26 February 2012

Gillard and the Labor leadership

I've had this post under development for days, mainly because I have wanted to stay out of internal Labor politics. On one level the Gillard-Rudd contest is an extension of all of those "W(h)ither Labor?" treatises you can find elsewhere on the Web, and off it, by people who've committed to the Labor cause sufficiently to have the right to speak on this. I don't have that right, and (probably because I'm not Labor-through-and-through) it bores me. This post shows why Gillard is the better option Australia has for Prime Minister.

Gillard has an agenda that opens more possibilities than it closes and she has the skill to carry it off. The whole idea that she can't sell anything is vanishing before our eyes as the feisty, no-nonsense do-er and fighter comes out from behind the front of that droning lawyer.

Gillard always had a shifty persona so long as everything she said was always about what she was going to do, rather than concrete examples of what she was doing or had done. With the uncertainties of a hung parliament, differences (vast gulfs?) opened up between what she said she was gunna do and what actually happened. Nobody likes a gunna. The topics she has campaigned on - carbon pricing in particular - has been remote from people.

Aside from individuals within caucus who have personal grudges against her, the whole anti-Gillard push on within the ALP now assumes that the pattern of the past year must continue into the next. This idea assumes that she's the first Prime Minister to ever suffer such abysmal polling (ignoring the fact that Howard and Keating had similar satisfaction levels at about the same point in their terms that Gillard is experiencing now). This is unforgivable for experienced members of the press gallery, all the more so the louder they trumpet their nous, and their insider contacts and experience.

Examples of this include Peter Hartcher, and the one-man press-gallery tribute act you have when Graham Young is unavailable, Malcolm Farnsworth. Hartcher-Farnsworth have basically written the same article. By citing polling data about the past year and even digging up the odd historical flourish from 1939, they assume a historical gravitas they don't have and assert a right to impose that lagging-indicator data forward onto a very different year, which is not supported by the different challenges of the year ahead. From that, they gravely intone that Gillard is finished and the sooner Labor turns back to Rudd the better for them.

Rudd's performance Friday morning, trying to whip up the sort of storm that blew away Malcolm Turnbull from the Liberal leadership in 2009, revealed for the first time what all those Labor insiders say about him being unhinged. No amount of bagging by Crean, Swan or anyone else so damned Rudd as his own words. If what happened in 2010 was a 'coup', his family wouldn't have been standing with him: they'd be dead or imprisoned, because that's what happens in coups. Anyone who'd told Therese Rein that they liked/trusted Kevin, even if they were just making polite conversation, would be in a similar position. If Rudd has said something like that in the heat of the moment in June 2010 it would have been forgivable, but having been involved in the events of Libya and Syria and being aware of other events of that nature - after all that, to still insist that he was the victim of a coup shows he lacks the perspective necessary to hold high office.

Rudd came roaring back with a doozy Friday afternoon though, but the sort of performance that blew your socks off in 2006 is foreseeable six years later. You can appreciate it on a whole different level once you realise that Rudd's fits of ability to combine competence and passion, where he not only states a case and can see it through, are as rare and delicate and doomed like some striking butterfly.

Nobody likes a gunna, but 2012 is the year when there will be more, not less, of this persona: education as both the coping mechanism for economic change for adults, and as the embodiment of faith in and care for children. This is why Rudd wants to be PM now, why he can't and won't wait for the dish to be served cold later in the year or even next. The backroom negotiations have been done - yes, by Gillard - and she has set a pattern whereby legislated outcomes bear a strong resemblance to what she stated up front was going to happen. It is entirely possible that the carbon price compensation will be received with the same degree of appreciation that Rudd's $900 was a few years ago - and Rudd would rather he was there handing out the cheques, rather than Gillard.

If people get some appreciation that it's Gillard who came through with what Rudd promised, it would be unfair to dump her in favour of a showboating man who talked and talked and didn't deliver because he thought it was all about him. If that realisation takes hold, Rudd is finished. If Labor dumped Gillard in favour of Rudd at some future stage, and Rudd turned out to be less than the saviour he promised, that romanticised image of Australia's first woman Prime Minister would take hold. Women who can't bear Tony Abbott would reconsider voting Coalition if the ALP turns out to be as bad or worse, which they would be if they dumped Gillard at the very time when the hard work was done and the benefits started flowing.

Both Rudd and Gillard are imperfect, but who are you going to back to change? Rudd's supporters say you'd have to be a mug not to have learned anything, but there's no real proof that he has. Rudd's going to smash the factions while deferring to them to choose his ministry - yeah, right. It's Gillard who grows on the job while Rudd only seemed to buckle.

I stand by what I said a couple of weeks ago in terms of media being players rather than just reporters, a bit like arsonists calling the fire brigade. I fully endorse this piece by Tim Dunlop and note that Lenore Taylor has borne out the conflicted role of the politico-media complex here:
The past few days in politics have been like the penultimate scene in a police drama. The main characters have finally come clean with the truth they have been withholding all this time, and the selfless reasons they did not confess it sooner.

The truth, and what a relief it is to finally hear it, is that they acted in defence of the nation. They didn't knife Kevin Rudd that winter night because his "good government had lost its way" after all - hah! we never did believe that malarky - but because they were saving us from an erratic, disdainful, dithering, egomaniac presiding over a paralysed government.
Here Taylor is claiming that she's hearing this for the first time. Let the record show that she dutifully reported what she knew to be "malarky" without letting her readers in on this. A few paragraphs later we see what we might call "the Real Lenore":
In September 2010, soon after the election, I set out to discover exactly what had gone wrong during the Rudd government, speaking to scores of ministers, advisers and senior public servants.

The picture that emerged is entirely consistent with the things ministers are saying on the record now.
I underwent a similar search at that time, but because all I had to go on was the mainstream media it left me none the wiser. Thanks for telling us, Lenore, particularly those of us who follow these events more closely than most and are the sorts of consumers your employers would most hope to attract and retain. Thanks for all those articles in 2010 and 2011 quoting all those unnamed sources as to what a continuous balls-up life was like in the Rudd Government. If the Opposition had that insight into all that wasted effort, time, and money, they probably wouldn't be the Opposition any more (and we'd be no better governed). After this past month journalists can stop pretending that they're above quoting unnamed sources, and that they have an excuse for not telling us what they knew back then: there is no reason at all why all of those stories relying on anonymous sources couldn't have been written and published in 2010. We've all been had by the press gallery - stuff the lot of them.

One man knows what mugs the press gallery are better than most: Tony Abbott. His statement on foreign affairs is not only the foreign policy you have when you don't have a foreign policy, but the policy statement you try on when there is no Minister for Foreign Affairs to shoot it down. Read it and imagine what Rudd or Stephen Smith or Gareth Evans would have done with piffle like that: "Jakarta-centred", I ask you. This is what happens when a political party assumes they're cruising into government with no serious opposition or scrutiny. How many years do you think it would take people like Lenore Taylor to look into the blank face of the alternative government and wonder what's going on behind it?

Rudd fans are wrong to assume that their man can or should reap the rewards for work he was incapable of performing when he had a majority and considerable goodwill behind him; Albanese's position is just sentimentality from a jobs-for-life age. I accept what Piping Shrike says about the meltdown of factionalism but it's Gillard who negotiates that fluid situation while anyone can just call them "fuckers" and assume the problem will go away. Gillard should win because she's done the work and should reap the rewards - and is more likely to pass on those rewards to her party, and the nation beyond. God help us all if we again become dependent on the whims of one man dumped so determinedly by those who worked most closely with him, who'll come in and reap the work of others and turn it to 'custard' - just like Gillard used to be accused of doing before she started to achieve something beyond the job itself.

21 February 2012

Cult of personality reveals a serious lack of perspective

David Penberthy wrote this article on Gillard's rivalry with one of her opponents. He's only told half the story at best.

THE battle for the prime ministership has absolutely nothing to do with policy and everything to do with personality.

It is not about who has the best agenda to govern the nation.

On the part of Tony Abbott, it is about payback. Payback for what he sees as a moral wrong - the removal of a democratically elected prime minister by a bunch of no-name factional hacks in the 2007 election, by a bunch of bored and flaky voters. That is the way Abbott sees it at least, and plenty of voters agree with him. He regards his return as "the politics of contrition".

On the part of Julia Gillard, it is about the refusal of her party to admit that if you're going to acknowledge that John Howard was right about a lot of things (asylum seekers, school funding), why not just have a Coalition government an be done with it? More so, it is about the refusal of the party to reward the tactics he has been accused of since he failed to win in 2007 - a stunt a day, the backgrounding of senior media figures, accidental self-descriptions as prime minister, and so forth.

To which Abbott would counter: "Well, you started it, when you snuck around with the Greens and independents and slipped back into office."

You cannot exaggerate the level of venom in this fight. In the blokey, profanity-laden world of the Parliament - where it is said politicians swear so much in private because they can only use civil language in their public lives - Julia's people almost habitually describe Tony with a word unpublishable here, while Tony's people refer to her with a word starting with b.

"Moving forward" from this is the funniest concept kicking around. In a fight over personality rather then policy, it is easy to predict what will happen the day after the division in the event of an Abbott victory, a Gillard victory, or the continuing non-resolution with the corresponding back-biting from both camps.

Nothing will change.

Two quotes from the past week sum up the public mood better than any newspaper columnist ever could. One was from a woman in Sydney's west, interviewed on the ABC, who after offering the obligatory punter's qualifier ("I'm not really into politics") made the crystal-clear observation that "the whole thing just seems juvenile".

The other was from a removalist last week who was helping me move house. He was a Labor man, a big fan of Bob Hawke ("Did you see him down that beer at the SCG? Gold!"), who asked: "What the hell are they doing? It's a joke. It makes me not want to vote."

The idea that either Abbott or Gillard can emerge gracefully at the other side of all this, and get down to the business of governing, is the stuff of fantasy. The only way Gillard could survive with any real authority is if Abbott, who needs 76 of the 150 House of Representatives votes to return, polls so few votes that he looks like a joke. Abbott's people might be overestimating his numbers now to psyche out Gillard, but he is embarrassed in ballot after ballot as supposedly contentious legislation sails through, as though Gillard has the sort of majority that Barry O'Farrell has in NSW. And if he loses by a narrow margin he will not go quietly into the shadows. He will do a Keating, who needed two shots at Hawke in 1991, and continue to make merry hell before challenging again.

We saw Gillard yesterday playing a bit of a home game with the release of the Gonski report on education funding. It is the kind of substantial policy she is most passionate about, and the implied message from her confident handling of the report's details was: "This is what I do, this is why I am PM, and I want to keep doing it." The problem, obviously enough, is that she cannot with all the distractions of Abbott. Even the most humiliating sniping by Christopher Pyne failed to render him the spent force he deserved to be, and even then he keeps sniping.

Should Abbott win the ballot, almost half his party room will struggle to work with him at all. This is because they are mostly dills. They include backbenchers and ministers. The quality of the cabinet will suffer. Gillard might have struggled as PM but she was a great education minister, and would not serve in any capacity under Abbott. Wayne Swan would go from Treasury and probably go from cabinet completely. Nicola Roxon and Stephen Conroy probably would not serve under Abbott either.

The most important question, and one which has not been answered by anyone, is how an Abbott government would be better than the one Gillard has haplessly been trying to run, in a hung parliament dotted with independents, greenies and a constant barrage of leaks.

The fact remains that the policy problems which helped drive Howard from office - in order of importance: the environment, border protection and the changing 21st century global challenges facing the country generally - were the same policies which subsequently proved unmanageable for Gillard. She inherited thet mess and fixing it in a hung parliament was an impossibility. If the parliament turns to Abbott it returns to the source of its woes on all three of these vote-shedding policies: a climate change strategy which is a joke; a line on asylum seekers which works for nobody but Scott Morrison; and the shifts in geopolitics and technology that render Julie Bishop a blithering fool.

There is no clue anywhere as to what policy issues are involved in the leadership. It is about personalities, hatreds, grudges. Voters don't care whether politicians feel good about themselves or not. The fact that Tony has never got over September 2010 is more his problem than ours. The fact that Julia thinks he is a deceitful and damaging force is neither here nor there in punterland. These people have got a country to run.

Voters such as the lady at Lindsay and the removalist guy do focus on the style and personality of political leaders, but they worry more about what they actually stand for. It is the great missing feature of the leadership battle, and it has trashed the party to the point where voters think they are more interested in who exercises power, rather than how and why it is exercised.

20 February 2012

All sizzle, no sausage

All that's pathetic and stupid and wrong about the media confection over the Labor leadership is summed up by, if not in, this piece by Malcolm Farnsworth.

At the risk of spoiling the story, let's go to the end to see where it goes most wrong:
For the rest of us, this is not a time to turn away. It is a time to pay attention. 
And perhaps to be heard.
To pay attention to what? There has been no policy discussion to speak of, so "the rest of us" (those of us who won't be getting any handouts, nor suffering any wrath, from a grateful/wounded leader) have no idea how we'd be better/worse off either way.

At a time when people are panicking they are less likely to be listening, not more likely - particularly not to people they hadn't been listening to beforehand.

The idea that this is an opportunity for "the rest of us" to get ideas and priorities through is rubbish. Today, the Gonski Report on education funding is to be released. Pretty much every journalist in the press gallery has asserted to the point of bragging that they're going to ignore the Gonski Report because of Rudd-Gillard. The idea that now's a great opportunity to have some input into important government policy could not be any less true.
I blame John Gorton and Malcolm Fraser. I was a young schoolboy in 1971 when their brawling inside the decaying coalition government awakened me to politics.

Their struggle culminated in a leadership challenge. William McMahon fought Gorton to a draw, so Gorton plucked a casting ballot out of thin air to vote himself out of the prime ministership. The ridiculous and treacherous McMahon became prime minister, and the Liberals compensated Gorton by making him deputy leader. I was hooked. Who wouldn't be?
Did you get a lot of face-time with the individuals involved, Malcolm? Did the Liberal Party develop a strong reputation for openness and inclusiveness in that autumn?

Millions of Australians witnessed the same events and they left them cold - not all of them are fools, or mug "punters" waiting to be played. Mind you, I was two in 1971, and reading up on them later I found them interesting.

There are three things to be said about McMahon which matter in the current debate, which mean we can't depend on the lazy baby-boomer cliché with which Farnsworth presents us.

First, McMahon was the first politician to recognise that Australia was no longer run from Melbourne, and that the priorities, assumptions, hopes and fears of Melbourne were not those of the country at large.

Second, McMahon made the government look more organised. This meant that many of Gorton's more ambitious and progressive policies bit the dust, particularly towards Aborigines, and I for one am sorely aggrieved that it happened this way. This also meant that there were fewer leaks to the press gallery, which they hated. This combination meant that good policy was communicated poorly:
  • The McMahon goverment did most of the work in withdrawing from Vietnam. To communicate this would have meant long disquisitions on the proper role of forces fighting for Australia's national interests, the idea of an objective and whether or not it had been achieved, pissing off the Americans and the appearance of giving in to hippy protesters. Instead, individual servicemen bore the burdens of both the war policy and its reversal, and people not very different to Malcolm Farnsworth give full credit to Whitlam for ending the Vietnam War.
  • The McMahon government introduced metric measurements. The fact that they didn't communicate it properly (and that the Whitlam government compounded this by failing to do so) meant that people still insist on conversions to gallons or feet or whatever.
The result was that the Coalition lost the election by less than they might have, and returned to office sooner than might have been expected. There is a lot of talk about losing parties seeking to "save the furniture" (which shows how much parties take safe seats for granted). The only successful example of this appears to be the McMahon government.

Third, let's get all Farnsworth-shallow here: McMahon, like Gillard, did not duchess the press gallery at all and presented his ascent to them as a fait accompli. McMahon, like Gillard, had funny ears, funny voice, and was rumoured to have included men in his love life. The press gallery scorned McMahon and treated him like a punchline. They bemoaned the government's incompetence at getting its message out. This made the job of the then Opposition Leader easier than it might otherwise have been.

Now you see what Farnsworth is up to here. He's giving the press gallery an easy out for ignoring substantial matters and playing up the insubstantial. He thinks that their rage at missing out on the biggest story of 2010 is entirely justified, and that it is more important to report interpersonal gossip rather than on the outcomes of deliberations that affect us all.
... survival usually wins.
When one party is destroyed in a conflict then no, survival doesn't win.
It is the individual us writ large.
What gobbledegook that is. Nobody who writes stuff like that is in any position to criticise Julia Gillard's speech to the ALP conference in December.
Since Fraser gutted Gorton, only two contests have come close in terms of impact and importance. The Hawke-Keating match-up is a clear winner. Their successors, Howard and Costello, were in the running for a while but when push came to shove the pretender wasn't up to it.
What running? The idea that Howard was under constant challenge from Costello is bullshit. 95% of media content generated on that topic had no basis in fact whatsoever. At best, it showed journalists being manipulated for reasons other than full and proper disclosure of what goes on in government; journalists advertising themselves as mugs.

As I pointed out earlier, all that coverage of the Howard-Costello non-story detracted attention away from real stories in that government, like the Iraqi wheat scandal that was wrongly shunted home entirely to a private company. The non-coverage of that issue is a indictment of the entire press gallery of that time, not the celebration Farnsworth would seek to create.
Challenges? Even when their very existence is on the line, Labor people today will talk like HR managers. Even so, there was no doubt the prime minister's people were worried. The past couple of weeks have seen a steady escalation of apocalyptic talk of mass resignations and instability if Rudd were to be returned.
This bit confused me: are HR managers known for their "apocalyptic talk about mass resignations"? Not in my experience. What it showed was that the leadership is not the most important preoccupation of government (or even a form of "entertainment" as Farnsworth regards it).
When all else fails, play the fear and turmoil card.
The Rudd camp responded on the weekend with Darren Cheeseman, a backbencher who declared Gillard's leadership was "terminal".
Gillard's response to Cheeseman was to portray him as a frightened rabbit who lost it under pressure, and that he should just calm down and play the long game. It was masterful and Cheeseman isn't human if he isn't having second thoughts about what he's done.
Remember that neither of these Lilliputians is Paul Keating.
Why do you want them to listen to you, then? How can such insignificant people be as "entertaining" as you profess, Malcolm?
There was never any question of his legitimacy as a prime ministerial usurper.
One is either legitimate or one is a usurper, Malcolm. Another sentence that makes no sense, based on poor thinking about that situation and its applicability here.
And it's been great fun so far, not least because so many people, in addition to the paranoiacs and conspiracists who increasingly occupy the online world, have been denying the reality of this contest for months.
Insofar as anything so ethereal can be said to be real - I still deny it. Rudd's numbers have not changed: had they improved, a ballot would be on and had they declined, Gillard would be secure. There's still nothing going on, only there's more of it and it's louder now. However much it thrills Malcolm Farnsworth there is still nothing in it for those of us who think more of government than the shenanigans of pollies and journos. If Baudrillard can deny that the Gulf War took place in 1991 I can deny that Prime Minister Gillard's position is under serious threat now.

Having worked himself into a state asserting the reality of something that isn't real, and gloating at those who think differently to him, Farnsworth sets up some straw men:
It's de rigueur now to profess disgust at this turn of events. Serious minds decry the brutality, the ambition, the lack of policy debate.
I don't think anyone has claimed brutality and ambition have no pace in politics. He sneaks these in with "lack of policy debate"; fair enough only when you consider that this man invented the concept of a legitimate usurper.
They bemoan a political system that has somehow failed.
The Syrian political system has failed, Malcolm. The political system of Zimbabwe has spent two decades on the brink of failure. Nobody but your straw man is claiming failure for the Australian political system. Some journalists hint at it and Abbott confuses his failure to win the last election with system failure, but apart from that we can say this failure nonsense has been plucked out of your, er, imagination Malcolm.
But I'm having none of it.
Malcolm 1, Straw Man 0: and did any of you Straw Man fans out there expect any other result?
These are marvellous times for politics. These are the times when you see how things really work. This IS the system working, not failing.
No, these are the times when government is distracted by bullshit. The standoff where nothing happens and nothing is resolved might keep Malcolm Farnsworth on the edge of his seat; but whatever it is or might be, it isn't the political system at work.
As Barack Obama would say, it's a teachable moment. It's time to revel.
Ironic, isn't it? All those nascent teachable moments made possible by the Gonski recommendations going begging because Farnsworth is hooting and hollering from the cheap seats about something that isn't happening. If Barack Obama was trying to teach you something I doubt there'd be too much revelry.
It's a great battle and a great human drama.
Only in the hands of better writers than me, Malcolm Farnsworth, or anybody else in the press gallery.
Think of the potentially satisfying consequences.

If Rudd wins, there will be many public and quite a few private cheers if Shorten, Arbib, Farrell, Feeney and Howes have their high-handed disregard for the electorate thrown back in their faces. Somewhere in Crown Casino, Karl Bitar might even feel the disdain blowing his way.
How long would that satisfaction last? Out with with factional bathwater would go the 2011 Finance Minister of the Year, the architect of the economic policy that is Labor's only hope of any sort of future outside its own support base. Out would go the most experienced minister in the government, Simon Crean. Rudd better have some mighty good healing skills is all I have to say about that. If you don't care about that stuff, it's easy to overlook I suppose.
This [re-electing Rudd] is the opportunity for the caucus to upturn that world and restore its lost dignity.
What about all the lost dignity that came with Rudd centralising all decision-making in his office and then dithering away the goodwill he created in 2007? Are you willing to bet he won't do that again? Is this the same dignity that they willingly signed over to Rudd as a down-payment for more and more contempt - from Rudd? It wasn't Gillard who did the stealing, Malcolm.
Yes, there is an economy to worry about. There are serious issues that need attention. But this matters too.
It matters much less than the economy, Malcolm, and the many other very serious matters facing the government and the country right now. That's the reason why people are upset that it's receiving more attention than it warrants. Just because Malcolm Farnsworth doesn't understand all that "serious-minded" stuff, doesn't mean it's as unimportant as Farnsworth tries to make out.
His was the last electorate to be decided in 2010. He won by 771 votes and now holds the most marginal seat in the nation by 0.41 per cent. His seat stretches from the suburbs of Geelong, snakes through coastal holiday towns, and extends into rural areas such as Colac. In some ways it is a snapshot of suburban, provincial and rural Australia. Cheeseman would know better than most how ineffective and discredited is Gillard. He is, as an online wit observed, "not a happy little Corangamite".
He's showed his hand early in a high stakes game. No wonder he's "a bit worried". If Gillard plays the long game as I suspect she will, Darren Cheeseman has about as much political future as Craig Thomson - particularly if Rudd feints in this round. If Rudd gets up Cheeseman may not be any better off, because Rudd's that kind of guy.
On the other side of the Caucus divide, we can give a cheer to Bendigo's Steve Gibbons.
No points Malcolm? Even Gerard Henderson gives "two cheers" to things that meet his grudging approval.
Gibbons released a statement yesterday morning castigating Kevin Rudd's "chaotic and deeply offensive style of leadership". Later, he accused Rudd of being "a psychopath with a giant ego".
No engagement, Malcolm? Not even the briefest pause that these might not be positive qualities in a Prime Minister if not compensated for adequately - if not within himself, then by an effective support crew (staff, parliamentary acolytes)? The whole idea that Rudd has changed is pretty key to the whole issue of whether Rudd deserves a second go.
They might find the electorate appreciates it, however much the media trivialises it. They might just earn points for standing for something.
Not if Malcolm Farnsworth has his way - you can only accuse the media of trivialising issues and people if you yourself are not culpable of the same thing. Farnsworth has praised Rudd for dancing around the question of whether or not he'll contest the leadership and regain the office of Prime Minister, so why he should hold a couple of backbenchers from regional Victoria to a different standard is beyond me.

I actually think that Malcolm Farnsworth means well (not damning with faint praise, I really mean that). He has, however, been sucked into the politico-media complex to the point where he thinks that's what politics is, that's all it could be, and he accepts its circular logic as to what it's for. A media that stood more aloof from the politicians and measured the impacts of Canberra horse-trading upon those who have to live with those outcomes is so alien to Malcolm that he dare not even consider it, thus the straw man work. No longer a young schoolboy but a schoolboy in his fifties, Farnsworth believes politics is whatever Mother Grattan says it is, and if she don't like it then it ain't kosher, and folks who think otherwise are to be pitied.

Here at Politically Homeless, we think Gillard is playing the long game and is tougher and smarter than both her Opposition Leaders. Rudd has come too far out of the gate too early; this time next year his pitch might have more appeal than it does, but too much can go wrong between now and August next year. Farnsworth has kind of done us a favour in showing what that wrong looks like (now that's damning with faint praise, I really mean that too). And speaking of wrong, The Situation was losing momentum last week and will almost certainly continue to do so (which may explain the current kerfuffle) - but only if the press refrain from giving him or Rudd more standing than their contributions to the nation would warrant.

19 February 2012

Oxygen thieves

What happened this week in Canberra? I don't know, I wasn't there. To find out, what I did was what most people do: I turned to the media. They weren't any use. The media was full of something that hasn't happened and probably won't.

The normally reliable Laura Tingle wrote:
It would be nice to write about something more edifying than the Labor mambo this week, but it utterly consumes Canberra, and the government.
No, it doesn't.

This week saw the government introduce more policy with no opposition to speak of:
  • The haemmorrhage of $billions subsidising private health insurance has been curbed.
  • It appears that tax reform is further advanced than it was thanks to a deal of which Rob Oakeshott seemed keen to take ownership.
Don't tell me that stuff doesn't matter, because it matters a lot more than insider gossip. Both the above affect millions of Australians and that there is more to come on each of these, whereas the leadership stuff is just the same old same-old. The above policies, and the way they are enacted, give us some basis by which we can assess the government and its alternatives; more anonymous backgrounding does little but deepen contempt for those who engage in it (including those who seek it out and pass it on). The fact that grown-up government goes on puts the lie to the idea that leadership is a story.

Here's what happens when the processes of government are 'utterly consumed' by the sort of shite we have seen this week:
  • The Health Minister, a member of the left faction, would have be effectively countermanded by some idle musings by Rudd or one of his supporters; to get her proposals up she'd have to pick a side and even then some good policy might get lost in the tumult.
  • Oakeshott would have acted all weary and called for "leadership" on tax reform without specifying anyone or anything in particular, trying to rise above the fray like Cheryl Kernot did during her Democrat phase, and ultimately getting nowhere.
This is the sort of thing Tony Abbott did to his two predecessors, it's what John Howard did to every Liberal leader he served under, and it's what Hawke, Keating and Latham did in their respective campaigns for their party's leadership.

When personality conflicts crush policy, then - and only then - leadership becomes a story rather than marginal scuttlebutt.
In all this, timing is everything.
Yes it is, and when you're raking over a two-year-old story you look stupid and irrelevant.
Journalists spend hours trying to determine whether Gillard personally showed polling to colleagues against Rudd in 2010 (very little evidence), or was it just her lieutenants showing or spruiking them, and/or did the lieutenants just tell some MPs about it?
Why? Sack them all, every one. The next editor, journalist or apologist for same who wrings their hands at the expense of investigative journalism should consider how much it costs to have hundreds of press gallery journos chasing this non-story of who said what to whom two years ago.
Gillard strode into the first parliamentary fortnight, staring down all the speculation of her imminent demise, beating the opposition in Parliament, yet ending up back in the poop all because of a bad decision on giving an interview.

Whatever is said about the Prime Minister’s political management capabilities, it is doubtful we have ever seen quite such a tough operator in our lifetimes.

She has grimly stood through relentless pressure for almost two years that would have left many of her colleagues blithering wrecks.
Now consider that Rudd would have been one of those "blithering wrecks" and the story becomes clear. Since when do journalists criticise pollies for giving interviews?
The main problem we have here is that the two camps seem to be working on plans that rely on the other camp making a mistake, rather than any actual plan to resolve things.
That's why it's a stand-off. Day 605 of Rudd-Gillard tensions, no news to report - well no news worth reporting, which isn't quite the same thing.
Rudd’s people, meantime, are trying to force caucus to confront the damage done to its primary vote – and their career prospects – since they deposed their leader, and persuade them to put it right.
Here's Rudd's central problem. He has to promise that he will restore Labor's popularity to where it was in 2007-09, and keep it there, and never ever return to the kind of death-spiral since 2010. At the same time, he also has to demonstrate that he's completely changed the way that he works with people, an manages the Labor machine, to the satisfaction of those who have worked with him closely over many years. On top of that, he actually has to show that he follows through once he announces things. Only Darren Cheeseman appears to have signed up to that: good luck.

Rudd has made no impact in the Queensland election. If Labor gets the drubbing that is widely predicted, will his involvement make him any more appealing to backbenchers? If he trails off toward the end of that campaign, distancing himself from sinking Bligh, will that improve his standing in the eyes of those who turned on him (or who never liked him) in 2010?

The fact that there will be no challenge is given here: because the tectonics within the ALP forbid it, so the wittering to the contrary by frightened backbenchers that Peter Hartcher places so much faith in is so insubstantial it has to be discounted - particularly by anyone who got sucked in to the Costello-Howard thing.
... in NSW notably, Labor has learnt the error of its ways. Sussex Street, the central nexus of Labor's Right faction power, has discovered that its practice of ruthlessly beheading leaders as a substitute for fixing anything did not, in the end, fix anything.

The general secretary of NSW Labor, Sam Dastyari, set out his position to the Herald yesterday: "As far as I'm concerned, there isn't a ballot for the leadership and there isn't a need for one. If one were to arise, I would rigidly stick to my view that it is the role of the party machine to support the leader and bring stability to party leadership. That is a case I would make on behalf of party members to all NSW Labor MPs."

The second half of Dastyari's position, put privately to the 20 NSW Labor members of the federal caucus, is that the old days of fear and loathing are gone. "Our MPs and senators are not messenger boys for Sussex Street. What makes head office right about everything? We have to trust the judgment of our MPs. Threatening people's preselections is deplorable."
Gullibility can be cute sometimes. It's cute that Sam Dastyari can actually be taken at face value. The NSW ALP has become some sort of consultancy where people can form their own opinions ... or it has been so smashed that it no longer plays a role in national politics. There was a time when Peter Hartcher would actually pursue this as a story, if not write a book about it; the idea that he or this gaggle would accept such a development at face value shows that currying favour with contacts obscures rather than facilitates the process by which journalists tell us what's going on.

There is no evidence that Rudd would or could break the press gallery's strike on reporting what the government actually does. No evidence that Abbott would or could do so either: according to the press gallery, he's be constantly looking over his shoulder at Hockey, Turnbull or whomever else.

Abbott was so rattled by week's end that his Chief of Staff had lost faith in his ability to defend her and he rounded on asylum seekers yet again, rather than on 'entitlements' for those who ought not be entitled to them. He's not waiting for government to fall into his lap because if he did, it would be there by now. He's stalled, he's stuck and he can't ask for help.

Gillard takes the press gallery strike as given and gets things done anyway: this is a state of affairs that would mortify any of the other politicians named in this paragraph. That's why Gillard is still PM and is still the best bet to remain in the position that the others covet, and it doesn't matter if the polls say otherwise.

The press gallery strike on giving the government the "oxygen" of publicity must be broken. It is the central fact of our politico-media environment and all other interpersonal impasses in the preceding paragraph, real or imagined, pale by contrast. I think the best/only way to do that is to abolish the press gallery, but it will be interesting to see what happens after the Gillard government is re-elected next year (oh yes).

12 February 2012

No doubt, no benefit

The government - the incumbents, its predecessors, the alternative - is always judged by how well or badly it manages the economy. What's changed in the past fortnight or so is that the Coalition lost its ability to turn the heat up on the government on this issue. It's been funny to watch the journosphere credit the government for switching its focus when it's the journosphere that has suddenly realised that it can't just sit and wait for this government to give up.

The turning point came with Tony Abbott's "classic hits and memories" speech, a catalogue of stupidity that revealed Abbott as not the alternative Prime Minister, but just another commentator and not a particularly insightful one at that. Since then it's been legitimate to ask what Abbott would do in office, in a way that apparently wouldn't have been legitimate at any point over the past two years or so. Since then the spotlight on the government has been a bit warmer: the narrative that the government is hopeless and doomed depends upon the alternative being markedly better, or at least worth the benefit of the doubt.

Laura Tingle gave the most detailed vivisection of the Coalition's pretense to economic policy:
One of the clear messages of the speech seemed to be that the Coalition was quietly walking away from earlier commitments to tax cuts without a carbon tax to fund them.

But that was then denied, and even more confusion ensued about just what the Coalition’s tax plans were.

The next day, Mr Hockey talked about the Coalition aiming for a consistent surplus of 1 per cent of gross domestic product– about $14 billion or $15 billion a year ... By yesterday, Mr Abbott was reduced to saying just that the Coalition would “get back to surplus as quickly as possible”. But we are left wondering what is the goal of the Coalition’s fiscal policy? It started as an exercise in fiscal machismo that was supposed to stand in contrast to Labor profligacy.

For all intents and purposes, it looks like the Coalition has to go back to the drawing board.
Quite so.
The way this disaster has played out can also only lead observers to the conclusion that the senior members of the opposition frontbench don’t talk to each other.
And if Abbott was going to fix that, he'd have done so by now. The only thing worse for Abbott than having Hockey and Robb at daggers drawn is having them working closely together. They would be able to make the sorts of specific decisions that would define the next Coalition campaign, taking control away from Abbott, Credlin and Loughnane. For them to be the voice of economic consistency and to define what the Coalition would and wouldn't commit to renders Abbott a figurehead.

Yet, his party requires Abbott to get over himself and bring all the talents together. Malcolm Turnbull has demonstrated his loyalty and persistence in pursuit of the Coalition's insubstantial campaign against the NBN, and I doubt Senator Arthur Sinodinos is still a floundering newbie. A real leader, like John Howard eventually became, would have been able to harness those enormous egos and have them pull in the one direction: the fact that Abbott sat at his feet for so long and hadn't learnt that pretty much negates his central claim as a leader.
Peter van Onselen tried to say the same thing as Tingle, but much more torturously.
While I am confident (if not overjoyed) Gillard's demise will, in time, still happen so entrenched are her negatives her downfall will be in spite of this week's developments, not because of them. But if I am wrong, an unlikely Gillard recovery will happen on the back of the approach Labor adopted this week.
It's almost unfair to pick on a guy who is as conflicted as that. Almost.
The government won the week ...
Won what? This is PR-wank, a bogus metric for publicists to justify their parasitic existence; it has no place in journalism. I can still remember in the 1999 NSW election campaign, the team all gathered around the analog telly watching the news each night and Kerry Chikarovski imperiously declaring that "we won the night" (well, until the final week of that campaign). It's stupid to claim an utterly bogus prize that confers nothing at all: it's only a "psychological victory" for people dumb enough to think it's important.
Gillard changed tack to take on the important role of economic spruiker-in-chief.
Gillard has commented on economic matters throughout her Prime Ministership. The only thing that's changed is that the press gallery seem to have called off their info-picketline of this government: the press gallery is happy to tell us that the government "can't get its message out" because the press gallery won't tell us straight up what that message is. At first this was frustrating: you have to hunt for the government's message, but after a while of doing that you find that you don't need the press gallery.

If news junkies like me don't need the press gallery, and the great majority of the population don't take any notice of them either, then it would seem that the politicians are the only ones listening to the press gallery - and some of the smarter pollies are already starting to work around them, and the bean-counters at MSM outlets are running the rulers over every cost-centre. The press gallery had no choice but to get down to work (apart from Grattan, who is still away on some jihad against Gillard, and of course News Ltd).
Wayne Swan is not known for his rhetorical skills, so it was important he received back-up ...
Yes, it sure is. It's surprising that Swan didn't have a cheer-squad of ambitious backbenchers on economics committees etc fending off some of the more egregious attacks against him, like Keating did. If he can muster the numbers to be deputy, and if he was such a big cheese in Queensland, surely he can spread the load of economic commentary beyond himself and the boss.

The major stumbling block to a Rudd return is that Swan's position would become untenable - and if his position is untenable, so is the government's. Rudd simply has to find a way around that, given that his team-building skills put him on the outer and are keeping him there.
The importance of the PM's switch to economics is timing and contrast ...
Yes, it does. This paragraph negates the one before it, which was more PR wank and gobbledygook.
timing ahead of global economic threats spilling over into a second GFC; contrast with the Opposition's lacklustre economic performance, especially this week.
It is nonsense to talk of "a second GFC" when it is clearly a continuation of the one begun in 2007-8.

The Opposition's economic performance isn't "lacklustre" - Swan's performance is lacklustre, the Coalition's economic performance is structurally buggered. After mincing and squirming around, van Onselen finally delivers three paragraphs of clear, strong prose that nails the Coalition's predicament:
The Coalition finance team can't seem to agree on when they will return the budget to surplus. It can't tell the public how or from where it will find its $70 billion in pledged budget savings. It won't rule out using the same accountants who costed its policies at the last election, despite the firm having been fined for breaching professional standards on that very piece of work. And it continues to rely on its discredited costings from 2010.

Abbott's blue-collar worksite visits to condemn the carbon tax haven't been matched by a plan to save blue-collar jobs in the wake of the high Aussie dollar. Conversely, he doesn't have the courage to say what all good economic liberals know: Australia shouldn't be producing motor cars. And Abbott's confused messages of fiscal conservatism, coupled with large-scale plans to spend taxpayers' dollars to pork barrel, fuel discontent behind the Liberal lines (at least among the few economically literate members of the party room).

Then there are the personnel problems. Rich economic minds like Malcolm Turnbull and former Howard chief of staff Arthur Sinodinos are kept away from finance portfolios. Sinodinos has been left to languish on the backbench. It makes a joke of Abbott's claims he has his best team in place. Shadow treasurer Joe Hockey and finance spokesman Andrew Robb don't particularly like one another and they certainly do not respect each other. And neither does the business community, who line up to question both men's credentials (and aptitude) to manage our $1 trillion-plus economy.
Another "rich economic mind" from the Coalition who has been raising her profile has been Professor Judith Sloan. She doesn't need to raise her profile for academic or corporate appointments. She used to be a director of the ABC and she is using its various outlets to raise her profile (well, many of them anyway - there isn't yet a Judith and Hoot, but on current projections it's only a matter of time). She lives in Melbourne and has a strong connection to Adelaide, having worked at Flinders University for many years. There's only one Liberal seat available in either city:
  • Menzies, currently occupied by Kevin Andrews; and
  • Boothby, currently occupied by one person who has achieved less than Andrews: Andrew Southcott. This is the guy who qualified as a medical practitioner and then led the opposition, such as it was, to a tobacco control measure on the basis of advertising and brand rights. If you think it's unfair to summarise his career that way, name me one achievement of Andrew Southcott other than getting re-elected.
Sloan would find it difficult to adjust to party politics and a non-deferential media. If she were to run, it would be a rare example of the Coalition putting their best people into Parliament and would give them the policy substance they currently lack.

Anyway, enough kite-flying. Back to van Onselen:
The problem is that he doesn't want to take the political risk of offering up a genuine economic blueprint to secure Australia's economic future, because doing so would involve elements of unpopularity. The alternative, however, is a loss of credibility at a time when economics is dominating the public's thinking.
For most of the Coalition, Fightback! is a figment of history about as relevant to today as, say, the credit crisis of 1961. Tony Abbott was John Hewson's press secretary. The failure of the Coalition to win the 1993 election meant that standards of public life, particularly in economics, need not be so high as to exclude him. Now, he's being asked to produce a Fightback!-style vision, and he can't just laugh it off. Stuck between reprising "the longest suicide note in Australian political history" and just tooling around, patronising blue-collar workers by pretending to do their jobs for them, he will be unable to tread a kind of middle path that will establish him as what the press gallery imagined him to be: the more stable alternative to Gillard. Van Onselen's second last paragraph starts off as piffle but ends with a zinger:
Let's face it, if the Liberals don't win the next election it will be the most gut-wrenching defeat in the party's history, more so even than 1993.
He's dead right there. Mind you, three years after 1993 they were back in office.

The fact that Abbott is no longer getting the benefit of the doubt is encouraging. He lost it after the carbon price passed, but somehow he hammered a nail or something and the idea that this was the guy who'll lead us to a bright, smart and compassionate future came back. He blew it with that speech at the start of this month. It's all downhill from here: he may yet survive to 2013 but he'll limp the final few lengths. After the next election I hope the right wing have the courtesy to fuck off and die like the moderates did throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

A surplus will set up Swan for vindication: the same people who are now claiming it is irrelevant, Canberra-insider hoo-ha are the same people who were most insistent that the Budget must be returned to surplus before the next election. It is over those people that Labor's victory will be had - them, and the Coalition. A vindicated Swan will force the Coalition into a lot of me-tooism - car industry donations, expensive nativist defence procurement, disability and Medicare dental - the whole idea of electing Abbott was that the Liberals would distinguish themselves sharply from Labor. They have hemmed themselves in to the point where their options are limited, for all their perception (among themselves and by a previously smitten press gallery) of strategic flexibility and tactical openness.

After two years with Abbott as leader, and almost that long again until the election, the Coalition is putting forward a policy platform that is pretty much the same as Labor's, only less so in many respects. Battlelines in name only.

09 February 2012

Jumping at shadows

Contrasting articles by Lenore Taylor and Ben Eltham aren't about the prospect of a Rudd challenge to the Labor leadership. They are about what the purpose of political journalism is: what it's for, and who's it for.
Is the Labor leadership issue a bizarre beat-up entirely confected by the news media? Certainly not. Is it an unstable and shifting situation, which may lead to a challenge, and which is notoriously difficult to report? Absolutely.
Have I spent too much of my life listening to Kevin Rudd's rhetorical questions, thinking that it's a telling way of making a point? In a word, Lenore, yes.

It might not be confected, and Eltham was mistaken to say that it was. Where Eltham is right, though, was to say that there's plenty more important news and people like Taylor are wrong not to focus on that. Taylor's piece is a solid blast of outrage from a wounded but self-righteous profession: you'll read whatever we bloody well write and stop whinging.
Apparently contradictory things can be simultaneously true. The 103-strong caucus is divided into three camps - those backing Gillard, a growing group who used to back Gillard but who are now unsure what to do, and those backing Rudd. So when Gillard's supporters say Kevin Rudd doesn't have the numbers, that's technically right. And when Kevin Rudd's supporters say support has drifted away from Gillard over the summer, that's true too. Both sides claim more of the undecided camp than they definitely have, meaning when each says the other is inflating their numbers, that's spot-on as well.
As Eltham points out, we've been here before.

In 1990 Peter Costello first entered Parliament and was touted as a future Liberal leader. In 1994 he became Deputy Leader of the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party, a post he went on to hold for 13 years without challenging for the leadership. In 2007 the leader of the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party, John Howard, lost his seat; Costello declined the chance to become leader unopposed and declined it twice thereafter before retiring in 2009.

It isn't being smart after the event to point out that many journalists - including Lenore Taylor - wrote many, many articles claiming that Costello was going to challenge Howard and become Prime Minister any day now. The situation about the numbers in the Liberal Party were not very different to the situation Taylor describes above - some supported Howard, some Costello, others in the middle, with numbers shifting from time to time.

These articles tended to be as vague as they were numerous and regular. They relied heavily, if not entirely, on anonymous sources in the way that a drunk relies on a lamppost: for support not illumination. They contained nothing about how a Costello government would be materially different from the Howard government (with the exception of some hazy idea about Aborigines being treated better, the sort of thing that makes Aborigines who work in policy areas laugh bitterly as though they've heard it all before). They were run so often that the machinations about who said what about whom came to seem futile even to hardened politics junkies.

Eltham ends his piece with a quote from Niki Savva, who worked for both Costello and Howard, and appears to have learned nothing from the experience as far as vapid "leadership speculation" is concerned.

At the time, the media seemed to run Howard-Costello challenge stories for the same reason they run stories about the missing Beaumont children, or the Bogle-Chandler mystery: the story you run when you don't have a story. By the time the Howard-Costello story really did come to a head in September 2007, it was too late and nobody cared any more. The story had become the politico-media equivalent of the boy who cried wolf. All the hype and hoopla that the media brought to bear about those late-night meetings in Sydney could not get readers/viewers/listeners back into the story. One reason why Rudd was embraced so enthusiastically at the election a few weeks later is that he brought an end to an intrigue that had long ceased to be intriguing.

As Mr Denmore points out, the Rudd-Gillard story has already reached the point where it is no longer intriguing, despite the insistence of journalists that there is intrigue and it is real. Go read it, see you when you get back.
All of this means it is a difficult situation for journalists, requiring caution, judgment and the testing of what is said by sources who won't be named.
It also requires a sense of perspective, which Taylor clearly lacks.

On Twitter I was challenged to define what a sense of balance might look like. I rejected the challenge because journosphere groupthink says that any attempt to suggest, however humbly, that journalists do their job differently is to hobble freedom of speech in all its forms for all time. One minute there's a suggestion from a guy sitting at the computer in an alcove between his dining room and back deck, and the next thing you know it's Nineteen Eighty-Four or Nanny State is careening through the nation's newsrooms like Aunty Jack, or something. You're not pinning the death of free speech and democracy on me, oh no.

Even Michelle Grattan, who has been in Canberra since McMahon replaced John Gorton, is all breathless and giddy at the prospect Gillard might go. Neither of them has any defence to this summary from Eltham:
The leadership non-story that has developed over the last few days represents one of the worst collective failures of the Canberra press gallery in recent memory. In the pursuit of a juicy potential story with important political implications, most of the Canberra press gallery seem to have completely abandoned sensible standards of perspective, judgment and craft. Stories have been run in which the only quotes that appear which have been sourced from people with real names are statements contradicting the point of the article. Because the very idea of "leadership speculation" is itself so usefully nebulous and hazy, journalists have apparently felt absolutely no compunction about simply stating there is speculation, with no support, and then speculating wildly themselves. At the very least, it's a case of media group-think. At worst, it's all made up. Not to put too fine a point on it, the leadership speculation reporting has been rubbish.
I would love to see The Australian, for example, print a table of MPs who have spoken to journalists off the record since the start of the year. Can't see it happening either, but I'd still like to see it.

Nowhere does Taylor offer any justification of the idea that this is the only story in town, or that her right and standing to make that call trumps all others. Right now, Stephen Smith could* be offering lucrative defence contracts to his mates, Jenny Macklin could* be reintroducing the "dog tag" system for Northern Territory Aborigines, Scott Morrison could be getting his costings from a catering outfit, or some other appalling scandal could be underway - and nobody would know, because all the scoop-hounds are fixated onto a non-story (and because the Opposition are morons who are squibbing a good chance at government, but let's leave that aside for now).

Katharine Murphy acknowledges that the leadership story has been badly reported and then goes on to report it badly, as Bushfire Bill points out. There's no helping some people. It's like hearing a two-pack-a-day smoker preach at people not to smoke: the hypocrisy is almost redundant, it's just pathetic.

The year after Peter Costello entered Parliament, Labor tore itself apart over leadership. The Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister, Paul Keating, resigned and went to the backbench. Merely by doing straight reporting about the government at the time, journalists established that Keating undermined the Hawke government by denying his services to it.

No such straight reporting is taking place now. No area of Gillard government policy is contrasted with what Rudd did/didn't/could've/shouldn't have done, it is all justified by polls; as though polls never soar or plunge over time like a boat full of asylum-seekers in the Arafura Sea, as though press gallery reporters are right to accord polls with the reverence that they do. Straight reporting on the everyday work of government would be more substantial than the blizzard of fluff that we're wading through today. It would illustrate much more clearly the need for change to/support of the current leadership of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party caucus than yet another anonymous quote like "She's a crap/great leader, so weak/gutsy, I'd be disgusted/proud to have her campaign in my electorate".

What Taylor does at the top and tail of her article, and what many journalists do when fickle winds blow their drizzle of piss back at them, is plead that their job is difficult and that they work hard at it. Many people work hard at difficult jobs. This is precisely why it is important to have good journalism to tell us what those who govern us are doing. We don't have time to go into detail ourselves even in an age where press releases, reports and other information sources are as available as a news article. When journalists insist "this story won't go away" when there is no compelling reason why it should take up so much space right now, people can and do turn away from the media knowing they are not missing much.

The real reason why Rudd-Gillard is the story was not articulated either by Taylor or Eltham, but by Heather Ewart on the ABC's 7.30: the press gallery are effectively fighting the last war. Having missed the Prime Ministerial spill of 2010, and the Speaker's of 2011, the press gallery have lost a lot of credibility and can't move on from the story, in the way that a mare will keep nudging a dead foal determined to find some proof of life. This arse-covering is understandable, and it is motivated by the collective self-pity from which Taylor's pleas come - but it doesn't improve my understanding of what is going on with this government and this country. Long after The Future Of Journalism is resolved, these will be abiding concerns for me and many others; please don't expect me or anyone else to suborn those interests to your job insecurity.

When good, straight journalism is crowded out by bullshit like the tendentious Rudd-Gillard "tensions", journalism is devalued because those who consume it are not necessarily better informed by those who don't. That's why Eltham's fanboy approach to journalism is misplaced:
Ordinary citizens can't easily turn up to important events, take notes, recordings and photographs, or travel around the country to a series of specially-organised media jamborees. They can't go to lock-ups, attend medal ceremonies at The Lobby restaurant or travel on the RAAF jet. Ordinary citizens aren't often privy to the idle musings of federal politicians, don't mix regularly with the nation's executive and legislature, and generally can't spend hours hanging around Aussies Cafe in the hope of button-holing a bored parliamentarian with an axe to grind.
Fuck Aussie's Cafe. I've been to some boring meetings and done some dull work at times, but what keeps me going is this thought: at least I'm not a journalist. At least I don't have to loiter around a door in the cold Canberra wind hoping to ask one person one question, only to have that person breeze by with a "no comment". At least I don't have to pretend that I'm doing something important, writing the same story that so-called "competitors" are writing but knowing that my boss will mark my story as "exclusive". If my bosses insist that I should be doing my job in a certain way, I can make a case why what I'm focusing on matters, while a journalist can be stuck on a non-story and have to pump it up.

American philosopher Harry Frankfurt's On Bullshit makes the case that something can be true and still be bullshit. On that basis we can call bullshit on Lenore Taylor's article, and pretty much all media content produced this year about the supposed Rudd challenge for the Labor leadership. It may or may not be made up, but its link to what's genuinely important for our country is tenuous. If we have to go around the media to get an understanding of what matters then so be it. Let us have no journosphere groupthink to the effect that declining media consumption is a bad thing for anyone beyond their own employers, a danger to democracy, or that those who don't think as Lenore Taylor and her co-conspirators colleagues think just don't get it.

* I'm sure they're not, but how would I know?

05 February 2012

In another world

Now's the time to have some big ideas
Now's the time to make some firm decisions
We saw the Buddha in a bar down south
Talking politics and nuclear fission
We see him and he's all washed up
Moving on into the body of a beetle
Getting ready for a long long crawl
He aint nothing - he aint nothing at all

- Shriekback Gunning for the Buddha
Last week, Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd went to Ashgrove in suburban Brisbane to demonstrate his formidable campaigning skills, the ones that are apparently going to blow away Julia Gillard any day now. He talked about Syria. Kate Jones, the Labor MP trying to fend off Campbell Newman, looked pleased and supportive until she realised that he really was going to go on and on about Syria.

Then he met with Henry Kissinger, and again went on about Syria. Yes, he got himself on the telly, and if that was the objective then mission accomplished. However, in terms of Australia's foreign policy, what did he say?
  • Are Australian troops being sent to Syria? No.
  • Is Australia taking some other sort of action against Syria - e.g., trade embargoes? No.
  • Are Australian citizens being evacuated from Syria? No.
  • Has he given the Syrian Ambassador to Australia a good ticking-off? No.
  • Does he know that any action in the UN will fail given the widely anticipated veto from China and Russia? Surely, yes.
  • Given the failure of the Arab League to stop the meltdown of the Syrian government and the slaughter of its own citizens, is an official condemnation from the Australian Foreign Minister going to have any impact at all? No.
Why does he bother going on about Syria? Rudd is reverting to the same schtick that he used to rise to national prominence almost a decade ago. He has always been Mr Foreign Policy, but it's clear he's crap at it. It's too late for that now.

Rudd exposed and hammered the role played by the Howard government and AWB in selling Australian wheat to Saddam Hussein's Iraq, in breach of UN sanctions. Eventually the Howard government instigated a Royal Commission into the program; Howard, Downer and Vaile gave evidence to that and claimed the were exonerated, when the scope of the Royal Commission explicitly excluded them.

Had Rudd held an inquiry into the role played by the government in that matter, it would have been impossible for the Liberals to make their case that the Howard government was "a golden age". Nelson and Turnbull would have distanced themselves from Howard and an Abbott leadership would have been impossible, given his closeness to Howard.

Rudd approved Downer's appointment as UN special adviser in Cyprus. There's been nary a word on how that's going until the Cypriot parliament rose up against him. Such a turn-up means Downer is either doing everything right or everything wrong: if he'd been doing everything right I suspect we would have heard more about it.

As Prime Minister, Rudd promised a new relationship with China - the zhengyou, the friend who can speak honestly. No evidence of such a relationship is evident from the Chinese end, neither officially nor unofficially. The trade relationship seems to have improved despite the Rudd government rather than because of it, led by mining companies that cannot be said to be zhengyou with Rudd or the post-2007 Labor government more generally.

To see Rudd's failure as Foreign Minister most clearly, look at Australia's relationships with other countries: not just what just goes on in other countries, as the MSM tends to report it, but how the Australian government interprets what's going on and how it reacts.

Thailand is the biggest economy in southeast Asia and was Australia's ninth-largest export market for goods in 2007, apparently, and thousands of Australians go there every year. It underwent significant political turmoil a few years ago and may yet undergo more as King Bhumibol ages. This is a situation from which remarkably few repercussions have flowed to Australia.

The ABC's Zoe Daniel did an epic job of covering the violence in Bangkok, and of course she was overlooked for Walkleys - one of those omissions that detracts from the awards rather than the non-recipient.

What is Australia's foreign policy interest in Thailand? How well or badly does the Australian government promote and defend Australia's interests in Thailand (and what might they be)? Why aren't Thai language, law, politics and other cultural subjects taught at Australian schools and universities more than they are?

Why isn't there so much more to our relationship with India than cricket, curry and coal? Is uranium really that much of a stumbling block? Have they forgotten about Dr Haneef (have we)?

Why do we only hear of Indonesia when it's time to put another bogan into Kerobokan?

We only seem to hear about Malaysia when they:
  • put their former Deputy PM and Opposition Leader back into prison for doing what many Australians do as a normal part of their love lives; and
  • treat undocumented refugees in the same brutal way that a small number of scared little Australian men who recite advertising copy in padded, wired-up rooms for a few hours a day would have the Australian government treat them.
There should be so much more to our relationship with that country than this.

There should be something in the Australian journalists' code of ethics where any journalist/editor using the phrase "trouble in paradise" to describe civil unrest in South Pacific countries (except New Zealand, whose politics, history and racial policies deserve wider coverage here) should be taken to the top of a coconut palm and thrown off it.

Why is internal turmoil in Pakistan and Sri Lanka (and by "turmoil", I don't mean losing five wickets for less than fifty runs on the third day of a Test) only of academic interest? Taiwan: what's going on there, how does it affect us?

If we're going to get hot and bothered about Syria, why not Bahrain or Egypt? There is a significant Egyptian community in Australia - including a higher proportion of Coptic Christians than is to be found in their home country. The last Australian government to fully engage with Egypt was the Menzies government's leadership over Suez in the 1950s. Today, what is the Australian foreign policy interest in Egypt, and how well or badly is the post-2007 government managing that?

Nothing in this blogpost should be interpreted as me blaming Kevin Rudd for my stupefying ignorance of foreign policy. If Rudd had the sort of impact on foreign policy that Keating had on economic policy, Australia would have a more mature and wide-ranging debate on foreign policy issues than we do, and such maturity would reflect better on Rudd than he can expect from the situation before him - and us - today.

In 1989 Kevin Rudd became Director-General of the Queensland Cabinet Office, and helped institute an Asia-literacy program for that state's schools. Labor has held government in that state for 20 of the past 22 years; Queenslanders doing Year 12 in 2012 began their schooling after that program had commenced. You'd think that Queensland would have the sort of dominance in Asian languages and other studies that NSW does in history; sadly, no. He instituted a similar program nationally as Prime Minister - well, he announced it, which isn't the same thing really.

Teachers can only teach so much in a social context of utter indifference. For all his picfacs and frequent-flyer miles, Kevin Rudd has done little to ameliorate that indifference to foreign societies and has probably added to it. One of the few telling lines in Tony Abbott's address to the NPC last week was this:
We will concentrate on the areas that are most important to Australia and where Australia can make the most difference, so our foreign policy will have a Jakarta focus rather than a Geneva one.
Yes, it's a facile line from a facile speech; I'd love to hear Abbott explain it. Yes, Tony Abbott has less foreign policy substance than Rudd or Gillard, or even a few species of fungus. But it's telling because for all Rudd's activity, nobody has much of a clue what he's up to - even people who know about foreign policy.

For a man who's meant to be Mr Foreign Policy, it's all rather a shaky basis from which to lunge for higher office. Rudd should have smacked Abbott for daring to waddle onto his turf, to demonstrate that he is not to be trifled with by lightweights. Gareth Evans tried this in 1996 and he only sounded pompous and irrelevant, as did Downer in 2007. Rudd seems to have little real basis to rebut Liberal criticisms of his foreign policy, such as they are, and make a case that Australian foreign policy is too important to be entrusted to the likes of him. Where Rudd mixes it with the lightweights he does so on pretty much equal terms.

This takes us to Peter Hartcher's article on Saturday. It's structured like a News Ltd piece, where the first bit is pretentious, silly, and far too long a lead-in to a fairly weak three-point argument.

First, Labor's fortunes did not begin to slide once Rudd was replaced. Rudd was replaced because Labor's fortunes had begun to slide. The Rudd that would be restored hypothetically would not be the all-conquering titan of '07 but the administrative retard who tried to slide around "the greatest moral challenge of our time".

Second, what Hartcher calls Gillard's "twisting and turning and schemes and strategems", I'd call achievements. What Rudd talked about, Gillard delivered. Where Rudd had a clear majority, Gillard hasn't - and she's still held the show together, however tenuously. If Rudd were to become Labor leader again - never mind relations with independent MPs or the Greens, much of Labor's Cabinet would refuse to work with him or would do so under extreme sufferance. A leader is a unifying force or he is on his way to becoming an ex-leader. We can all agree that Rudd is an ex-leader, and that he's not a unifying force.

Hartcher quotes ACNeilsen's John Stirton thus:
"Dislike of Gillard, where it exists, is deep and visceral".
Stirton could have said, had Hartcher asked him, that there were times during their Prime Ministerships when you could have said the same of Fraser, Hawke, Keating or Howard. There are more than a few Libs who really resent Rudd for chucking them off the gravy train. If you want Rudd to take that same journey into the valley of the shadow of deep visceral dislike, then why not promote him beyond his competence - again.

Third, nobody gets a honeymoon in politics these days. Where is the press gallery journalist - apart from Hartcher - who would rather attend one of Rudd's extended Castro-like rambling disquisitions on the nature of society and the world at large, rather than watch Tony Abbott patronise some blue-collar workers? Rudd would be damaged goods to everyone but Hartcher, and would he (Rudd, I mean, not Hartcher) be as stoic under pressure as Gillard is? The implication that the government would get an even break from the press is unsustainable naive crap.

Peter Hartcher was a leading Press Gallery journalist before and during the Rudd government. In many cases he was there to catch leaks that emanated from Rudd's office. There were times in 2009-10 that whenever Rudd wanted to say something indirectly, he said it through Hartcher. The past two years have been pretty fallow for Hartcher journalism-wise - he's written a book - but you can understand why he's excited at the prospect of Rudd returning. No more intoning sadly that the government isn't getting its message out - journalists could simply report what the message is, if only Gillard weren't delivering it.

01 February 2012

The National Pikers' Club

Mirrors on the ceiling
The pink champagne on ice
And she said "We are all just prisoners here, of our own device"
And in the master's chambers
They gathered for the feast
They stab it with their steely knives
But they just can't kill the beast

- Eagles Hotel California
Tony Abbott made a speech at the National Press Club yesterday.

The more gullible members of the journosphere claimed yesterday morning that this would be the speech where Abbott went positive rather than just gainsaying Gillard. They had no basis for reporting that, as Abbott wouldn't have shown them the speech beforehand, so they made this claim on the basis of Liberal spin, which they passed on without thinking whether or not it might be true. Why would Tony Abbott want to "go positive", given his success as a nark? On what basis could he do so, given his record? This sort of scrutiny is what adds value in journalism; in today's reporting from the Canberra press gallery it is almost entirely absent.

Abbott has achieved what generations of politicians have only dreamed of: the media take him at his word. His speeches are reported verbatim and accorded a merit they do not deserve. Where his words differ from those of others (particularly the Prime Minister and members of the incumbent government), he is assumed to be right and they wrong. This veneration of Abbott by the press gallery (always "Mr Abbott" from the press gallery; he is rarely addressed as "Tony" while the Prime Minister is addressed regularly as "Julia") is unprecedented in a democracy. Stalin achieved this state of absolute credibility at some point in the 1930s; so too did Mao 20 or 30 years after that. It's unnatural, and in a country like Australia - not only a robust democracy but a place that prides itself on taking the piss - this uncritical approach to a politician is unheard of.

References to appalling dictators aside, the reason why the Australian media give Abbott the free pass that they do is not from any sinister intent, or even a consistent ideology. Abbott is the anti-Gillard. You can't make the case that Gillard is a hopeless cretin who should be chucked from office at the first opportunity if you believe that Abbott would be worse. So, they pretend that Abbott wouldn't be worse, and that when he says he loves his country and wants to help the unfortunate, such statements treated as though the unfortunate are being helped by his very words - if only that damned incumbent government would just rack off out of his way.

What follows is a very long post which takes Abbott's speech, and some of the media commentary that followed it, seriously. The speech shows up Abbott's weaknesses and why he can't lead an effective government (and reinforces my long-held view that the guy will never lead the Liberals to victory).

The headline of the speech is "My Plan for a Stronger Economy and a Stronger Australia". It's mostly a "greatest hits" of attack lines, combined with a wishlist about how he'd like his government to go if everything went as well as it possibly could all the time. There's no plan, only a dream.

It's nice that he wishes things were different and better, we all do. Abbott has only showed that he doesn't have what it takes to get our country to that better place. He's been Opposition Leader for more than two years now, head of a party with a long and proud record in government, and the best he and his people can come up with is a wishlist with a few punchlines embedded in it.

It is a testament to the stupidity of the Australian media that they regard it as a "fresh start", "promising", or other descriptions which belie a keening urge to believe in Abbott so long as he remains a potent threat to Gillard. Don't let me colour your perceptions though, heavens no. Here, read it:
The government often cites the fragile international economic situation but fails to propose any new policies to respond to it.
Nowhere in this speech are any new policies for the Coalition.
Labor’s economic strategy is to hope that China’s strength will keep our economy growing. It’s lazy, complacent economic management ...
It sure is, and it's the very economic policy that the Howard government pursued since about 2003. Those assumptions are baked into Abbott's assumptions too, as we'll see.
The Eurozone crisis is a terrible verdict on governments that spend too much, borrow too much and tax too much yet our prime minister is lecturing the Europeans while copying their failures.
You only say something like this if you know you're talking to mugs. Europe's in debt, Australia's in debt, therefore Australia must be down the economic toilet like Europe is (the UK is outside "the Eurozone" but it is still in economic trouble, far worse than Australia's). Only if you are sure that you'd get away with it would you even make such sloppy linkage.
At the heart of Labor’s failure is the assumption that bigger government and higher taxes are the answer to every problem.
That assumption doesn't support the fact that government is smaller as a share of GDP and the tax take is smaller in real terms than it was under Howard and Costello. It was true that Labor loved big-government solutions, but not in the past 30 years or so: strangely, toward the end of his speech Abbott cites Ben Chifley with approval, but never once mentioned Menzies or any other Liberal other than Howard.
Gambling is a problem so let’s force every club to redesign every poker machine.

The government has completely failed to appreciate the iron law of economics that no country has ever taxed its way to prosperity.
That's as dishonest a non-sequitur as anything we've seen from the gambling lobby, the government or anyone else. Measures to help gambling addicts are not taxes, they actually depress government revenue.

To anyone who thought Wilkie's proposals were flawed, and that Gillard's offhand sop to him was worse, note this speech: an Abbott government will do nothing to help gambling addicts. They don't see it as a public policy problem, and will therefore propose no public policy solutions. It's no good asserting that you feel great sympathy for gambling victims and their families, or throwing some money at counselling. There was a time when gambling reform was possible, the time has passed; and those who wanted change and were clear about what they wanted have to wonder whether they did as much as they could. Abbott wasn't obliged to go into detail about this issue in this particular speech, but he also wasn't obliged to be quite so naked about the sheer absence of any motivation to consider whether pokie addiction is a problem, let alone whether or not there are appropriate and cost-effective public policy responses open to a Coalition government.
The only foundation for a successful country is a strong economy. The only way to take the pressure off family budgets, to increase job opportunities, and to have the better services and infrastructure that every Australian wants is to build a stronger economy.

That’s why my plan for a stronger economy is to scrap unnecessary taxes, cut government spending and reduce the red tape burden on business.
This is the heart of the speech: a gobbet of banality. He doesn't understand, here or anywhere else in the speech, that in order to "have the better services and infrastructure that every Australian wants" is to increase taxes; conversely, that to reduce taxes means some of those services and infrastructure will have to wait. It's dishonest to pretend that you can have better services/infrastructure while cutting taxes.

Again, you can only get away with saying stuff like that if you know your audience are credulous mugs.
My plan to reduce the cost of living pressures on families is to take the carbon tax off their power and transport and make government live within its means. That way, there can be lower taxes and less upward pressure on interest rates.
No: power and transport costs will increase anyway, and Australians will miss out on trade opportunities from international commercial action on climate change. Some plan.
Australians can be confident that the Liberal and National parties will provide good economic management in the future because that’s what we’ve always done in the past.

We’ve done it before and we will do it again. After all, 16 members of the current shadow cabinet were ministers in the Howard government which now looks like a lost golden age of reform and prosperity.

Australia was a stronger society because we had a stronger economy. Between 1996 and 2007, real wages increased more than 20 per cent, real household wealth per person more than doubled, and there were more than two million new jobs.
Not only were the latter achievements due to the "lazy" policy of relying on Chinese growth, but also on the crazy asset-and-debt manipulation which has reaped the whirlwind of the Great Recession/Global Financial Crisis. Only Liberals, aching for the perks of office, regard the Howard government as "a lost golden age of reform and prosperity"; it is flatly dishonest to imply, let alone state, that a Coalition government could or would Restore The Good Old Days.

Besides, Abbott has promised to abolish the carbon pricing mechanism before. Nowhere in this speech is a new initiative. He's also being sneaky in implying that such abolition won't impose costs on the economy (and yes, on household budgets) in the same way that interest on borrowings is a cost.
What Australia most needs now is a competent, trustworthy, adult government with achievable plans for a better economy and a stronger society.
Abbott and his crew can't offer that - neither absolutely, nor relative to the flawed Gillard government. Aspirational statements just don't count - not after two election losses, and two years as leader. There's the usual snark about whether Abbott can be described as "competent, trustworthy, adult" in himself, or that his team can be described as such - both in themselves and in comparison with the incumbents.
My vision for Australia is to restore hope, reward and opportunity by delivering lower taxes, better services, more opportunities for work and stronger borders.

The government I lead will do fewer things but do them better so that the Australian people, individually and in community, will be best placed to realise the visions that each of us has for a better life.
In the above quote, "vision" should be replaced with "wish". People will have their wishes but they can only be realised if we drop the pretense that Abbott can or will run a government that delivers better services and infrastructure (I'll get to his terrible cant about disabled people presently).
At the heart of our plan for a stronger economy is getting government spending down and productivity up so that borrowing reduces, the pressure on interest rates comes off, and taxes can responsibly come down ... Australians can have tax cuts without a carbon tax but only if we get government spending down by eliminating wasteful and unnecessary programmes and permanently reducing the size of government.
What Abbott is proposing is to return the tax base to what it was under Howard and Costello. That tax base was headed for a structural deficit over time, with an ageing population - and without skewing taxes toward economic growth areas and away from taxing small business and personal incomes. There's nothing strong about a structural deficit, quite the opposite in fact.

Abbott has no right to be believed that he would cut the size of government. Nowhere in his background is there even a single event, like Howard standing against car industry donations in 1981, in Abbott's background. Abbott is all about spending more money with less accountability over time. Small government fans have set their cap at the wrong man; he is not entitled to be taken at these words. Geoff Kitney does so in The Australian Financial Review today - it's a junior-reporter error and every greybeard who made it should be sacked at once.
... pink batts ... school halls ... Victorian brown coal power stations ... Telstra’s copper wires ... a National Broadband Network that people don’t need ... The last coalition government turned an inherited $10 billion budget black hole ...
Blah blah - he's happy to talk about infrastructure and stimulus in general but he decries it in the particular. He's decided that people don't need NBN, a quote that will haunt him throughout history and wreck any claims he may have to being a visionary, or understanding the serendipitous effect that infrastructure generally (and communications in particular) has on economic growth and development over time.
At the last election, the coalition identified $50 billion in responsible savings ...
No you didn't, and all the little mice who've been in the press gallery for two years or more should have called bullshit on that.
Finding savings is a big task but we’re up for it and will release all our costings in good time for the next election.
What patronising drivel - "in good time"! Abbott's costings are vague and sloppy at the best of times an they seem to have learned nothing from the last election, other than to blame the accountancy firm that gave the cover (if you're running a consultancy, and the Federal Opposition approaches you wanting some work done - run for your life!). He has no right to be taken on face value. Such assertions should simply be regarded as "uncosted" or "unsupported" until proven otherwise.
The starting point will be programmes that have become bywords for waste. Discontinuing the computers in schools programme, which parents are now having to pay for anyway, could save over half a billion dollars.
Why has it become "a byword for waste" and are there no benefits to investing in young people in this manner? None at all?
Not proceeding with the extra bureaucracies associated with hospital changes that no one will notice could save over half a billion dollars. Not proceeding with the so-called GP super clinics which are delivering new buildings not more doctors could save about $200 million.
Reversing bureaucratic changes is not cost-free. How much could be saved by not proceeding with a new layer of bureaucracy supporting local busybodies who can hold up efficient healthcare delivery without improving it? Oh wait, that's actually a Coalition proposal.
Big savings could be made in the government’s $350 a throw set top box programme since Gerry Harvey can supply and install them for half the price.
How much would you expect to pay, Tony? How much would you expect to pay? Harvey has been blindsided by e-commerce, what do you think he knows about set-top boxes? Are you seriously going to base public policy reform on an idle comment?
Vastly reducing the number of consultancies (which have cost over $2 billion over the past four years) would produce significant savings.
Sure - but then all oppositions say that, don't they. No consultancies would wan to work for the Coalition after their disgraceful treatment of Horwaths.
Not proceeding with the carbon tax would deliver $31 billion in savings over the forward estimates period with a net improvement of $4 billion in the budget bottom line. Not proceeding with the mining tax would deliver $14 billion in savings over the forward estimates period with a net improvement of $6 billion in the budget bottom line.
All of those figures are bullshit. This isn't my fault, I'm just pointing it out; and journalists should do so too.
There are many problems with the government’s so-called Fair Work Act: there’s a flexibility problem, a militancy problem but above all else a productivity problem which is hardly surprising when workplace negotiations are always meant to involve outside union bosses rather than the employees of a business.

A serious review of the Act would have been given to the Productivity Commission rather than to departmental officials even under the auspices of a distinguished committee.
That would be the same Productivity Commission that proposed mandatory limits on pokies, and the disability care scheme that will be axed (more on that below); you'd think that the Coalition would have done its own review and come up with a few ideas of its own, surely.
The coalition will save business $1 billion a year in red tape expenses by requiring each department and agency to quantify the costs of its regulations and to set targets to reduce them.
Garbage. What self-serving nonsense that would be on the bureaucrats' part, and hardly cost-free.
We’ll give people the chance to show what they can do – not what they can’t – by offering employers incentives to take on young people and seniors who might otherwise become trapped in the welfare system.

There will be tough love too. Why should fit young people be able to take the dole when unskilled work is readily available? Why should middle aged people with bad backs or a bout of mental illness be semi-permanently parked on the disability pension because it’s easier than helping them to experience once more the fulfilment of work?
Why haven't any of those half-arsed incentive schemes worked? Why would they work just because Abbott hopes they might?
We’re going to work with the states to make public hospitals and public schools more accountable to their communities with local boards and councils choosing leaders, employing staff and controlling budgets.
Nowhere is there any evidence that this will improve health an education outcomes: quite the opposite, especially when you consider just how skewed the board members will be if the US experience is any guide. The US provides a warning, not a model, for Australian health and education services, and this should receive greater scrutiny than it has.
And we’re going to deliver a fair-dinkum paid parental leave scheme, not the government’s re-badged baby bonus.

I want to change Australia for the better. That means change which reflects our best work and family values and our deepest instincts. That’s why paid parental leave is best understood as a conservative reform that makes it more achievable for women to have combine larger families with better careers, if that’s their choice.
That's the nearest there is to a tangible "plan"; it was announced already, and the funding model was bogus (a "special levy" rather than a Great Big New Tax That Will Be Passed Onto Us All).
As far as I’m concerned, there should never be first and second class Australians based on where they were born, how they worship, or the length of time their forbears have been here.
Fine words. The leaders who believed that sentiment, like Malcolm Fraser, jumped on splitters like Cor Bernardi with both feet when they attempted to play up community divisions. Next time a Liberal does this, watch for Abbott to do absolutely bugger-all or come out with some weaselly Howardism like asserting their right to free speech.
Now, I want to end forever any lingering suspicion that the coalition has a good head but a cold heart for dealing with Aboriginal people.
Yes, let's. No evidence-based policy, arbitrary shifting of goalposts every few years, and a refusal to consult anyone other than Pearson makes Aboriginal policy an absolute shambles. Abbott turns up to Aboriginal communities in order to patronise,not to learn.
Should I become prime minister, I will spend at least a week every year in a remote indigenous community because if these places are good enough for Australians to live in they should be good enough for a prime minister and senior officials to stay in.
Imagine the expensive facilities used for once a year by Prime Minister Abbott and a squad of bureaucrats, and know that they'll be better than the facilities of people who live there every day - and that little Potemkin Village will be better than the standard, and not much else will change.
After all, the measure of a decent society is how it looks after its most vulnerable members ... The coalition strongly supports the Productivity Commission’s recommendation for a disability insurance scheme but, with an estimated price tag of $6 billion a year (roughly equal to the Commonwealth’s current interest bill) this important and necessary reform can’t fully be implemented until the budget returns to strong surplus.
The whole idea of the national disability insurance scheme is to improve independence and outcomes for people while joining up expensive programs that are currently disjointed. It is a revenue-saving, intelligent-spending measure, not some expensive nice-to-have that is forever on the never-never.
One of my final acts as health minister was to establish the Medicare dental scheme to give people on chronic disease care plans access to up to $4000 worth of dental treatment every two years: not check-ups but treatment.

I always envisaged that this would be the precursor to putting dental services more generally on Medicare ... The big problem with Medicare, as it stands, is that it supports treatment for every part of the body except the mouth. People sometimes spend years on Medicare-funded antibiotics because they can’t get Medicare-funded dentistry. One in three Australians say that they’ve avoided dental treatment because they can’t afford it.

I stress that Medicare funded dentistry is an aspiration not a commitment.
The whole reason why politicians get elected to government is to solve problems. Pissant quibbling over "an aspiration not a commitment" undermines any benefit gained from talking about this issue in a considered way, and completely negates any digs at the incumbents for not acting. There was all this build-up, addressing a real issue, and then - pfft, it's not a commitment, I'm not promising anything, blah blah weasel weasel.

It’s the kind of initiative that can’t responsibly be implemented until the budget returns to strong surplus but it’s the kind of social dividend that should motivate the economic changes that Australia needs.
In other words: it will be put on the never-never forever and a day by the Coalition, if you really want it you'll have to vote Labor.

Politicians have to address issues as they arise. It isn't good enough to say (as Abbott does) that you'll only deliver when everything's absolutely perfect, when there's plenty of money and the sun is shining and the wind's in your hair and your footy team is winning and ... no. Politics is the art of what's possible under the circumstances. Abbott is vague about the circumstances in the hope that nobody will notice the fact that he's vague about what he'll do. Because he's talking to a bunch of people who are desperate for him to succeed, they overlook the fact that he's a fair-weather sailor and would be hopeless if circumstances turned against Australia.
No one should be fooled by Labor’s carbon tax which is socialism masquerading as environmentalism and won’t actually start to reduce domestic emissions until the carbon tax is well over $100 a tonne. The best way to reduce emissions is to invest intelligently in the changes that cost-conscious enterprises are already making to become more energy efficient.

That’s what our $10 billion emissions reduction fund is for: reducing domestic emissions by 5 per cent by 2020 by reinforcing what businesses are already doing.
This point has been made before but it bears repeating: Abbott believes Labor's market-based solution is socialism, whereas his plan for splashing around billions of dollars of taxpayer money "by 2020 by reinforcing what businesses are already doing" shows that he really doesn't understand the business of politics, he doesn't understand what words mean; politics and words, the very business he's in.
That’s why the Green Army providing a reliable, substantial workforce to support the land care efforts of local councils, farmers and volunteers should turn out to be one of the next coalition government’s signature policies.
There's going to be a layer of bureaucracy over volunteers doing what farmers should be doing themselves - sounds pretty nanny-state socialistic to me.
A Plan for Strong Borders
You've heard this shit before: next.
Finally, the coalition’s plan for a more prosperous future will try to ensure that our children and grandchildren look back appreciatively on the big decisions this generation has made.

We have a responsibility to ensure that our land is as productive as possible, that’s why we are looking at new dam sites especially in northern Australia which could become a food bowl to Asia.
He negates himself once he gets down to details. Sic 'im, Grog!
With abundant coal and iron ore, Australia should have a natural advantage in making steel.
Should, but doesn't. Graham Bradley imperiously led Bluescope as it ignored the possibility that China might become a net steel exporter, and now that it has done so (China, that is) it appears that Bluescope has been wagered on the wrong outcome. If Bluescope's taxes were cut to $1 and all its employees worked for free, it would still be unable to exploit this "natural advantage" because there is no defence against dopey management. What's Abbott going to do about it anyway? Keen and rend his garments for the people who first labelled Menzies "Pig Iron Bob"?
With abundant bauxite and cheap power, Australia should have a natural advantage in making aluminium.
Cheap power? Really? I thought it was hellishly expensive, especially when you consider how far apart where the bauxite is and where the power stations are. Oh well.
With greater export orientation to drive higher production volumes, there’s no reason why Australia can’t sustain a viable motor industry.
There's sixty years of reasons why Australia can't have such an export industry, if only you'd face up to it. Here's why a domestic car market can't justify itself either.
The demands of the resources sector should help to sustain a sophisticated heavy engineering capacity in Australia. In this case, the tyranny of distance should actually be working for us, not against us.
Yes but it fucking doesn't, you stupid man. Engineering shops in WA are hitting the wall because mining operations are importing their heavy engineering ready-made rather than have Australians make it: high dollar, high wages, it's been going on for years. If you're going to strap on the fluro gear an the hard hat I wish you'd go to those places and find out why.
The ministers in the next Liberal National government will be responsible reformers.
No, they'll be people like Kevin Andrews, who had no idea, and Sophie Mirabella or Barnaby Joyce, who have no idea.
... we also understand that Australians are an optimistic people who want a government that sees potential rather than just problems.
And you will piss away that potential on dams with aluminium walls up in buffalo country, which is why you mus never become Prime Minister.
By the close of the next coalition government’s first term, I am confident that waste, mismanagement and reckless spending will have been brought under control; more tax cuts will be in prospect; there will be community controlled public schools and hospitals; and just about every fit working age person will be in work, preferably for a wage but if not for the dole.
Based on what?

What economic forecasting is going to claim that the economy will be strong enough to sustain full employment in five years? What does "in prospect" mean, and how is it different from "in your dreams"?
Better broadband will once more be delivered through market competition freeing more money to tackle traffic gridlock.
I've already called bullshit on that, and will do so again.
Instead, as the new parliamentary year dawns ...
Yes? Is this the bit where he gets all positive and gives us a glimpse of the sunlit uplands?
... Fair Work Australia ... Craig Thomson ...
The best way to help the country right now would be to change the government and the best way to change the government would be to give the people their choice at an election. Changing the government, of course, is but a means to an end: to bring out the best in our people and in our nation.
Depends who you mean by "our", really.
In his famous “light on the hill” speech, Ben Chifley said that the purpose of public life ...
Famous what? Fucking who?

It's a good thing I wasn't at the National Pikers' Club for this, because this would have been the point when my skull exploded from bullshit overload, and a whirring sound would have emanated from a simple plot in the Bathurst Cemetery.

Chifley was talking about the purpose of the labour movement, not some airy notion of public life. Abbott diminishes himself by misrepresenting Chifley in this manner, a bum note toward the end of what was supposedly a major speech. Chifley lost because he was deaf to fundamental shifts in the nation's development in his time, too.

But cheer up, it gets worse:
People should be in public life for the right reasons. Mine are to serve our country, to stand up for the things I believe in, to do the right thing by my fellow Australians as best I can, to build a nation that will inspire us more and to lead a government that will disappoint us less.
With ideals like that you might make a useful backbencher, but never a Prime Minister. A "government that will disappoint us less", well hooray for low expectations!

Members of the National Pikers' Club could have saved themselves time and embarrassment by reading this, but instead they lined up to take Abbott at his word:
  • Lenore Taylor adopted a Grattanesque more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone, declaring that however bad Abbott's speech was it was better than anything Gillard could offer. She made no case for such a claim. Abbott was so vacuous and slippery that he ought to have no standing other than the formal title of his office to criticise Gillard for anything.
  • Peter Hartcher said it was "a new start". The guy's been in office for two years and there was nothing new in that speech at all. It's not new and it isn't a start. It's bullshit, Abbott is bullshit and so too is Hartcher's hit-and-miss reputation as a commentator.
  • Phillip Coorey said the Coalition have a plan. There was no plan, there is no evidence that there ever was a plan, more bullshit.
  • Lanai Vasek tiptoes gingerly around the idea that, you know, it's possible that Abbott could be talking bullshit but other Liberals are talking bullshit too, so at least they're being consistent.
You don't have to go after Abbott in detail like I have here (thanks for making it this far). What you have to do to inform yourself about the alternative government and relate what they say - insofar as they say anything, "aspiration not commitment" - to observable reality. Maybe we could have some journalists unimpressed by puffed-up office-bearers who might do this. Instead, we have supposedly major speeches given by a piker to pikers, who congratulate him on squibbing the major issues of our time and claim this is better than struggling to address them.

Come, friendly bombs, and fall on the National Press Club. Come, Mrs Reinhart, and sack the press gallery space-fillers over whom you will have influence or managerial control. Realise how little would be lost, and how well politics could be reported on from the communities affected by it.