrated by three ex-Nationals. I mean, I ask you. It's like having to scrum down three metres from your try line, there's nothing to do but puuuuuuuush, puuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuussssssshhhhhhhhhhhhh - but sometimes all that sheer grunt, shackled down and blowing smoke, just won't get you anywhere in negotiations requiring finesse and a sense of managing longterm risk.

Some people just can't be impressed by "we'll sort that out after the election" or a boyish grin, like most Liberals are. Abbott might think he's tougher than Rudd and Gillard put together, but Oakeshott would run him ragged and Katter and Windsor would twist his silly head off. He's met his match here: while Truss and Joyce weren't helpful, they aren't the reason why there won't be a Coalition government.

Abbott and co will promise the world with no intention of delivering. Gillard and co will also promise the world, but can be expected to stuff up the delivery but sort of come through. That will be good enough for the KOWs, and it's why they will give the Gillard government first go. Tony Abbott was raised in a house of girls, he would have been taught: ladies first. It might frustrate the hell out of him but there's nothing he can do.

Having squeaked in, Labor will be scrupulous/ terrified. You might even see quality performances from ministers - maybe even from Billy Shorten unless he gets too far ahead of himself. Abbott can only keep the lid on the pressure cooker for so long - by the end of 2012 people will be looking askance at him, beaten by a girl, and start asking questions about whether he's good for that final push then.

He's no good for it now, he's no good for it then, he's just no good. Bye bye, Tony Abbott. You won by one vote and you'll lose by a similar margin. You might fade away like a gay churchy loser in Forestville, or you might melt down like your brother-from-another-mother, that one-man Chernobyl Mark Latham. Either way, you'll only go to the Lodge or Kirribilli House as a guest, like Hewson or Downer, Beazley or Hayden: losers all, but better men than you.

22 August 2010

A piece of incredible unfortunateness


Two themes that were fairly minor for the major parties during the election could become very important for Labor in securing government: the whole issue of infrastructure strain in the perimeters of the capital cities, and broadband.

Labor can establish that they've at least thought about these issues. The Coalition have put their cards on the table and it's a busted flush, they're not going to come up with anything convincing in the coming fortnight or so. Gillard is an experienced negotiator, from her days as a plaintiff lawyer and an advisor to an Opposition Leader, and in managing unions as a Minister. Abbott is accustomed to dealing with people as mendicants, because once he recognises them as peers his competitive instincts come out. Windsor in particular has a chip on his shoulder over being patronised by smart alecks from the city, and he and Katter won't take a backward step. They have the capacity to do to Abbott's hopes and dreams what the Man from Ironbark did to the barber's shop.

A bloc of independents is enough of a contradiction to make your head hurt. Even though the KOW (Katter, Oakeshott and Windsor) came out of the Nationals, they have no idea how to handle these guys. Katter worked with the Coalition over the mining tax (Katter's electorate includes Mt Isa and other mining towns) but it's doubtful that any but Robb and Minchin learned much about that process. With the prospect of government at their very feet, the Coalition has nothing to offer but this and that. Abbott will talk a good game about gutting competition policy, but the KOW - and that bloke who beat Wilson Tuckey (yes!), no doubt - can spot a bullshitter. Gillard won't sacrifice productivity policy but will offer pork in sufficient volumes to put a credible case. Abbott will offer them bridges and roads and other dinky unconnected bits of infrastructure, but the NBN shows that he can't do joined up government (another reason to pole-axe Tony Smith).

This period of negotiation is the point where Abbott cracks. He's held it together, spouting his lines and riding his bike, but this period calls for nerves of steel and the flexibility of water. It calls for leadership in his own right rather than being a packaged product. If Abbott doesn't make it this time, he has to be in a position to keep up the pressure and exploit weaknesses among the incumbents at a later time, like Curtin in 1940-41. Something tells me it's now or never for Abbott, and now that Gillard is in her element I think she'll put the stronger case to the KOW, A. Crook from WA, her old mucker from Slater & Gordon and the underrated Andrew Wilkie. Abbott, meanwhile, has to keep his party together while it strains at the leash of so-close-but-yet-so-far.

The situation we find/put ourselves in will more likely be the making of Gillard than Abbott, which is why this is a disgraceful suck from another old journo who has outlived his relevance.

Mind you, who knows how things will pan out? Did you predict this? Looks like I'm being represented in Federal Parliament by a stuffed shirt: gotta laugh, eh.

21 August 2010

How I voted 2010


I voted in Bennelong, using the following thought processes to complete my ballot paper:
  • First, who did I hate? Communists, fascists, racists-who-don't-want-to-appear-racist? One Nation fitted that bill so they got no. 11.
  • No communists, so the next on my list was the climate septics, polluting the political atmosphere with nonsense so that any proposal for cleaner industry or a functioning economy in an environment under pressure gets pooh-poohed. That fool got number 10.
  • There were twoo lots of Christian zealots, Family First and the Fred Nile Failure Squad. I can't remember which got 8 and 9, but that's where I put them.
  • By this time I was all negatived out. I was determined to make the majors wait for my vote. So, who's nice? No Democrats ran in Bennelong. The Carers' Alliance were nice, and much overlooked. I have been impressed by the activism of mental health advocates in this campaign so I put them at no. 1.
  • I liked Building Australia, so I put them at no. 2.
  • I would have put the Greens higher up had I not lived in NSW, where the party is run by communists who are all either either mugs, control freaks or both. I put them at 7.
  • Having dealt with everyone I hated, the challenge now was to deal with those who I regarded as stupid rather than actually noxious, so the libertarians (Terje Petersen and the Sex Party) went at 5 and 6 (wish I had the foresight to put them at sixes and sevens).
  • This left the majors. I voted for a future where some sort of innovation would be possible and where simple facts about the economy, the environment and refugees were recognised rather than trampled by desperadoes hankering for offices they lost, and who still don't fully appreciate why they lost them. I voted for Maxine McKew (Labor) ahead of John Alexander (Liberal).
  • McKew's campaign was non-existent even before her laryngitis. It is an indictment on Labor and on McKew and Hogg that they ran such a non-campaign.
  • Alexander deserves credit for putting in the hard yards in the campaign - a bit like Francesca Schiavone's victory at this year's French Open against the better player, alliterative, more fancied but rattled Samantha Stosur. Had McKew matched him she'd be back in. However, if race-based campaigns and demonising asylum-seekers was the political gold that the Liberals and others seem to believe, you can be sure Labor would have done it first: imagine if the Liberal candidate for Bennelong had been portrayed as John Al-Iksandar, playing to that louche image of the man with the all-year suntan. It would have been grossly unfair but it would have served the buggers right. As an MP, Alexander is unlikely to have any real idea of the steady and often unrewarding grind associated with helping constituents, and he'd make bugger-all contribution to policy debates (except, perhaps, sport - and that would consist of telling young fat people to get off their backsides and go play some tennis).
We'll see what happens.

14 August 2010

Cracks appear



If Peter Hartcher is right and people have stopped listening to Abbott, and if these sorts of numbers are reliable enough by now to translate into results at the ballot box, let's consider what that means for the Federal Parliamentary Labor and Liberal Parties.

Victoria is the pivotal state here. For Labor, there will be an increase in numbers of those who owe their positions to Billy, Steve & Jules. If that state saves this election for Labor, and if NSW and Queensland decrease relative to the rising Victorians, the whole power dynamic within the Labor Party will change profoundly (but, as Glenn Milne says, more on that later).

For the Liberals, the Kroger-Costello generation will be all but wiped out: Bruce Billson and the overrated Chris Pearce are gone. Tony Smith exposed the policy laziness in the Coalition (thanks for nothing!). In the party's safest seats, we'll see two men in their 60s (Andrew Robb and Kevin Andrews), a dud and a flake (Josh Frydenberg), a harpy without the poise and brains of either Bishop (Sophie Mirabella) and, carrying them all, Kelly O'Dwyer. This is where the jewel-in-the-crown attitude of Victorian Liberals needs to be rethought.

You can't have Mitch Fifield careening around bumping off Jason Wood: the Victorian Liberals need the latter much more than the former. My guess is that, through state politics, Wood has a rosier future than the smarmy non-entity from Albury. Parasites like Julian McGauran and Brian Loughnane can no longer be sustained.

In NSW, Labor stands to lose a number of seats to the Liberals:

  • One (Robertson) was held by the wife of a former State Secretary of the NSW Right.

  • Macquarie and Gilmore are contested by candidates imposed by Sussex Street under the N40 rule - dud candidates.

This bodes ill for the whole mechanism of Sussex Street dropping in on local Laborites with the N40. Labor candidates preselected when Rudd was riding high find themselves in tight if not impossible races today. There was a time when the NSW State Secretary and his Right myrmidons could sweep aside such disgruntlement - not this time. Mark Arbib is in blood so far steep'd that he doesn't know if he's Arthur or Martha, and his homeboys Bitar and Dastyari aren't much better off. In Canberra, it is the ShortCons who will have the whip hand and the Sussex Street gang have few favours if any to call in from the resurgent Vics. Chris Bowen and Tony Burke will have to do some actual work in an environment where enemies are many and friends are few.

For the Liberals, winning candidates include the candidate for Robertson, who'd want to be a corker to counterbalance the two lightweights of a certain age in Louise Markus and Joanna Gash. These aren't quite Pyrrhic victories but they don't portend well for a party needing to rebuild.

The Liberals could have won Bennelong had they not chosen a candidate who, like Arnie Vinick, winces when he has to shake hands with common folk. He just doesn't like people, and it's not my fault that it falls to me to point it out. Just as lovely spring weather comes to Bennelong, a wintry blast in the form an Alexander smile (let's give that rictus some credit and call it a smile) reminds you of a time you don't want to revert to anytime soon. If the public housing thing at Ryde doesn't work for him, one-note Johnny Alexander runs a real risk of being seen as a lightweight.

Where are you hiding, Maxine McKew? Bob Hogg, have you ever won an election by hiding the candidate? Why would you two - and the geniuses at Sussex Street - make a tight race tighter by working a great candidate at less than full throttle?

As to Queensland, Wayne Swan has spoken no truer words than these:

WAYNE Swan has declared emphatically he does not want to lead the Labor Party.

Best not to want something that's already gone, fella. When four to six members of your support base fall away due to your most cunning plans, it's hard to make the case that you're the man to fix things. Those candidates who don't make it back to Canberra are yet more candidates who won't have a vote in caucus to counterbalance the resurgent Vics.

It will be a shame to see Senator Russell Trood not become Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, and even more pitiful to see that tired old buffalo Warren Entsch saunter back to Canberra.

OK, so there are other states and territories but it's one seat here and two seats there and doh-si-doh and take away the number you first thought of. The balance of power of both parties will be settled in the three eastern states.

This is interesting in that it represents a bit of pre-emptive arse covering by those who would reshape the Liberals in Opposition:

Senior Coalition frontbenchers have attacked Mr Loughnane for his strategy, saying he has left Tony Abbott vulnerable with an overly safe advertising campaign. They say that if Mr Abbott wins, it will be "despite Loughnane, not because of him".

I'd be fascinated to see whether the Victorian Libs turn on one of their own and sacrifice him, or whether they stand by him to the very death. I suspect it will be the former. It would be an act of foolishness to run anything but a buttoned-down, low-risk campaign with Tony Abbott as leader - even that hasn't worked, as seen by his "no means no" and the flop of his launch. The next Federal Director of the Liberal Party of Australia will probably be from Queensland or NSW. The only real candidate would be Mark Neeham, the NSW State Director who would have to dump Barry O'Farrell just as the party gears up to crush State Labor (a dark horse would be Mal Brough, who can't do the king-o'er-the-water thing indefinitely and will have to go into a role where he doesn't threaten Abbott).

The Federal Directorship would, however, be the least of Abbott's worries. Grog spoke true when he said:

For Tony Abbott ... Sure he wants to win. But if he loses I don’t think he loses any where near as much as does Gillard. The expectations for Abbott were so low, that even getting to this stage is a win for him. If he loses does he stay around? I can’t see him wanting to hand over the leadership – for a start the pay is good. Unless things go bad and it does become a big win for the ALP, he’ll have strong support in the party. That said if he loses I can’t see him leading them to the next election.

The Liberal Party does not do low expectations. The Liberal Party does victory, it does government. Abbott will not deliver that in 2010.

He'll face a resurgent Gillard with the wind at her back. Given that he hasn't beat her when she's vulnerable how much better will he do when she's in her pomp and he's cruelly exposed (no, this isn't a budgie-smuggler reference)? Hopefully she'll use this for good instead of faffing, particularly if she can kick the NSW Right hard and often while reshaping the entire ALP for its post-communist, war-on-two-fronts future (not a big ask, surely? :p). Abbott will do the attack-dog thing but there is a real risk that Labor will wake up to him, and that the old mutt will lose some fangs.

By 2012 the no-vision thing will be a real liability and Abbott will have to be replaced. Coalition MPs elected from NSW, Queensland and possibly WA for the first time, will be the first Liberal MPs not to have served in any capacity under the Howard government: they are too few and not necessarily promising. By 2012 these newbies will have found their feet and will start getting toey if Abbott's poll numbers continue to suck as hard as they do.

Hockey will have to challenge Abbott in 2011; hell, he should challenge Julie Bishop for deputy at the end of this month. Playing the loyal deputy will not help Hockey against a proven, irredeemable loser: it didn't help Costello against Howard.

Let's hope the Gillard government does good work with infrastructure and health reform, and possibly education as well. A non-optional extra is a carbon mechanism, preferably a bloody good world-beater that creates lots of jobs and debate. To hope for water reforms and tax reforms is probably to hope for too much, but you've got to do what you can.

13 August 2010

Railroaded



Yesterday, the Federal government announced that it would fund the construction of a rail line between Parramatta and Epping. This is poor policy and worse politics.

Firstly, whose idea was it for the Prime Minister and other Federal ministers to be photographed with Keneally? Federal-State separation is all very well, but no Labor person would want to make any sort of association in the public mind between Gillard, who has a strong chance of winning, and Keneally, who has none. Keneally should have been sent to Ohio for the length of the campaign. Only if you are in denial about how bad the NSW goverment is would you risk the entire Labor campaign for federal government by giving Gillard a dose of the loser virus, Macquarie Street strain.

Secondly, it won't make any difference to Bennelong.

On a policy level, it is important to link the dormitory suburbs of northwestern Sydney to the jobs being created in and around North Ryde and northern Sydney. A Parramatta-Epping link is the cut-down version of that. The rail line is unnecessary for Bennelong, because we already live here. There is little desire or impetus for people in Bennelong communities like Gladesville, Denistone or Ermington to go to places like Greystaines or Cambridge Park.

This response from the Opposition was poor. It's gotcha politics, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing. It reinforces the Abbott image of no vision. The Federal Libs could do with some of the popularity and low-profile competence that Barry O'Farrell has gradually built up - if Hockey had embraced the NSW Liberal policy of a proper northwestern rail line, it would have built credibility and synergy for the Federa Libs. Instead, Hockey did himself no favours with bombast and sliding around real issues about transport through the nation's biggest city, issues that have far-reaching political, economic and social repercussions.

The Parramatta-Epping rail line was indeed first announced in 1998. And reannounced, and reannounced. An entire generation of journalists were employed in the State Parliamentary press gallery to follow around successive ministers as they reannounced this project, and they would dutifully report on this announcement (ready by 2010, apparently). The clogging up of media space on this non-event is another reason why the mainstream media have declined in circulation and influence, within Bennelong and elsewhere.

Most of the proposed Epping-Parramatta rail line involves duplication of existing rail lines. The major engineering challenge and greatest cost will come from linking the existing stations at Carlingford and Epping via a tunnel of about 4km. People living in West Epping can look forward to rumbling, drilling sounds for months on end, including the possibility of undermining your very home, for no benefit (there should be a station between Carlingford and Epping but I bet there won't be).

That's if it goes ahead at all: NSW Labor have no credibility and can't come up with $500m, even if you believe (against all evidence) that the costs won't blow out and make a nonsense of this announcement.

Now do you see why this won't be a vote-winner in Bennelong? Everyone involved in this has railroaded themselves.

11 August 2010

Out of puff



Sean Carney's piece today highlights what was always going to happen with Abbott. He was always going to run out of puff: he's a sprinter, not a stayer. The cracks that are now starting to show are structural defects that have been there from the start. Here at the Politically Homeless Institute we have long argued that Abbott's weaknesses negated any strengths he may have, and Carney is seeking to warn against the inevitable and foreseeable.

It's about how each side is able to portray itself and its opponent day after day, piece by piece, shifting and pushing against the other side. The progress of the campaign so far shows how it is the cumulative effects of the parties' performances that really count, rather than any single event.

This implies that amid all the hurly-burly, the truth will out. In reality, the Coalition have been lazy in making the case that they should replace the Rudd-Gillard government, and that laziness has made them vulnerable against an incumbent government with both a valid record and a viable future.

The Coalition's campaign has had its moments. They have run a disciplined and united campaign, in comparison to the rabble on the other side. Labor has been slow in getting their act together, but the Coalition have helped them by:

  • Refusing to debate (Gillard's Q&A performance was the debate she never had)

  • Releasing badly thought-out policies that don't fit together (see previous post)

  • Squandering the free-media opportunity that comes with a "launch", and

  • Thinking that because the devil is in the detail, you don't have to go there.

The Coalition aren't ready for government. By this weekend, people will have stopped listening to them and tight races will come down to Labor (or if not, particular local issues will help the Coalition prevail as in Gilmore and Bowman). The Coalition will complain about bias but you can't keep an even keel without a countervailing force. Tony Abbott's piss and wind is starting to wane and there is nothing Prime Ministerial to lift the Coalition.

The indolence of Tony Smith, the cowardice of Greg Hunt in pretending to craft a climate change policy as front for a "weathervane" leader and a sneering party, the fact that Christopher Pyne would chirp and gibber his way into the media limelight while producing an education policy scarcely worthy of the name and adrift from wider economic or social policy, shows that the Coalition don't really want to be lifted. Those three are aged under 50 and would be expected, under notions of Buggins' Turn, to be ministers in a Liberal government. It's one thing to jeer at Kevin Andrews or Phillip Ruddock as feeble relics who've had their day, but when the so-called future can't be bothered or can't cut it then Liberals are bound for disappointment, and the country is doomed to the kind of ineffective opposition we've seen in NSW.

10 August 2010

Why the Coalition telecommunications policy has failed



The Coalition policy on broadband is pathetically inadequate. It shows they don't understand the wider issues in this sector and its ramifications for the economy going forward. It shows their political contacts and general savvy is non-existent. It is an indictment of the lazy and stupid Tony Smith.

This policy area is like a prism through which you can view the general stupidity, laziness and lack of readiness for the Liberal-National-LiberalNational-CountryLiberal Coalition.

It also shows why the journosphere are unable to explain complex issues to voters, and hence that their whole fourth-estate function in the political system is one they've pretty much forfeited. The issues in telecommunications in Australia have remained pretty constant for some years now and even the most tech-illiterate journalist should have a checklist against which to judge the Coalition against the issues.

The Coalition have failed on telecommunications policy because:

  1. The prime challenge in Australian telecommunications is to stop Telstra charging first-rate prices for third-rate services. Telstra has a chokehold on the entire ICT industry in this country: a bit like the wharfies union had over the import and export of goods but much, much worse in terms of macroeconomic impact and opportunities foregone. To address this, even in a tokenistic way, is to get the prime policy challenge facing this sector. Details of the tech industry could be forgiven if the number one issue was squarely addressed. To fail to address it, to not regard it as an issue - or even to bleat about tall poppies - is to have a firm grasp on the absolutely wrong end of the stick.

  2. "... the Coalition will take real action to deliver them over an affordable high-speed broadband network using the best mix of optical fibre, HFC, wireless, DSL and satellite". No, it won't. The "best mix" judged by whom, based on what, for whose interests? DSL, for goodness sake! The first paragraph: starts with bombast and ends with a hodge-podge. This policy is stuffed from the start.

  3. There is no support for this policy from participants in the industry. This is because Tony Smith has been too busy knocking off leaders and perfecting his eerie Peter Costello impersonation to consult with the industry of which he would be minister. His policy would have more credibility, and the party coffers might even have more money, if Smith had gotten out and listened rather than talked nonsense at people who know nonsense when they hear it. If you're going to sell your soul, to Telstra or anyone else, at least demand top dollar for it.

  4. "The Coalition’s plan will deliver uniform nationwide availability of high speed broadband". No, it won't. It can't. Any market-dependent solution like this one will mean that the CBDs of Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra - possibly also Perth and Brisbane - will have broadband as fast as anywhere in the world, much faster than in [insert remote location in Australia other than a mining site here] or [insert low-to-middle-income suburb/town in a marginal seat here]. The proposed regulator isn't strong enough to even out any disparities nor offer any incentives that have not already been offered for telcos to cover vast distances where customers are few, far between, and have a raging sense of entitlement.

  5. "... high-speed networks capable of delivering from 100 Mbps down to a minimum of 12 Mbps peak speed ...". Where did those numbers come from? On what grounds are we limited to this extent?

  6. "We will emphasise affordable broadband, with all such premises wherever they are in Australia able to receive services at prices comparable to those for similar services in metropolitan Australia. There will also be improved satellite delivered broadband services for the last three per cent". No there won't. That technology doesn't exist, it won't be developed by a government more keen on cutting debt and taxes than it is on broadband delivery.

  7. "The Coalition will cancel Labor’s reckless and expensive National Broadband Network. The NBN would be a $43 billion taxpayer funded white elephant. It would do nothing to deliver lower prices – it just substitutes one monopoly for another". It removes the monopoly provider of wholesale telecommunications infrastructure from the retail market, and means that the former need not be skewed in favour of narrow commercial interests of the latter.

  8. "The NBN gives no priority to those who do not get an adequate service today – in fact Labor’s plan leaves them waiting up to eight years before they see a change". True enough. The fact that Telstra and Optus aren't racing ahead of this slow-moving elephant shows the market failure that Coalition policy (such as it is) fails to address.

  9. "... the Coalition’s plan will stimulate a vibrant, private sector-based broadband market, with Government involved to encourage competition and ensure services reach all Australians". The only way government can "ensure" this is if it gets into the provision business itself, or throws around cash like - well, like the Rudd government did, really. We have a private-sector based market already, and the service we get is inadequate due to regulatory failure - a failure the Coalition seems keen to perpetuate.

  10. "Central to the Coalition’s plan is a $2.75 billion investment (with the expectation of leveraging at least $750 million in additional private sector funding) to create a nation-wide competitive fibre optic ‘backbone’ by 2017". An amount like that will be cut in the name of debt reduction, tax cuts, porkbarrelling or a combination of these. No part of this policy references any sort of broader vision for a Coalition government: it's a turkey waiting for a Coalition Christmas.

  11. "Our backhaul plan will ensure lasting competition and stimulate new private sector broadband networks being built to connect with the new competitive backhaul network". Again, it won't be competitive because it will be a publicly-funded, bureaucratically-administered monopoly. Policies are doomed when they double back on themselves like that.

  12. "Our plan will serve the priority areas quickly. We will identify the areas where Australians are underserved – particularly outer metropolitan areas and rural and remote areas – and ‘fill those gaps’ as quickly as possible ..." - it's too late for that. You should know where those areas are, and be hammering this policy in those areas long before now. It's too late now. That message has been buried in budgie-smugglers, wandering decimal points, boofhead failed leaders, and all the other chaff and fog one finds in an election campaign.

  13. "Based on industry trends and consultation, we expect that wireless networks will play a central part – and we have provided sufficient funding to roll out wireless networks to achieve our stated objectives". Nobody who has the choice between optic fibre and wireless favours the latter. Look at television: cable television is far more efficient, diverse and economical than free-to-air. It's too late for all this waffle about "industry trends and consultation" (shoulda done that already, so you could be more specific and credible when it counts - now).

  14. "Our plan will establish a commercial and technical platform for much greater fibre penetration over coming years, particularly by stimulating demand for broadband services and in turn stimulating investment by the private sector (building on government contributions such as new and more competitively priced backhaul.)". Again, no it won't. If "fibre penetration" (!) was so important it wouldn't be just another option alongside wireless, HFC, two tin cans on a string, etc.

  15. "The Coalition will establish a National Broadband Commission (NBC) to implement our broadband plan. The NBC will build and publish a detailed National Broadband Database". Great, another government agency with an acronym, whose role is to build a database. Can't wait.

  16. "Funding for the Coalition’s broadband plan will commence in our first year in government, and we will invest almost $2 billion in the forward estimates period". $2b on the never-never: because it's not linked to anything, because industry is lukewarm about it and because the temptation to cut big unintegrated wads like that out of the budget will be overwhelming, we may fairly call bullshit on this whole policy.

  17. Well done in piling on to Conroy's Filter (mainly for fiscal reasons), but only after Conroy himself had canned it. The sheer vacuity of this policy undoes that good work. Tony Smith is a lightweight, Joe Hockey must surely have his measure by now (as must Andrew Robb, who was only at Smith's announcement because the journosphere would ignore it otherwise).

  18. The broadband policy is not integrated with, and in fact largely negated by, this. If you're going to present the WWW as some sort of reverse sewer in a policy written by ninnies and robbed of any real impact (when will you provide these things, to what standard? Did you seriously imagine anyone was going to be impressed by a Ministerial Advisory Committee on Social Networking?), it undermines the idea that broadband has a vital role to play in the future of our economy, our society, our nation.

Admittedly, the idea of the importance of broadband is not one the Coalition has put forward, so I suppose it can't be held responsible for that. Yet, it is the fact that it accords broadband no importance (except as a threat), and does not integrate it with other infrastructure, and won't stand up to Telstra - this is why the Coalition policy has failed, why it must not become government policy, why its spokesperson is unworthy to govern the nation or even be considered a representative of it. Better industry analyses of telecommunications and the Coalition's failure are available from here and here.

You can't fatten the pig on market day - but if the Coalition knows anything it must surely know that. Get some respect for policy or government will slip from your grasp: this is the lesson the Coalition have finally learned in NSW and what the Feds have unlearned, in pursuit of God knows what. Get a basic understanding of the issues and the industry, and good policy and politics will follow.

09 August 2010

A firm grasp of the wrong end of the stick



Katharine Murphy is another one of those journalists on the bus, drinking the Kool-Aid and trying to do the Annabel Crabb thing of being at once up with the gossip and spin while implying (falsely) that she might have better things to do than be up with said gossip and spin. Murphy is of no consequence except that she's trying to defend the indefensible, and assert the relevance of a once-important profession that prefers its own irrelevance to the possibilities of Australia's future.

Before we all embarked on the campaign about a campaign, there was much worthy analysis about 2010 being the "new" media election.

The political parties pondered it. Journalists pondered it.

So that's who's meant by "we all": the politico-journalist complex. Random pensioners at shopping centres, kissed babies, cranky bloggers - all backdrop to the paso doble of The Campaign, which is done for the benefit of the politico-journalists and you can tune in or out as you please. If you must participate, at least be colourful!

At the top of the allegedly unfashionable terminal structural decline heap sits Nine Network journalist Laurie Oakes, who has been as much a player in recent events as Gillard or Abbott; not only by being an influential commentator (although there's been some of that obviously), but by being a news breaker.

Really? Thirty years ago he leaked an entire Budget, and the then Treasurer seemed to have survived the experience. What journo magic has Oakes wrought that so impressed the easily impressed Katharine?

Oakes's argument was: 1. Latham is not a journalist. 2. He is not objective, and makes no attempt to be. 3. His conduct in recent days reflected poorly on the network.

It is hard to argue with any of those points.

Latham is a great polemicist, but his conduct of recent days just underscores the Oakes critique.

What Oakes's employers made of his live-to-air indictment of their judgment is another story, but he makes a point of putting viewers and readers before the bosses who have come and gone over a career spanning many decades.

Oakes is the most powerful journalist in the country.

Laurie Oakes can state the bleeding obvious and he's a hero? The first time he's ever stood up to his employer, only after Kerry Packer was dead? That's not a critique, it's a whinge.

Laurie Oakes cares nothing about viewers and readers and voters and taxpayers. The kid who cleaned his house used to be Prime Minister. He doesn't give a toss whether or not you get sound healthcare, pay a reasonable amount of tax, or what happens in East Timor or Afghanistan. The current Prime Minister hasn't done nearly enough to butter up Laurie Oakes and now this upstart Latham has thrust himself into the Gillard-ambushing business. Oakes is raging against his own irrelevance, but all he's doing is confirming it.

And so are you, Katharine Murphy. His, and yours.

You might not agree with him and you might not love him, but he takes the use of his power seriously. He brings decades of context and experience to his analysis of issues and events.

And what does he do with it, exactly? Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones have more substantial records in shifting public policy than Laurie Oakes. Both have probably broken more news in the last decade than Oakes has (especially since Sunday was canned).

This correspondent is fortunate to work alongside, and have been mentored for many years by, Canberra's other doyen, The Age's political editor Michelle Grattan, who exhibits similar professional values.

And what might those values be, Katharine? Schoolgirl giddiness over a lightweight who has nothing to say, and wasn't that convincing in saying it.

This correspondent though would also urge the critics to engage constructively with the values exhibited by a professional such as Oakes.

What he has done in this campaign is show leadership and aggressive independence.

These are old fashioned journalistic values.

What he has done is bleat about his own irrelevance, and thereby reinforces it. If the ALP had complained about Oakes, nobody should doubt that he would have shirtfronted the Prime Minister exactly as Latham did - perhaps without the physical menace, but it's the thought that counts.

These values are under sustained attack from the spin doctors and from commercial pressures and from politicians who seem to think they no longer need to answer legitimate questions; just punt out their messages to a pliant press pack and a pliant public.

What 'legitimate questions'? Questions about 'media coverage' and a Brisbane backbencher who's had his gallbladder out?

Here are two questions for Katharine Murphy:

  1. What are the ten most important issues to readers of The Daily Fairfax?

  2. What are the opinions of the major parties about those issues?

If you can't answer those questions, you have no right to be in the press gallery bus. If they're not the questions you're asking - and they're not the questions that Oakes or Grattan are asking - then, stuff them. There's nothing aggressively independent about insisting on your right to drivel, and your insistence that your readers deserve nothing better than what you will dish up to them.

I'm sorry if the process looks messy and combative and deeply flawed.

Oh, piss off. It looks incompetent. It looks like you don't know what your job is. It looks like, when you ask a silly question, you deserve nothing better than a silly answer. You don't know clay from chocolate and when politicians accidentally tell the truth you and Oakes and Grattan call it a 'gaffe'. This is passive-aggressive self-pity at its worst.

But what Oakes has done in this campaign is lead at a time where it is increasingly hard to lead, and to remind his viewers, our critics, the politicians and the public, that a bit of new fashioned, old fashioned journalism can still matter; that it can still be worth the time you invest to read and watch and listen and then debate the merits of what the profession has delivered.

It isn't worth the time because the press have become not a facilitator of political messages, but a prophylactic.

That independence still has value in an age in which the currency of almost everything is eroded.

Value to whom? Value for what? I'm an avid consumer of Australian media and I'm still left guessing about what is going on. The journosphere is on a giant wank and won't come back until well after the things it could be warning us about are already happening. Stuff your self-pity and get off the bus. You might find some information that we can use, and that you might turn into a real story. Don't wait until it's too late, like it is for poor old Laurie and Michelle.

08 August 2010

Cheering for the underdog



Labor have stumbled and bumbled their campaigning, they've been skittish and disconcertingly coy about what they have achieved in office. In NSW and Queensland, the Coalition stand to win eight seats each - bringing them one short of the total they need to secure government (making WA more pivotal than it tends to be in national elections). Labor should be gone for all money: why aren't they? Why is there a real chance that a poor campaign with an appalling political backstory will be rewarded with victory?

The journosphere has been obsessed with Rudd. This is because Rudd played the media game and so does Abbott, whereas Gillard hasn't buttered up the press gallery - and if she wins, will be less inclined to do so. Laurie Oakes in particular has railed against his own irrelevance by going after Gillard, and fat lot of good it's done him or Channel 9 (which used to rival the ABC as a serious news outlet). Just as Latham helped Howard with his crushing handshake, he has equally unwittingly helped Gillard show herself as adept in dealing with bullies. If only Latham would square up to Abbott, it would not only make Michael Duffy (author of Hot for Boofheads: A Joint Hagiography) hyperventilate but show that they are the same sort of person at heart, and that's all Labor needs.

Tony Abbott has led a united party. He's targeted economics both in general and in terms of household budgets. His criticisms of the government have gone without serious challenge for months. Abbott has done everything you need to do from a campaign perspective to set up not just a victory, but a landslide - right now Liberals should be in the same position federally as they are in NSW. And yet ...

Abbott has not done what I suggested he do - go completely rightwing and present himself as true to what he is. Not dance away from Battlelines but fulfilling it, good and hard. What he's done is go all mealy-mouthed to the point where Adele Horin thinks he's a moderate:

"That's what people do when they are mature people," Abbott said last week. "They are capable of growing and changing in response to changing circumstances."

Now we attempt to square the circle and see Abbott trying to present himself as a mature person, rather than a flake who'll say whatever he needs to say and do whatever the hell he likes. Horin presents the difference between what he says and what he does as some sort of conundrum: he hasn't changed, grown or matured since 1979. He hasn't got Labor by the throat because there's something you can't trust about Abbott. That "action contract" stuff looks like a prospectus from a dodgy real estate trust. The boy-who-never-grew-up charm didn't work for Andrew Peacock, why would it work for Tony Abbott?

At the Liberal launch today, I particularly liked the laughter at the idea of Julie Bishop as a loyal deputy.

This is the ad Labor should have run from day one:



It is the ad John Howard and Graeme Morris and Lynton Crosby would have run: the opposition are a risk, stick with the incumbents. It is telling that this ad is not coming from official Labor, but from the ACTU: it is as though the club officials have burst from the private boxes onto the field and started kicking goals, because the players and coaches are so frustratingly incompetent.

Speaking of incompetent, Jenny Macklin wants to have Aborigines in the Constitution but she hasn't followed through on something much more straightforward like the Little Children Are Sacred report, much less sorted the gold from the dross in the Northern Territory Intervention.

Macklin isn't the norm for her party, but if she crossed the fence she'd be a veritable beacon of competence (and right up there with Peter Howson in terms of tangible benefits for Aborigines). I hope we are in the final days of Macklin's tenure in public life, but I'm more certain (and more grateful) that Peak Abbott is also behind us. People are giving Gillard the benefit of the doubt because, for all her shortcomings, she's not as shifty as Abbott.

02 August 2010

No news is bad news



This is great, and there should be more of it. It helps voters realise that the media are simply unable to get over themselves enough to report on and analyse government policy. The politico-media complex can only be broken by the media changing focus away from politicians.

If the media is to survive it should focus on the end results of government policy, with the occasional foray into the various decision-making bodies (of which Parliament is only one part). Journalists cover politics because they like the horse-race aspect of it, and find the company convivial. If there are any hardships in being a press gallery journo they have romanticised it in much the same way as old rockers have:

Hotel, motel
Make you wanna cry
Lady do the hard sell
Know the reason why
Gettin' old
Gettin' grey
Gettin' ripped off
Under-paid ...

If you wanna be a star of stage and screen
Look out! It's rough and mean!

Cue the bagpipes, and piss off. Journalists cover politics because they like it, not because they are providing some fourth-estate role for the community. There is precious little information to be gained by reading or listening to a bunch of idle people waiting for a gaffe like seagulls waiting for chips.

Just as fried potato is not the natural sustenance of birdlife, so too a media scrum bustling local people out of the way so that they can cover a politician walking among local people (including that old stand-by Voters Say They Darndest Things! Voters So Off Message, They Don't Even Know Who David Speers Is!) is not a reliable source for local people to find out what is going on in their community.

Grog's right, the whole Boys On The Bus thing has had its day and the only ones who get screwed are the underinformed public. If that bus was blown up the only tragedy would be if the driver was hurt. They should all be sacked and real journalists hired on a portfolio basis: have a defence journalist covering defence issues, a health journalist covering health issues, etc. Ministerial statements, opposition rebuttals and parliamentary debates are part of that, but not the whole story. Move them around and bring in freelancers to avoid organisational capture.

The media ought not feel obliged to publish/broadcast waffle, much less complain about it. It is not news that a politician makes an announcement, still less that there is no link between that announcement and the effect of the policy upon people's lives. The tradition that there is has died. The judgment by news directors that there is a public interest in reporting what politicians say and the context backdrop against which they say it is mistaken. The idea that the public want to hear more politico-media drivel could not be any more wrong, except to say that Australians should be able to change it without some violent break with our traditions of easygoing reform.

The problem is not, as Bernard Keane complains, that there are lobbyists and a professional political nomenklatura. The problem is that there is no scrutiny of what they do, no belling of those cats other than trawling through an out-of-date register. This is possible only by taking a whole-of-government approach to news gathering, rather than waiting for a press sec to tweet you.

Politics has always been outsourced to representatives. The more you widen the franchise and increase the complexity of issues dealt with, the less representative the representatives become. So long as the means exist to disempower the representatives once they get ahead of themselves, and so long as there remain credible candidates willing to take risks where appropriate, things will be just fine. Maybe refusing to take a phone call from Mark Arbib is one of those risks: maybe declining to belt the little bastard with a shovel is. Who knows; I'm just a blogger and Senator Arbib is one of my representatives, apparently.

01 August 2010

Where's Johnny?



Bob Hawke turned up at a shopping centre here in Bennelong recently, and it got me thinking about Hawke's successor and the former local member: where is John Howard?

John Howard has been involved in political campaigns for the Liberal Party for half a century, including 33 years as an MP and six federal elections as leader of the Liberal Party (lost 2, won 4). He was closely involved with the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party through its three changes of leadership. He's a political animal first and last: he's not infirm like Whitlam, cheesed off like Fraser (or both like Menzies was in the decade after his retirement), or floating above politics in some statesmanlike cloud (with the odd descent into the mud for a rumble) like Hawke and Keating.

Is he really taking the whole cricket business too hard? Can he just no longer be bothered with the whole gladhanding thing? Is he going to do a Fraser, where the Liberal Party goes so far right that Howard becomes derided as a leftie? Is there nobody in the Liberal Party who would appreciate his presence, even if for old time's sake at a fundraiser?

Tony Abbott is basically promising the return of the Howard-Costello government without Howard or Costello. Costello has done his bit: hosted a function at which a few dollars were prised from the tight fists of Melburnians, and upstaged Abbott, for which the latter was pathetically grateful. Imagine how rapt he'd be if Howard did the same: reminded voters of the good old days, when Tony Abbott was kept on a short leash as emissary to Glenn Milne and there was none of this Prime Ministerial 50-50 nonsense.

The absence of John Howard from the campaign trail is inexplicable, except as a stuff-up by Loughnane and the rest of the Liberal campaign team. He was exhausted politically in 2007, but the whole Liberal pitch since then has been that Labor have been so bad it's time to bring back the Libs. Well, come on, let's have him: let's see him in Bennelong and see if the old magic really is gone. Let's see him in Robertson, LaTrobe, Bowman. Tony Abbott has a bunch of piecemeal policies in search of a wider narrative, and that narrative is that only the Libs can bring the happy days back. He can't cut this, cut that, cut everything else while also claiming to be a visionary: it's back home to the Howards or bust.

Howard would bear comparison with his three successors, but also his immediate predecessor as Liberal leader. If this is true, then Downer scored the greatest political own-goal since the German decision in 1917 to allow Lenin to go from Switzerland to St Petersburg. Every Coalition MP who lost office in 2007 should have a crack at Downer over that. Besides, isn't Downer supposed to be some big wheel at the UN where everyone has to be bipartisan?

How can the Liberals win on a neo-Howard platform without Howard himself? How can the Liberals be confronted by the inadequacy of their own position unless Howard is shown to be yesterday's man? Either way, get Howard out there and get Downer out of politics altogether: a dud leader, a dud foreign minister, and a toxic strategist.