31 May 2012

Politics, the media and you

Two articles today by Jonathan Green and Tim Dunlop and the prospect of no articles by Fairfax staff tomorrow set me thinking about how useful the media could be and are, for those of us who don't own it but who are more important in many ways than its owners. Without committed, active consumers the newspaper proprietors are just left with a whole lot of propagandistic arse-wad. Without committed, active citizens Australia would be harder to govern effectively than it is, to the point where the shortcomings of today's politicians would be more obvious than they are. They need us, we need them, and we all need to be more on our toes than we are.

Politicians need media space and media organisations give it to them. The question for the media is to set the conditions for granting that access.

The problem with current affairs programming is its circular, self-referential nature. Morning radio picks up what was printed in the papers, questions are asked in parliament about what was in this morning's paper/radio, and the grabs of that debate make it into the TV news. Rinse and repeat, well beyond the point of mere nausea.

It defeats the purpose of electing politicians to shut them out of public debate, and media debate is part of that public debate (not all of it, as arrogant/frightened journalists would assert). For all politicians' engagement with the media, they have never been more disconnected from the communities they are supposed to represent. This is not just the politicians' failure, but the media's too. What should happen is that media organisations should play more of a role in setting the terms under which politicians take up time and space within media content.

Cows go moo, the sun rises in the east, the Pope is a Mass-going Catholic and politicians make announcements. Of this list of equally mundane events, the first two never make the news, the third does occasionally, but the last is always considered the very essence of what news is and should always be forever no matter what.

It ought not be a news story that a politician has made an announcement. Part of the poverty of media in totalitarian states is the simple and uncritical reporting of announcements - as though the execution in full on time/budget of the announced plans, and the satisfaction of the public at large resulting from said announcements was given.

Media organisations should limit politicians to participating in actual debates on actual issues. Take the chance on people in the street and on experts of different levels of articulateness, but if they "don't work" on radio/TV don't rely on them too heavily - then, and only then, wheel in the politician to ask what they are (not) going to do. Then, have them back and back again as the announcement works its way through the system and explore the effects (intended and unintended).

In the absence of that context, political debate is just so much argy-bargy. It's hard to distinguish a debate on how best money should be spent for maximum effectiveness given agreement about the aims of a proposal, and a fundamental disagreement about whether the proposal is even necessary, and again from a debate between two people attempting to dress up their mutual dislike with reasons drawn from public policy. Media's value lies in making the distinction.

There is an argument that context-free argy-bargy is "good radio/television". This seems to be a self-referential and hard-to-define quality among people who have worked in media a long time.

There is another argument that worthy media of the type just described is and must be dull. To believe this you have to accept the idea that media people are bound by cliches and incapable of arranging elements in an engaging way. There is scope to reconsider just how much viewer/listener/reader engagement there is in context-free argy-bargy, too, or the simple passing on of assertions not backed up by evidence. "The devil is in the detail" is the signoff of the lazy and worthless journalist (the ABC's Mark Simkin is just one example), as though anything with a lot of detail must be devilish and is to be shunned. The detail is where the stories are, and while there are no doubt devils to be found they need not be the whole story.

Many things happen all the time and people turn to the media to make sense of those things, drawn together and put into context. Sometimes that involves politicians and other times it doesn't. Just because a press secretary is eager to get their boss onto the media does not mean the media are obliged to comply.

Chris Pyne is the Shadow Minister for Education and the Member for Sturt. There is no reason why he should appear in the media unless he is discussing his portfolio or his electorate. Everything he says outside those matters is vapid, fatuous and utterly unmoored from any content. Of course he thinks Nicola Roxon isn't up to being Attorney General, but he would say that wouldn't he? How would he know anyway, and why just accept his word at face value? If he gives the predictable answer, why bother asking him? Where is the fool who thinks predictable-question-predictale-answer is "good reporting", and can we sack them without everyone going on strike?

Green gives the example of Q&A. The show is not like other media events involving politicians; the dullest moments of that show occur when less imaginative politicians trot out the same lines they would on any other current affairs program, or when Tony Jones inserts himself in proceedings as he would on Lateline. The whole point of Q&A is the unscripted moments between guests that yield the kinds of insights that interviewers rarely succeed in drawing out.

An example of that is the interchange between Joe Hockey and Penny Wong on gay marriage. The question on gay marriage is whether or not you regard gay relationships as real and as valid as heterosexual ones, and thereby deserving of that package of social recognitions tied up in marriage. When Joe Hockey and I were in the NSW Young Liberals, we knew plenty of gay people and there is no reason why he should not support gay marriage as I do; no reason, that is, other than the fact that he's a shadow minister on Tony Abbott's frontbench.

It's all very well for Hockey to spout the nonsense that he spouted on Q&A in the party room, or before some other audience where e might receive support for it, or in the abstract; but when he confronted Penny Wong with it, the empty words of policy came up against the reality of an Australian lesbian in a stable relationship into which a child was born. I'd be surprised if Hockey hadn't congratulated Wong privately and genuinely over the birth of her child, but all sorts of things happen in Canberra that don't translate into policy, and unless they call a press conference the supposed newshounds of the press gallery never find out.

Hockey could have applied the policy to the reality, or announced that he was open to consideration on the topic. On Q&A he was stuck, and he reverted to the context of the modern Liberal Party, which is set by the far right and Tony Abbott. He was subjected to a test of character that simply would never have arisen in other current affairs formats, and he was found wanting. I rarely watch Q&A but it's valuable for all that.

The questions surrounding Craig Thomson's behaviour at the HSU are not a debate, and they are not news. I don't have all details to hand of what I was doing five to ten years ago and I doubt that you do (I wasn't doing any prostitutes with my money or anyone else's, I hasten to add, but then again I didn't have to work with Kathy Jackson either). These are matters for investigation and some of those investigations are underway right now. Katharine Murphy thinks it's her job to ask the same questions everyone is asking and get the same answers everyone gets, and pass them on like everyone does. As I pointed out in the comments attached to that article, she's wrong. Her job is to anchor statements to objective fact, as her colleague Kate McClymont is doing; once you look at the context of the media as a whole Murphy's role looks redundant.

Dunlop's article deals with the question of engaging with government as citizens. In other articles he has a lot to say about the media and the way that it engages with politicians and citizens.

Part of that answer lies in Government 2.0/Govhack work, where media organisations, interest groups and individuals will be able to crunch huge amounts of data and produce results that may lead to action that can't be foreseen today. This will mean that politicians lose control of the narrative, because the current model of the media advisor will become inadequate. In Australia, control over data will be a huge issue, clouded with privacy and security concerns that may not be entirely bogus, and such progress as there is will involve baby-steps down paths trod in the US and Europe.

Part of it, however, doesn't. Local members have a role in explaining how government works at the community level, rather than just pictures of them cutting ribbons &c. Major party MPs are monitored for how much money they raise and get into trouble if targets aren't met. This leaves little time for genuinely working where people are at, only the sort of tokenistic bullshit that only fosters disengagement.

A media that focused on policy, from the high-level to impact at community and individual level, could be more than just a conduit for bullshit (monkey-house behaviour and talking points from parliament and vapid vox-pops straight back at ya!). It would lift the political system and add the kind of value to people's lives that would make the media more compelling and more valuable than it is, much more so than bean-counters could ever make it. It's the media that has to change first, mainly because it is subject to the speed and heft that IT and money can give to capitalist organisations (yes, Virginia, the ABC is a capitalist organisation). The politicians would come last, with one eye on the media and the other on those who vote for them.

People, we need a better media and a government that is worthy of us. Now we need to be clear about what that means ...

30 May 2012

On the way out

Sometimes I feel I've got to (thump thump) run away
I've got to (thump thump) get away
From the pain you drive into the heart of me ...

- Soft Cell Tainted Love
At a time when the government is vulnerable, the Coalition are finally starting to realise that Abbott's limitations are those of the Coalition: they've realised that it really might not win. Abbott is not a tough guy, he's gutless; for a long time that must have seemed counter-intuitive to people who weren't paying attention.

Abbott was right to tell his party room that the Prime Minister won't lie down and die, but he was wrong to draw attention to the fact that this has pretty much been his whole strategy all along. All that Battlelines stuff was so much bluster and fluff, only mugs like Ross Cameron believe in it. Coalition MPs and Senators are the people who have most at stake for the success of both his strategic judgment and execution. Many of them will now realise that Abbott has sold them a dog, and will start to wonder whether or not he can keep the Coalition ahead of Labor for much longer.

Polls are all very well, but they're abstract, and people in the Coalition regard themselves as practical folk impatient with abstractions. Why hasn't he pushed the government out by now? Every day you open The Australian and it's full of Labor people governing, and that doesn't look like changing soon. Since the last election the Coalition have kept their people in line with the belief that any minute now, the government will crack and political fortunes will go the Coalition's way, and all that will be undone should anyone step out of line. People can only spend so long on tenterhooks. A quick chat with the independents would have shown that Abbott is further away from office than he was in September 2010, not closer as he would have them (and the media) believe.

Labor apologised to Aborigines, but unapologetically maintained the Northern Territory intervention with "income management". Labor fought so hard for the ETS, then gave it up. Then they gave up the Prime Minister who beat Howard, and replaced her with that woman. Misogyny aside, it is understandable why they think that Labor is weak. The real trick lies in convincing the press gallery that they're the answer, against all evidence.
The love we share
Seems to go nowhere
And I've lost my light
For I toss and turn I can't sleep at night ...
No Coalition MP on a majority, or needing a swing, of 5% or less can run the risk of having Abbott waddle around their electorate, shaking hands with too tight a grip and generally reminding people why the economic performance of the Gillard government isn't so bad. There is a real risk that the next election could end up as a tit-for-tat exercise like the last one, where the Coalition wins one here and loses one there and before you know it Gillard has negotiated herself back into office.

Rudd served as a stick to beat the government with for a long time, but the stick looked more like limp lettuce after the 31-71 loss to Gillard. Abbott floundered, and Slipper and Thomson were not initially worthy opponents, but for a guy who'd go ten rounds with a revolving door he backed himself to punch through them into government. Abbott took the risk that he could take them quickly, easily, and from the high ground. Abbott gave his all in pursuit of Thomson and Slipper. Every day for weeks and weeks he went in hard.

It turned out Our Lady of the Health Services Union is neither as pure nor as clever as she needed to be, for her sake, for Abbott's, and for a Coalition which has been made to look stupid. Ashby, the honey-trap IED launched at Slipper, has turned and blown up in the face of Christopher Pyne.*

Yes, that indefatigable strategist who made possible the governments of Costello and Turnbull has himself slipped. Even though Pyne's failures are not those of his leader, Abbott cannot get over them. Pyne could and should drop the righteous fury that Abbott dare not show himself, lest he make Mark Latham look about as threatening as Bill Hayden. He should admit his flaws re Ashby and render his life an open book, in the hope of being courageous and even endearing in his chirpy and flamboyant way. If he did that he might win Sturt and have a political career that appears more durable than it does today.

When he appeared on Annabel Crabb's cooking show I didn't watch it because I expected him to come across like Bernard King: as saucy and cheesy on the stove-top as off. By hiding behind Auntie Mandy and admitting that he has no friends in Parliament he seemed as much of a try-hard as his leader. His beetroot-faced exertions in Question Time show that Pyne persists in pushing against a door that's closed to him now. Nobody expects him to distinguish between good government and bad, only what works for Pyne. The case has not been made that what works for the buttoned-up facade he puts forward will work for the rest of us. Watch Sturt on election night.

Part of the reason why you don't engage in gutter attacks is the sheer degree of risk. If you win, your victory is tainted and if you lose, your credibility is shot. Those who had a Christian education, as Abbott and Pyne did, will be aware of the exhortations of Luke 6:37 and Matthew 7:1. Abbott has taken the risk that he will be able to waddle away from it into the arms of those who love him, but the rest of the Coalition will be left no closer to government than they were in 2008. The fact that Thomson and Slipper are not political roadkill mean that the best efforts of Tony Abbott (and Pyne) simply aren't good enough. Those with an interest in the future of the Liberal Party must question whether they will ever be good enough.
Once I ran to you (I ran)
Now I'll run from you
This tainted love you've given
I give you all a boy could give you
Take my tears and that's not nearly all ...
When Thomson approaches Abbott, Abbott flees as though he can simply outrun his failures. It takes a fool to bleat that the nation's defences are insufficient and then entrust them to a shit-happens runaway. Gillard will start getting points for trying to grapple with the big issues once people realise the alternative is Brave Sir Robin.

Hey, the media lap it up. They shrug when he runs away from the odd piercing question at press conferences and are content to let Tony be Tony. Why doesn't everyone else? What is wrong with you people? Michelle Grattan looks stupid both in overestimating the effect of all-but-uniform media framing and in the utility of asking those who made him leader what's wrong with their decision. You can bet that Abbott butters up the old girl something fierce, in the hope that the public is as happy to let the media to do the framing as it was in the 1970s, when Grattan and Abbott learned the trade and what were then its tricks.

People who admire Abbott's toughness and commitment need to contrast it against his judgment, and yes his effectiveness. The jury might have been out in early 2010, or even after the close election result later that year, but enough chickens have now not only hatched but come home to roost that it's well past time to judge Abbott.

Those who blame the media for the unpopularity of the Gillard government cannot explain why Tony Abbott continues to be unpopular. The media love Abbott and have given him a more favourable run than any Opposition Leader, with the possible exceptions of Malcolm Fraser or Kim Beazley. Abbott bends over backwards to ensure that press gallery journalists all have a story to run each day, and to encourage them to run that story instead of whatever the government is putting up. The polls have increased the incentives for journalists to keep in sweet with what they perceive to be the next government, particularly as the incumbents don't flatter them in the same way. No amount of media framing can or will change the perception that Abbott is a jerk, to the point where he'd just fuck anyone and everyone in government except the far right.
Don't touch me please
I cannot stand the way you tease
I love you though you hurt me so
Now I'm gonna pack my things and go ...
The only way the Liberals could win is if they were to stage an intervention. East-coast heavyweights would have to wipe Minchin, Bernardi and Cormann off the map and overturn such preselections as they have won. They would have to punt Mr and Mrs Loughnane and replace them with Tony Nutt, and that would mean that the Baillieu government would lose its main sheet-anchor. I can't see that happening either, everyone who could have made that happen has now gone, and the current federal leader lacks the clout to bring it on himself.

The sheer blind faith within the Coalition and the anti-Gillard media that Abbott has Gillard where he wants her and that his victory is assured is gone now. It will not return. On a human level you have to feel sorry for the guy, like a sprinter cramping up halfway through a marathon. He can't turn up the heat because that only singes him. He certainly can't flick the switch to policy, either. Don't let the door impact you on the way out! As I said on the radio, Labor was never going to smash Abbott but it can wear him down. This isn't the end for Abbott but you can see it from here.
Tainted love, tainted love
Tainted love, tainted love
Touch me baby, tainted love
Touch me baby, tainted love
Tainted love
Tainted love
Tainted love
* No, that's not what I meant. Stop it at once.

29 May 2012

Guest post by Lachlan Ridge: The Adjournment Debate

There is plenty of parking, which is rare for Canberra, but it’s late, after eight o’clock on a Tuesday night. Fucking freezing middle of May. The problem with dealing with climate change is that, for Canberrans – a few of whom are in significant decision making functions for public polity - global warming strikes them as not the worst old idea in the world. At the least it’d stop those mad skiers being Highway Patrol fodder on the Monaro from June till September.

I take security buy surprise after my cloaken and beanied stride up over the gravel on the Parliament House forecourt. I am scanned, including the steel capped boots. The canary yellow high-vis shirt I am wearing throws them. I am obviously worthy, but arrive uninvited and unsuspected, so due suspicion is accorded. The story that I am killing time until I start night shift at the Mail Centre, which is true, barely washes in the security entrance, this place without humour.

I am escorted to the Public Gallery, but am not allowed in until I surrender my mobile, for which receive a chit for redemption, later. I have the gallery to myself. About six members in the chamber, but the government must always provide a minister. The Ministers take it in turns , Nicola Roxon is using her shift to correct a draft of some things, later she is replaced by Health Minister Tanya Plibersek (more on her another time).

Half of the Hansard team is pretty cute, while the Clerk is embroiled with some stern matter with the Acting Deputy Speaker. None of this stops the Member for Bradfield, the former Optus executive Paul Fletcher, delivering a polished and fiery denunciation (to the sparsely populated theatre) of letting unions anywhere near the boards of superannuation funds.

I opposed super when it came in because I thought then, and still believe now, that it will be the instrument by which a great deal of currency is extracted from the household sector and then Gen X hits retirement age and all of a sudden the big super funds go all Mother Hubbard. Capitalists better pray to Hell that super holds together, all they will all die with their throats slit in the middle of the night. If it wasn’t for industry super most working Australians today will spend their final years living in a cardboard box behind the tip. But Fletcher sticks like araldite to the Abbott HSU narrative; keeping equal representation of employees on superannuation boards will lead to Craig Thomson pimping your daughter.

At nine thirty the house moves that it do now adjourn and we move into the Adjournment debate. This is where an MP can go about anything and all sorts of libellous gossip can be dumped onto the public record; but tonight we get a mawkish speech plumbing the depths of pathos by the very Christian Louise Markus, Member for Macquarie and one time shill for the Hillsong Corpora...err...Church. Tragedy strikes as Sarah Frazer and Geoff Clark are killed on the Hume Highway south of Mittagong and Markus attaches herself limpet like to Sarah’s parents' grief. My deepest and sincerest sympathies to the Clark and Frazer families and all who knew them, but this stuff makes me puke.

They alternate government-opposition-government-crossbench-government-oppoisition in order of preference for adjournment speeches, like a taxi rank, so thankfully Deb O’Neill, the Member for Robertson (well, Woy Woy really), tells us how they’ve cured Cancer, then there are a few more medical ailments held up by other MP’s before the Member for Hindmarsh makes a more lively contribution on the SANFL Club Glenelg getting lighting at their home ground.

By this stage the attendant (well, technically he’s a security guard, but Al Qaida are safe from this septuagenarian) comes over and asks if I’m asleep. Damned impertinence.

I catch a smile from a most unlikely source; the Member for Chifley, Ed Husic, swaggering in to deliver a structural address on some activities in his electorate. Husic, Australia’s first Moslem MP, bogged down in the politics of incorporated identity, was secretary of my union in 2006, following a career as an executive with Integral Energy. Such, such are the joys of ALP membership. Back in the day Husic worked for the previous Member for Chifley, another household name, Roger Price. Now Husic’s the boss. It’s safe to say he has never held a real job.

He was done over badly by Markus for the seat of Greenway in 2004 when they used the same tactics that Liberal MP Jackie Kelly tried in Lindsay in 2007. Basically smear shit and run. This is what happens when you let student politicians be the brains trust behind the people that run the country. Vide Thompson et al.

They are doing this in your neighbourhood. And your silence, your vitiation, begs consent. Luckily Luke Foley (More on him too later) sprung this shit when Kelly tried it on three years later, but Markus still won Greenway by the skin of her teeth and Mark Latham was never Prime Minister of Australia.

Anyway, then there was some guff about the Member for Moreton saving Nemo before Warren Entsch got up and castigated capitalism, which was strange coming from an Abbott acolyte. Daryl Melham talked about how hard it is to afford to go to the dentist then the Liberal Member for Moncrieff (on the Queensland Gold Coast) got up to talk about crime and, as much as I love Laura Norder, I’d had enough. The freezing bite of the Canberra night was not so fearsome after all.

So I left, and went to work.

- Lachlan Ridge, Country Gentleman

24 May 2012

The right room for an argument

After Craig Thomson made an unexpectedly robust defence of his position to Parliament on Monday, the truth has finally begun to dawn on some of the more sensible members of the politico-media complex. There are no easy answers to the problems before this Parliament. Stunts, planned quickly and executed quickly and endlessly discussed by a press gallery consisting largely of easily impressed and dull people, are not that useful over the long term for those who perform them. Those who put the hard work in are increasingly taking the initiative from those who are fully occupied with stunts.

This is a reversal of the way politics has been practiced over the last two years and a departure from the trajectory of US politics, where the far right set the initiative and the rest of the politico-media complex follows them down the rabbit-hole.

By "the problems before this Parliament", I mean:
  • The question of whether Parliament can choose to reject those who were elected to it; and
  • The fact that the government might prefer not to associate with one of its members who, however unwittingly, represents all that it would seek to avoid; taking workers for granted, being less than frank with the truth, casting further doubt on the overall competence Fair Work Australia;
  • The fact that the Opposition would prefer be in government, and will trash and subvert due process in order to secure its preference, and
  • That the Coalition really needs to force a change of government before July.
The people elect representatives to Parliament. For the Parliament to decide that it won't accept those whom the people elect places them above the people. Parliament is where legislation is passed and policy is reviewed. It does not have the ability to investigate the activities of its members in a disinterested and discreet way. If it had that capacity, inherited from nineteenth-century Britain (in an age where what united members was ultimately more important than what divided them), it doesn't have it now. What you sacrifice in a stop-at-nothing lunge for office is that understanding that we're all human, and that you have to back off a bit sometimes. The Coalition are less prepared for that than they might appear.

To determine whether Craigs Thomson or Kelly have done anything sufficient for them to be suspended or expelled from Parliament is a matter for the courts. The Parliament will simply have to wait for the courts to plod through its procedures of sifting, hearing, considering and weighing evidence. This will probably take more than two months: too bad.

The idea that Parliament might develop a Code of Conduct is a classic Canberra make-work scheme. Jack the Insider said that the law that applies to everyone else should be a sufficient code, and I agree: imagine if a parliamentarian were found in breach of the Code but not of the law, or vice versa; any such Code would be vitiated straight away. Surely the law applies to us all, including - if not especially - our representatives. This is why Laura Tingle is wrong to regard the situation as "murky", looking at the situation as a political one that can only be solved politically. If the Coalition are to govern this country they must do so within the law, and people like Laura Tingle should call them to account for wilfully refusing to do so. They can smell government, it's so close and it's driving them crazy.

It's driven George Brandis, Thomson's Javert, crazy. He believes that Thomson has to prove his innocence with documentary proof according to rules of evidence. To confuse the role of parliaments and courts shows that Brandis understands neither. He does, however, want to be Attorney General and could see himself in that role within weeks, if only he puts his shoulder to the wheel that he hopes would crush Thomson, and through the gap would rush a Coalition government. His temptation is understandable, for himself and his team, but his succumbing to it is pathetic to behold.

The process of getting to the truth of what did (not) happen is more important than the fact that the Coalition are pretty much left without an agenda for government if the economy fails to collapse once the carbon price starts in July. The carbon price will require a lot of adjustments, and some of that will mean jobs are lost faster than they are being created. There will be a lot of devil in that detail, and the Opposition will play up that devil to the point where many which consider the whole carbon price scheme to be infernal. Overall, however, the idea that it will be a complete disaster for the country (Whyalla being wiped off the map, &c.) is an idea that will probably have more potency before it is introduced than afterwards - remember what happened when the GST was introduced, all those scare campaigns about price hikes and "rollback" from the then-Opposition looked mighty silly in the cold light of day.

In much the same way that Cinderella's presence at the prince's ball was time-limited, with the risk of the magic wearing off after a given point, so too the prospect of a Coalition government demands that its proponents punch through a weak link in the alliance that keeps the Coalition out of government. Thomson is that weak link now that the Pyne-Ashby affair increasingly negates whatever the Coalition might bring against Speaker Slipper. That's why the Coalition is going after Thomson unrelentingly.

That's also why Abbott's profession of concern for the man and his family are so much cant, and why people who insist Abbott is a nice guy misunderstood are, frankly, wrong. Craig Thomson stands between him and the Prime Ministership; whatever Thomson may or may not have done, Abbott will screw anyone at any cost who stands in his way. Thomson showed once again, as did Albanese in his response, that standing up to the Coalition yields positive results for the government in terms of its standing and morale. The Coalition fully expect this government to give up the ghost. A bit of effort on their part is revealing of how they would fare, not only in government but in a contested campaign.

Albanese was shrewd to throw Craig Kelly in with Thomson and warn Sophie Mirabella that she's next. If Labor drag the Coalition down to the gutter, they are finished. Once the mud has cleared, Labor has a record to run on while the Coalition has a record of saying no on which to stand still.

The Coalition is starting to ease up on Thomson and going after the Prime Minister because they fear a poll backlash, not because the good sense and decency of people like Mal Washer have carried the day. Hammering Thomson makes them look weak; the more they do it the weaker they look, and so they cut their losses. They are picking on someone their own size when they pick on Gillard.

I'm against Abbott becoming Prime Minister, it's true; but if he goes about it in the right way then my objections count for little.

Jonathan Green is right to say that the whole thing is unedifying, but the fact that it is playing out as it should. In the political theatre the Coalition are pushing and pushing, and just a little adjustment to legal conventions (innocent until proven, &c.) will see them over the line, whereupon the country will be well governed and all will be forgiven. Politics is where public disagreements are thrashed out, and where parties of government are put under pressure in order to show how they would bear responsibilities of office.

In this environment the Coalition have shown themselves to be determined, but unsuccessful. The visual image that demonstrates this best is Christopher Pyne in full apoplexy, crimson with rage, so close to a state of calm ascendancy as a senior minister and so determined to push the last little bit between where he is and where he would be. He's been there before, when Slipper became Speaker last year and now again with Thomson - not just in declaring that he didn't believe Thomson's statement, but in the umbrage that his word was not sufficient to send Thomson down. This is a test of character, and Pyne is both passing (for those who would like to see a Coalition government) and failing (for those who wouldn't, and non-partisans who don't want government won or lost over dirty tricks), Schroedinger-like, in public.

Green's insistence on parliament as moral authority is weakened by the fact that voters in Dobell returned Thomson in 2010 with knowledge of the allegations against him, and with a greater majority than many other better-behaved MPs received at that election. I doubt that Dobell would necessarily return a Liberal if a by-election were called; the prospect that they'd choose the wrong candidate, and/or that Abbott and the gang would over-egg the pudding that he'd serve up to the good voters of that electorate, cannot be discounted.

Parliament is where political debates should be thrashed out. Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott insist that parliament is working when all this stuff comes out in the open rather than being fixed behind closed doors (or not fixed, in this case). The debate over Thomson and Slipper is a proxy for a wider question: that the Coalition would govern better than Labor is doing given the predicament it is in. The high dudgeon over poor, poor health workers funding degeneracy &c. assumes both that the party of Payne, Ashby and Heffernan would do better, and that the nation is right to expect better from its representatives even though it is insufficiently fussy about who it chooses to fulfil that role.

Once you start expecting Parliament to have moral authority, it will start exercising it. This is why it's in such a tizz over gay marriage: can't decide whether to endorse homosexuality, or by rejecting it also rejecting the embourgeoisiement of a once-radicalised and fringe group.

Abbott is the candidate of low expectations while Gillard the candidate of muddling through and moving on. No wonder they rate about the same, and while it might be unedifying, the first one to demonstrate that their method yields results for the rest of us, wins.

21 May 2012

Under investigation

For five years now, the press gallery has flogged and flogged the idea that Craig Thomson is a sleazebag who misappropriated union funds, to the point where it really is the only way you can talk about him, or the position of the government generally. Events later today may give the press gallery permission to change the way it looks at and reports on the whole business of what Thomson with HSU resources, and what he may have said or done about those resources to various parties investigating him.

It is an indictment on the entire profession of journalism in this country that the story of the year was broken by a blogger named MadWixxy. To summarise:
  • Tony Abbott, when he was Workplace Relations Minister, appointed a guy called Michael Lawler to what is now Fair Work Australia (FWA), where he attained the position of Vice President (and because it isn't a merchant bank, the position of Vice President is actually a real position) ...
  • Lawler and Abbott get along well, even though ...
  • Lawler's partner is Kathy Jackson, head of the Health Services Union, who succeeded ...
  • Craig Thomson in her current role, where ...
  • Thomson's ally, and Jackson's ex-husband, was also accused (with seemingly solid proof) of having spent union money on what looks like highly self-indulgent expenses (prostitutes, meals etc.), but unlike Thomson he isn't an MP in a hung parliament so nothing has come of it ...
None of that makes Thomson more pure than the pure. It doesn't explain why Thomson may not have regarded FWA as the fair umpire it is meant to be under law (a law that he, as a legislator, helped shape and enact). Nor does it necessarily explain why Lawler's organisation took three years to investigate Jackson's union. It is, however, worth more investigation than it has received so far.

In 2009, Thomson sued Fairfax after it raised allegations about his behaviour with union money. Fairfax has since settled with Thomson, yet it has not shared with us the reasons why it did so. Thomson appears done for no matter what he does. He may as well tell the truth and let such legal action come what may, but he'll probably pull his punches and die wondering.

To get an idea of the conventional wisdom in the press gallery on this, you have to go straight to press gallery drone and Fairfax company-man Phillip Coorey:
In April 2009, Thomson's aspirations went pear-shaped when the Herald received a leak and published the allegations of credit card misuse, cash withdrawals and the use of union funds for electoral purposes.
It's amazing that no reporter who covers industrial issues would have a look into the HSU. That leak could have been an opportunity to explore the whole Jackson-Lawler-Abbott nexus, but they squibbed it.
If Kevin Rudd had inquired about the suitability of preselecting Thomson for the 2010 election, he was assured by the NSW Right there was nothing to be worried about.
If Coorey's experience in the press gallery was worth more than it is, he would have realised that this was the very period when the NSW Labor Right were plotting to get rid of him. As if they would give up one of their own to that prick!
Thomson was preselected again and on February 17, 2010, the local paper, the Central Coast Express Advocate, ran a piece clearing him of all allegations.

The week before, the Australian Electoral Commission had cleared him of breaching the Electoral Act for not disclosing as donations the union money used to fund his campaign. It made the same finding again last week.

... The article concluded, without attribution, with two stunningly incorrect statements.

"Fair Work Australia, which was investigating the union's claim that Mr Thomson misused union money, has also said he was no longer under investigation."

And: "The union branch which made the initial allegations has gone into administration and a new executive has been appointed."
Do I have to do the investigation myself?

The first statement is attributed. It attributes to FWA the fact that he was not under investigation. Who knows what was going on inside FWA at the time? As with the NSW Police declining to investigate the HSU, then launching a highly publicised raid on their offices, it's clear that there is more to the question of an FWA investigation than Coorey will allow.

As to the second: the HSUeast branch, which is the focus of all the attention on this matter, was formed in 2010 from a combination of the union's NSW branch and the Victoria No. 1 branch. So, at the time Thomson gave his interview, he was right in making that statement.

Time for Thomson to ring his lawyers back and pump some more money out of Fairfax.
On August 21, 2010, in defiance of a national trend against Labor, Thomson romped home in Dobell with a swing towards him.

Even though Labor was reduced to minority government, the opposition was still not interested in Thomson. By the end of 2010 and into early 2011, as uncomfortable details were beginning to emerge from the defamation hearing, Tony Abbott was fixated on the carbon tax.

The Liberal frontbencher and Victorian senator Michael Ronaldson pushed the issue and he ramped it up a year ago when Thomson dropped the action against Fairfax.
First of all, Thomson didn't drop the action against Fairfax; they settled, which means that both sides agreed to "drop" it for consideration between themselves and Thomson not revealed to us.

Second, Abbott should be called for playing a double game, attempting to take the high ground over this issue while shunting it off to his party's attack dog for the purposes of deniability.
By August last year, the shadow attorney-general, George Brandis, was warning colleagues to watch their public comments on the matter to avoid prejudicing any potential trial should action be launched.

That, too, is no longer a concern for the opposition. Brandis recently stated Thomson, who has been charged with nothing yet, had committed crimes.
They are that desperate, and they know the press won't call them on it.
He was thinking of contending, as he has in the past, that Kathy Jackson, who succeeded him as the Health Services Union national secretary, destroyed the paperwork that would have accounted for the expenditure by Thomson during his five years at the union's helm.

If he does raise this, Jackson will deny it as she has in the past.
She would say that, wouldn't she. The fact that she says it is the starting point for further investigation, not the end as Coorey would have it. The fact that the Coalition have become unhinged the closer they get to victory is worth examination, and may tell you what they'd be like if they actually got into office.
The opposition's position is already clear. It believes the civil findings of Fair Work Australia are a sufficient basis to drum Thomson out of Parliament, either temporarily or for good, thus bringing the minority government to a premature end.

The independents are not so sure and the constitution most definitely is not.
We come back to the central political question of this Parliament, and again Coorey's judgment bears examination here: how is Abbott going in persuading the independents to get on side? He has no words, because there are no words.
More likely, there will be a censure against Thomson at most, a symbolic but ultimately benign gesture.

For the government, this saga, which could have been avoided years ago, will become a dull ache that will plague it until election day.
After more than fifty failures to suspend standing orders, at what point does that gesture lose its symbolism? At what point do you blame the media for not actively looking into this "saga" and just waiting for various interested parties to drop things into their laps?

Thomson may be able to shift the media narrative onto FWA and the Jackson-Lawler-Abbott thing, but even if you leave the gate open the sheep won't necessarily run out. There is no reason why they should continue to run a five year old story other than sloth and butt-covering on their part. It is possible that a thorough investigation of FWA will increase pressure on the legislation that made it possible: legislation that was the crowning achievement of the current Prime Minister before her ascent to that office, legislation that goes to the core of what this government, and Labor, are about (if they can be said to be about anything at all).

There is more to this story, and of course the fact that Peter Wicks is ahead of people who fancy themselves as professional journalists is cause for the entire profession to rethink the way it works. Wicks has broken the story, give him the Gold Walkley or have it rendered as a sub-Logies joke. The fact that there is so much at stake should increase the pressure to broaden the scope of this story, not decrease it as the stress-bunnies would have it. Thomson may tell Parliament enough to force a reconsideration of his situation, or his words (and silences) may be hammered to fit a pre-existing narrative.
When Thomson rises at midday to give his much-anticipated statement to Parliament, what he says should not matter so much as the reaction he receives.
Indeed it will, and those who do the reacting will be judged accordingly: can Fairfax be trusted to report this issue given that it is a participant? Will there be any follow-up on Heffernan, will Abbott refuse to accept his tainted vote, can a broadsheet newspaper focus on more than one issue ...

18 May 2012

Adultery suffrage

I doubt that Australian conservatives have a more thoughtful commentator than Paula Matthewson. Certainly, there are other conservatives who wear their learning less lightly than she does (e.g. Christopher Pearson), or who are more bombastic (Bolt, Akerman), or simply nasty (Paul Sheehan, Miranda Devine), or who are just toe-ing the line (any Coalition MP). Unlike those people, in her articles for The Kings Tribune and her blog and elsewhere, you have to think about the issues that Matthewson raises. She cannot be lightly brushed aside as those others can. The fact that conservative publications don't publish her is an indictment on them.

She raises some good points in this article, but some of her assumptions about politicians, the media and voters simply cannot be sustained.

Media coverage of politics and government is facile and inadequate as it is. There is too much focus on politicians at a time when individual MPs have never been more tightly controlled by their party machines than they are today (and therefore, the behaviour of the individual MP is less important than Matthewson might imagine).

It is no longer true that parliament is the only aperture between the opaque and arcane workings of government and the people whom they regulate and govern. Journalists concerned with public policy need not be parked in the press gallery processing gossip, which is much of what they do today. They would serve their employers and the public better if they reported on issues and then weaved political announcements/actions into that narrative, rather than presenting politicians in all of their flaws and pettiness and attempting to represent that as "the national debate".

There are two things Matthewson is saying in her article: firstly, that there should be more coverage of politicians' sexual infidelities, and secondly that Australians should not vote for adulterous politicians. I think both are happening anyway. I question whether that's necessarily a good thing for all concerned.

When I started as a staffer at the NSW Parliament in the late 1980s, I mixed with experienced staffers and journalists who would furtively tell me over a drink who was rooting whom, who was gay, who was a drunk, who was a nightmare to work for, who was flat-out weird and creepy, etc. The gossip covered not only politicians but staffers, lobbyists and journalists. Over time different people would move between those classifications, as well as in and out of particular relationships. I would be surprised if Matthewson did not experience something similar in her days at the Federal Parliament.

In the case of Thomson and Slipper, Abbott is ramping up the pressure on them because he regards them as weak links standing between him and the Prime Ministership. If the country fails to collapse utterly after 1 July, if the government develops a reputation for being not too bad and getting things done, he's finished. Abbott's tried the noble agree-to-disagree, we're-all-human thing, he even tried some feeble attempts at policy - now two he has less than two months to bully two guys into dropping the ball, or his chance will have passed. I wish journos would report more on that, and less on what Matthewson would have them cover.

Experienced reporters falling on each morsel of scuttlebutt about Peter Slipper diminish themselves by their admission that they've known what he was like for years. The HSU shenanigans are five years out of date and took place outside Parliament: never again does a journalist have any excuse for refusing to cover a story because of "old news".

As to the question of whether or not people should vote for adulterers, the evidence is clear that they don't. Two prominent examples, happily from either major party, bear this out.

When it was revealed that Cheryl Kernot and Gareth Evans had been having an affair, both were diminished. Evans, the more powerful of the two and a man, had left Parliament and was a private citizen living abroad. Kernot had passed her peak and would go on to defeat by a man who played up his family credentials, but who has little else to recommend him. This story must have been well known at the time within the politico-media context and it is possible that the career arc of both would have been different had the affair been disclosed earlier.

Consider how political history might have been different had Gareth Evans been leading the ALP in 2001.

Ross Cameron had the air of an up-and-coming politician when he was elected in 1996. He had closely studied US Republican politicians and inherited his father's commitment to the rhetoric of "muscular Christianity", family and conservatism. I heard rumours at the time that Ross was a pants man, and it all came out before the 2004 election. Cameron invited his electorate to take him as he was: someone who talked about family and faith but didn't practice much of either. He had trashed the central idea of who he was. Re-electing him threatened to be confused with validation, and he lost his seat just as Kernot had lost hers.

There is a case to be made that infidelity should only become a public issue where there is a clear double-standard. If a politician preaches faith-and-family but doesn't practice it, as Cameron did, that would be grounds for exposure - but not if the same happened to someone who wasn't such a tub-thumper in this regard, who refused to use their family in campaign literature and otherwise played down their private lives. This would mean that conservatives would be held to a higher standard than non-conservatives, and some might regard that as unfair. Would a conservative even recognise the breakdown of a gay/lesbian relationship, with or without legal marriage?

There is, of course, the issue of where an extramarital relationship has an impact on the decisions or perceptions surrounding a senior politician in the execution of their duties: the Profumo Affair in 1960s Britain is a prime example of this, but a) I've had to go back fifty years to another country to get a cogent example, and b) the press gallery have no ability to do investigative journalism (unless you consider 'investigative journalism' to be clicking 'Send/Receive' on your email to check whether minister's office has sent you a press release).

Consider also long-standing relationships that are not concluded in a legal marriage, but which are no less real and which break down as surely as marriages do. Are they worthy of reporting? Consider the politicians who are single, hooking up here and breaking up there - are their personal lives to be covered in the same vacuous way as those of celebrities (at the expense of public policy reporting)?

The tangled but non-adulterous relationship of Michael Lawler and Kathy Jackson is far more interesting right now than any MP. As one of the commenters on Matthewson's article said, where does it end?

One weakness of Matthewson's piece is that she makes no mention of those who are intimately but incidentally involved in a relationship breakdown, but who are not public figures. The role of spouses and families in the lives of politicians is fraught when it comes to public exposure, but with the breakdown of a relationship their public role and a "right to know" becomes tenuous at best. Consider the following individuals involved in recent incidents of the type Matthewson refers to:
  • Professor Merran Evans (wife of Gareth)
  • Gavin Kernot (Cheryl's then husband)
  • Genevieve Cameron (as she then was)
  • Edna Campbell (wife of David, former NSW Transport Minister)
  • Dawn Coulson (wife of Mal)
  • Zoe Arnold (Craig Thomson's wife)
  • Inge-Jane Hall (Peter Slipper's wife)
None of those people appear(ed) prepared for the storm of publicity surrounding the infidelities of their spouses. None of those people has to answer to me, you, Paula Matthewson or any journalist about what does (not) go on within their family lives. It would be glib to declare that being subject to the odd media cyclone at a time not of your choosing is simply part of the lives they had chosen for themselves. It would be the mark of a cynic to declare that such people don't matter.

I still think that would-be candidates for public office should, with their spouses/partners, be led to a quiet room and be forced to sit through that scene from The Right Stuff where the astronaut's wife refuses to speak to the press pack surrounding her home. After watching the scene, the couple should be left to discuss what they had seen and relate it to their own lives; and if the candidate chose to withdraw from nomination, any application fees should be refunded in full.

The motives of a journalist in going after a politician would be as opaque as they are today. After the revelations from the UK, and after my limited experience in dealing with journalists, I am not sure there is much value in them exposing and picking over the messy lives of other people.

Matthewson's link between political infidelity and sportspeople taking performance-enhancing drugs is not strong. Her portrayal of Julia Gillard's position on the carbon price as a uniquely bad breach of faith with the electorate is laughable, particularly when the main alternative admits that he too runs off at the mouth and can't always be trusted.

If you're going after US examples, never mind Anthony Weiner - what about David Vitter? All the publicity anyone could want but still got re-elected, and by conservatives. Clearly, the US is not a strong parllel to Australia in that regard: maximum publicity, wrong result.

Infidelity is a failing among people; not universally, but common enough for it to join the ranks of human flaws. How people deal with it such weaknesses forms part of their character. It isn't true that she's trying to solve a non-problem, but I suspect Matthewson is trying to solve a problem that is either less than she imagines, or would do so in a way that would make the situation worse. Voters are better judges of character than people such as Paula Matthewson credit them; but that failure of credit and trust is part of being a non-populist conservative, I suppose.

17 May 2012

Limited abilities

The Joe Hockey I knew twenty years ago would have looked for ways to make the NDIS work, rather than undermining it in the sneaky and gutless way that he did in his address to the NPC.

Hockey's first references to the NDIS makes it clear he regards it as a problem, not a solution:
The four year Budget died just seven days after its delivery as the Minister for Finance flagged new tax increases for the NDIS ...

Julia Gillard has ... allocat[ed] only minimal funding to expensive new programs like the NDIS ...
Of course the NDIS is one item in the Budget, and any criticism of the Budget from a macroeconomic or wider political perspective must include anything on which the Budget does or doesn't spend money. Even so, he might have chosen something else. More than two-thirds of the budget is spent on existing health, welfare and education measures; could he not have used another example of growing expenditure? Anything?

Matthew Franklin shows that modern journalism is all about getting the quotes right but the story wrong:
Mr Hockey yesterday accused Labor of executing "a cruel hoax" on disabled people and their families by announcing an accelerated launch for the scheme without having secured funding ...

And despite the Opposition Leader's enthusiasm for the scheme, Mr Hockey said: "I will not make a commitment to something I can't fund."

He said he supported the NDIS, but "you've got to live within your means and the government is engaged in a cruel hoax in saying that it's getting on with the job of the NDIS and then underfunding it".

"A number of state treasurers have said to me that they haven't got the money the government is claiming they may have for the NDIS."
Since when does a national initiative have to wait for state treasurers to agree? Would Howard or Costello have wrung their hands and delayed anything on the basis of what Kim Wells or Christian Porter might or might not do? Hockey is looking for excuses not to make the NDIS happen.

When he said "I will not make a commitment to something I can't fund", the worst interpretation is that he won't commit to anything initiated by the incumbents. He'd only commit to an NDIS if he or Abbott could cut the ribbons and have their names on the plaques. This is right out of the US Republican playbook and even if it is effective in creating the impression that people will have to vote Coalition to get anything done, it's still absurdly dishonest and unworthy of any politician with even the faintest commitment to public service that comes with their role. Given that people need better disability services now, it's incumbent upon Hockey and other politicians to make this happen, even if it means swallowing his pride and letting Gillard get short-term credit for this measure.

The best interpretation is that he's timid. You can't wait until all the ducks are lined up before you can make reform happen. You can't put it on the never-never, as Abbott initially tried to do with his initial reaction about doing it all in good time, when government could afford it and all the money hadn't been frittered away on anything else.

Playing politics with the NDIS would be understandable if it had come out of the depths of Labor branches, like Medibank/Medicare did. It came out of a recommendation from the Productivity Commission, for goodness sake. The whole idea of the NDIS is that it reduces disability costs going forward while improving outcomes for disabled people and their carers. It makes a nonsense of high-concept declarations from Hockey like this:
Well, enough is enough. The Coalition is going to keep them to their promises.
If that had a scrap of truth behind it, the Coalition would support the NDIS, and acknowledge that the government has reduced the initial outlay by more than a third and is being tentative, evidence-based and risk-averse in its initial steps down this road - as a responsible opposition would have them be in such uncertain times.

Matthew Franklin was being dopey and/or dishonest in adding $8b of future cost projections onto the $7b that government spends today on disability services:
[The NDIS] is expected to cost $8bn a year, on top of the $7bn now spent on disability services.
See what he's done there? Made the NDIS look like a fat slab of icing "on top of" an already rich cake. There's plenty of information available to journos on the NDIS, both at the general level and in detail on how carers, disabled people and government will get better outcomes for less money. Never mind all that, though - here we are all hostage to Matthew Franklin's inadequacy in reading and arithmetic.

The good news for Matthew is that he is capable of getting the story. The bad news is that he buries it and stumbles on as though nothing has happened:
Disability Reform Minister Jenny Macklin said Mr Hockey's comments showed the Liberal Party was divided on disability.

"We don't want to wait while they battle it out," she said. "We think people with disability have waited long enough. We've put $1bn on the table to get on with this work. Our funding is a sign of good faith to all the states and territories that we are serious."
Enough of Franklin: it's Hockey who is the real worry here.

The Coalition are starting to realise that they have trashed Abbott with his perception of negativity. What they think is the smack of firm leadership looks like bloody-mindedness. He just looks disingenuous with a stunt like this:
Mr Abbott, who completed a 1000-kilometre fund-raising bike-ride for Carers Australia last week, spoke about his admiration for carers and the many gaps in the support provided by the Disability Services Commission, in what he termed a "litigation lottery".

He pledged bipartisan support for the NDIS and said he would defy accusations that he always took a negative approach.

"I am sometimes accused of being Dr No ... When it comes to the NDIS, I am Dr Yes," he said.
That was three weeks ago, easily available from a Google search.

First of all, I'd be interested to see how much money Abbott actually raised for Carers Australia, how much they have actually received to date, and what they plan to do with it (compensating for some measure that Abbott plans to kybosh? Any Craig Thomson types running that outfit?).

It would appear that the Coalition are trying to switch Abbott's negative perception, and loading onto Joe Hockey the "Dr No" persona in the name of economic responsibility. The trouble with that is, by undermining the budget with talk about "cooked books", they cast doubt on whether they or anyone can set the budget to right.

A focus on numbers also undermines the idea of what a government budget is for. It's hard to imagine a better use for taxpayer's money than the provision of not only ad-hoc help but long-term security for the disabled and their carers, especially when government can save money by doing so.

Relying on the US Republicans for strategy overlooks the fact that the US government is in decline in terms of what it can deliver to a growing nation; this is not true for this country, our growth prospects and grounds for optimism, and our very different attitude toward government.

By sending mixed messages over the NDIS, and using it as just another political football rather than a real policy that people really need, they send the message that nothing is more important than a commitment to "economic responsibility", always shimmering out of reach, in a land where the budget is always balanced and politicians shake the hands of disabled people whose lives they will make harder rather than easier.
Greens Senator Rachel Siewert said people would be holding their breath on budget night next week to see what the government announced about the NDIS.

"An NDIS is essential. It's not a question of whether we can afford it, it's that we can't afford not to do it," she said.
I've been waiting for a member of the government - Gillard, Macklin, anyone really - to put the NDIS in such a pithy way. And people wonder why the government relies on the Greens.

The business case for the NDIS has been made, and it is strong. Because Hockey will not support it he can no longer bellyache about the NBN, the submarine program, or whatever other big-ticket item of government expenditure apparently lacks analysis. Not only is this an invidious position to be in, it's stupid that Hockey has allowed himself to be boxed into it.

So we have a situation where Hockey submits to being diminished by carrying a leader whose image is more negative and less flexible than that of the Prime Minister. He puts himself in a position where the Coalition depends utterly upon his economic credibility, and that such credibility as he has might make up for the opprobrium that comes from taking on Abbott's persona of no, no, no. On one hand, it's something I can't fund and won't support. On the other it's hard not to have sympathy for Hockey's position - until you realise what it means for other people with fewer options than he has, in which case there is no other hand.

14 May 2012

Chris Kenny hates Australia

It's a weakness that I read too little pro-Liberal commentary. It's been twelve years since I went cold-turkey on Liberal Party membership, and it isn't quite true that I've seen it all before or that such commentary is all illiterate and dodgy. This article by Chris Kenny is about 50% bullshit, 40% standard Coalition talking-points long-since leached of any real information or interest, and 10% value that challenges you to justify your position afresh.

The early part of any News Ltd article is a stale blast of straw man work and bluster, and so it is with this article. It really only starts with the first two sentences in the third paragraph, and even that assumes an open question (that Gillard won't be re-elected) is actually closed. Because of that, Kenny's reluctant focus on Abbott's shortcomings fails to address the important point that to deal with those shortcomings is to minimise the risk that the Coalition will lose, while ignoring or even wallowing in those shortcomings open the real possibility (more than a possibility, but hey let's humour them) that Abbott will pull up short in the next election contest.
The Left's critique of Abbott ... deliberately self-serving ... alleged flaws and failings ... political lines ... Duly parroted by many in the media ...
The only thing that can release Chris from all this squirming discomfort is a bit of Straw Man Knockdown. Once he gets that out of his system he seems much happier.
He carries unnecessary policy baggage, and the worst is one that was deliberately formulated to counter the personal attacks. Abbott forced on to his party the extra-generous paid parental leave scheme, announcing it without shadow cabinet or party room approval. Clearly, he wanted to make a grand gesture to women in order to combat the misogynist assault. To be fair, it probably worked to some degree at the time.
To be fair, it wasn't well thought out and has been overtaken by events. The first of these was the 2010 election that has been run and, er, won. The second was the government's own offering that makes this a marginal offering at best, possibly negated by the means for which the revenue is to be raised.
But now he has a scheme that undercuts his platform in two ways: it bolsters the culture of entitlement he aims to confront and it adds an effective tax burden on business when his main pitch is to lower and repeal taxes.

The $3 billion scheme is funded by a 1.5 per cent company tax levy on the nation's largest companies to fund an extra eight weeks' parental leave, paid at the parent's normal salary (up to $75,000 for six months).
Another of the events that has overtaken the PPL proposal of two years ago was Abbott's shrieky insistence in his reply to the budget that people on $83,000 p.a. weren't wealthy. Why the cap at $75k for 6 months, then nothing for the other six months of maternity leave, rather than $83k? It looks sloppy, like you've just pulled these figure out of the air. A party with access to the resources of government can hang a scare campaign on this and flip a strength into a weakness. Saying something like "it just is" simply won't do.

The above pretends that Hockey's speech against the culture of entitlement somehow took Abbott by surprise, rather than it being part of a managed strategy that informs his whole approach to government. I wouldn't mind policies not being costed to the nth degree if there was some sense of joined-up government going on, especially when you consider that the weight of cabinet experience on the Coalition side is about equal to that of the government.

One of the most important insights of the Henry tax review was the notion that those earning slightly above the median income have a greater proportion of their income deducted by government (both in tax and lost welfare transfers) than the wealthy who are merely paying the top level of tax after deductions. These are the people who are complaining about not being able to get ahead, and who are most fearful of the "carbon tax". These are also your swinging voters today; your cashed-up bogans and your mid-career professionals adapting to an outsourcing world, the people who voted Maxine McKew into Parliament and out again. They're not poor enough to have direct empathy with those who are doing it tough and not wealthy enough to splash out on that niche area of conspicuous consumption called noblesse oblige, which is why foreign aid and welfare measures don't get a lot of traction from either side these days.

In order for government to relieve cost-of-living pressures on the middle class, on small businesses and even non-small business outside the mining sector, a responsible party of government has two choices. It can slash spending or it can raise expenditure from elsewhere. During its last period in opposition it tried both, promising to slash Medicare and crack down on welfare without necessarily being explicit about cutting taxes for the wealthy. These days, the Coalition's commitment to abolishing the mining tax and pussyfooting around means-testing welfare transfers for those earning well above average incomes means that cost-savings can only come by cutting services, and possibly cutting certain subsidies (no details, so don't hold your breath).
Given his standing in the polls now, and the increasing doubts about economic prospects, Abbott has the political capital and rationale to simply drop this scheme.
Sure, like Rudd had the political capital to drop the ETS. If Abbott drops paid parental leave, the whole family-family-family rhetoric which is core to his political persona goes by the board. So Abbott has children, so what? He has that in common with Mark Latham, Simon Crean, Kim Beazley, Alexander Downer, John Hewson, Andrew Peacock and Bill Hayden. You can laugh and shake your head at NSW state politics, but Bob Carr saw off four Liberal leaders who, unlike him, were all married with kids.
If [Abbott] is particularly wedded to [his 2010 paid parental leave scheme], he could leave it on his list of aspirational policies, for later.
Where is the sorry clown who thinks this "aspirational" bullshit is going to work? You either promise to do it, or you don't; nobody is going to believe this "aspirational" crap. If Labor introduce a policy and the Libs airily put it on the never-never (e.g. the NDIS), Labor look like doers and the Libs like bullshitters. If that happens often enough, Labor are back in and Abbott becomes the biggest joke in Australian politics since John Hewson. Kenny does the Liberals no favours by pretending "aspirational policies" are to be confused with smart politics.
Likewise, given he opposes the mining tax, Abbott ought to reject all the cash handouts and family payment increases the government intends to fund from it. None of them were mentioned in the case for the tax -- which was supposed to fund a company tax rate cut. Abbott talks a good fiscal discipline game -- in his budget reply speech, he said "the only sustainable tax cuts are based on a permanent decrease in the size of government" -- but he hasn't matched the rhetoric with hard commitments.
No, he hasn't. He's had three years, including the searing experience of a so-close-but-yet-so-far election loss (yes, it was a loss. Close enough isn't good enough in binary high-stakes contests). If he won't get off his arse after all that, when will he do it?

The last hung parliament was the 16th Parliament of 1940-43. It was elected on 21 September 1940 in a time (to say the least) of global upheaval and uncertainty. John Curtin came out of that election as Opposition Leader, but 13 months later had won over key independents and become Prime Minister, cutting deals and learning on the job and holding it together until the following election, which he won in a landslide.

Abbott's 13 months were up last October. All the independents think he's not suited for the office he holds currently, let alone higher office - and they work closely with the guy. Since last October, Gillard has reshuffled her ministry a couple of times and buried a leadership challenge. She has cut herself off from a couple of sleazy scandals to a greater extent than Abbott has been able to; it's almost as though Abbott is at sea with all that economics and policy stuff, but he goes in hard at the first hint of sleaze.

Hell, given that Asian languages was the one big set-piece of his budget reply, where are the details? In any decent policy/media strategy, there would be more and more detail released on that until we were all convinced that Abbott was the only one who cared about Asian languages teaching, that the only way to get some of that Asian language goodness was to vote Coalition, and that anything offered by Labor was inadequate. None of that has happened.
Apart from parental leave and a penchant to keep Labor's family handouts, Abbott wants to keep Labor's increased compulsory superannuation payments and touts a dramatically expanded Green Corps scheme. When you couple this with his commitment to Renewable Energy Targets and the direct action plan that aims to match the government's 5 per cent carbon emission reduction target, it becomes difficult to envisage a small-government agenda. Whether he keeps these policies or scraps them, they are so marginal in the political debate that they are unlikely to have an impact on the looming Abbott landslide. But if he keeps them they could have a stultifying impact on his first term in government.
He should scrap them. He should kybosh the pretence of an environmental policy and the various payments and just say he'll run a no-frills government. He should stand or fall on a four-word environmental policy: "climate change is crap". Just imagine the electoral tsunami of libertarian preferences that would sweep away dozens of Labor MPs.

Seriously though, by concentrating on Abbott's first term agenda and brushing off the need to engage Labor in a contest, Kenny demonstrates the sort of hubris necessary for a Labor victory. Twenty years ago I remember heated discussions about Carolyn Hewson having to resign directorships when she went to The Lodge, and witterings about GST on chocolate cakes; a sign, then and now, of strategists losing sight of the main game. They practically invite the voters not just to stultify, but to head off, such a government.
Abbott was right in his budget reply to point out the absence of a plan for economic growth from Labor.
No he wasn't. He drew attention to his own inadequacies in that respect.
... the private sector will want more, including a mandate for greater workplace flexibility. Sadly, given the ogre of Workchoices, that might have to wait for an Abbott re-election campaign.
See what I mean about the hubris? Re-election my arse.

The "ogre of Workchoices" will have to be dealt with now. In 2010, Abbott had the momentum necessary for outright victory until the first week of the election campaign, but Workchoices killed it.

The parallel is the way Howard dealt with Medicare. The Coalition were committed to repealing Medicare during the 1980s and '90s, including under Howard's first term as leader. By 1995 being anti-Medicare was a non-starter, so Howard repeatedly and strongly affirmed Medicare would be preserved and reinforced under his government. By the time the Labor scare campaigns were rolled out nobody but rusted-on voters believed them.

The Coalition needs a workplace relations policy. It has three former ministers on its front bench, plus another one (Peter Reith) who is clearly underemployed. If they have no cogent and coherent policy by this time next year, you'll know that the Coalition are not serious about winning government.

If "the private sector" wants reform, then "the private sector" will have to vote for it. The Coalition were largely abandoned by "the private sector" in 2007, so Workchoices died. Business then set about kicking Labor hard and often over pretty much everything they did, and couldn't work out why they missed out on a tax cut. When it comes to politics, "the private sector" can be pretty stupid. Insiders like Chris Kenny make their money from that stupidity, but even so they have a role in educating and not indulging that stupidity.
All this makes life difficult for his economic team of Joe Hockey and Andrew Robb. Both have been strong contributors in different ways, but in their current roles they haven't worked well together. They have become emblematic of a broader problem -- that Abbott is not fielding his best team. Hockey and Robb would always be in Abbott's best dozen, but their stumbles have served to highlight the under-utilisation of Malcolm Turnbull's economic nous, and of the wise head of the new senator and former chief-of-staff to John Howard, Arthur Sinodinos.

In reality, Turnbull has excluded himself from the Treasury portfolio. He could be considered for it only if he acceded to the party's carbon policy and came to a public and private accommodation with Abbott over leadership. It is genuinely a pity for the nation, let alone the Liberal Party, that this cannot happen.

It would give a Coalition government the best of both worlds -- Abbott's retail politics with Turnbull's economic insight; Abbott's shop-floor ease with Turnbull's corporate schmooze; Abbott's conservative instincts with Turnbull's liberal credentials.

There would be tensions, but they would be the creative tensions of liberalism and conservatism that should be at the core of Coalition success.

Still, the logical move is for Abbott to slip Sinodinos into the finance portfolio, so the economic jobs are split between the chambers. A Hockey-Sinodinos team would be impressive and Robb could easily slot in to a range of other portfolios.
Again, Kenny is getting ahead of himself in talking about government when the campaign is not yet begun, but it's hard to disagree with the above - save the fact that it is the Coalition that will have to develop a climate response rather than the climate that has to accommodate the Coalition. Again, hubris lets the analysis down to the point where it could get in the way of a sound election strategy.
Elsewhere, generational intransigence is holding back a mediocre frontbench team. People like Kevin Andrews and Bronwyn Bishop are holding back opportunities for tyros like Kelly O'Dwyer and Josh Frydenberg.
Here we come to the central flaw of Kenny's argument.

Abbott is all about restoring the Howard Government - well, the perceived positives of that government anyway, except without John and Peter and more than a few others. Andrews, Bishop and any other frontbench duds you care to name are inextricably part of that approach. If you start getting rid of those people and replacing them with those who weren't Howard Government ministers, you have to start wrestling with issues that weren't settled in 1996-2007, and then you have differences of opinion, and LIBERAL SPLIT SHOCK and Gillard re-elected. Do you want that, Chris? Then stop denying the dream of the Howard Restoration.

Why do hate the Liberal Party, Chris? Why do you hate Australia?

O'Dwyer and Frydenberg come from the wrong state, which is why dills like Dutton and Cormann are on the front bench at their expense. Everyone knows that the next government must focus on the challenges of the future rather than the past, but if you let that light in on the magic of the Howard Restoration, it may not survive: so I ask again, Chris Kenny, why do you hate the Liberal Party and Australia (as if there were a difference)?
Abbott, wisely, has rewarded loyalty, and it is understandable he doesn't want to upset his team with a reshuffle before an election. But the cost of leaving promotions till government will be the lost opportunity to build experience.
It might stop him getting into government at all, Chris.

Kenny has repeatedly pointed out examples why Abbott can't get out of his own way. If you add them all up you have to start asking whether he really is the guy to lead you to victory. Kenny is kind and diplomatic in his remonstrations but there will come a point where he and his will have to wake the contestant he's backing to win a race that is far from won.

13 May 2012

Who robbed Ken Ticehurst?

Ken Ticehurst feels robbed of a job and of a lifetime parliamentary pension, and apparently he blames Craig Thomson. If I was Ticehurst I'd be looking a little closer to home.

I hold no brief for Thomson. It was always bogus that he should just waltz in from Melbourne and take a seat in a complex and fast-evolving area with which he had no connection, but people voted for him. It was interesting that the committees in which he got involved did not relate at all to the sorts of issues that his former union purports to cover. There is no trace at all of the current Labor government doing anything for health services workers specifically, compared with manufacturing workers or other workers whose union-Labor connections can be demonstrated to have borne fruit. It isn't credible that an organisation should put him through hell and then give him a leg-up into a job where he could exert power over his tormentors. All that stuff about "I don't recall" or signing off expense approvals in his sleep does not indicate innocence but an absence of care and focus that makes him unfit for any purpose at all.
LIBERAL MP Ken Ticehurst, who lost the seat of Dobell in 2007 to Labor's Craig Thomson, plans to sue Mr Thomson for lost earnings, claiming he was robbed of his seat, costing him a lifetime parliamentary pension of $85,000 a year.
First of all, it's inaccurate to call Ticehurst a "Liberal MP" when he hasn't been one for some time. Peter Costello was an MP more recently than Ticehurst was, but nobody refers to him as though he were a sitting MP.

Secondly, Ticehurst's assumptions are worth considering here:
  • In the 2007 election, many Liberal MPs lost their seats. Had Labor selected another candidate than Thomson it is entirely possible that candidate would have beaten Ticehurst. It's one thing for bloggers, journalists or others to play psephological what-if; but I don't want courts to second-guess how people might or might not have voted. The people are sovereign in Australian politics because they vote on the composition of parliament, which forms legislation that is interpreted by the courts. If the courts start second-guessing the franchise, the whole separation of powers has to be rethought.
  • Being a Member of Parliament can be compared to a fixed-term employment contract between elections. It cannot be regarded as other jobs for the purposes of wrongful dismissal, or lack of consideration in not having his contract renewed. Is he entitled to sue anyone who didn't vote for him?
  • Is Ken Ticehurst entitled to be a Member of Parliament just because he had been one in the past?
  • If Ticehurst had been re-elected in 2007, he would have become eligible for a parliamentary pension in 2008. Should voters - or judges - be expected to vote Ken a pension, regardless of other considerations of people for their representatives?
More interesting though is this quote:
Mr Ticehurst said then treasurer Peter Costello's office had informed him of allegations about Mr Thomson, including his use of prostitutes, before the 2007 election. "If we knew, Labor must have known," Mr Ticehurst said.
If you knew, it was in your interest to do something about it at the time. There is nothing in what Fair Work Australia uncovered that any half-decent journalist could have produced; an injunction could have been procured to disqualify Thomson as a candidate or force a byelection.
He said David Gazard, then a political adviser to Mr Costello, showed him a file containing allegations against Mr Thomson.
There are two possibilities here:
  • Ticehurst is wrong and Gazard would never have done something like that. If so, what does it benefit Ticehurst to bag Gazard like that?
  • Ticehurst is right and Gazard held out to him the information that might have saved his political career. Why didn't the NSW Liberals run the campaign against Thomson? Why wasn't a journalist set up with this information on deep background? If those running the NSW Liberals had the ability to save a seat, and failed to so, does this reflect on the competence and prudence of those charged with winning the seats that will lift the Coalition into office?
I have no idea whether Ticehurst is or isn't accurate about Gazard. What is interesting is that Gazard has not been subject to the scrutiny that forced one of Julia Gillard's former press secretaries out of his job earlier this very year.
Mr Gazard said he did not recall specific allegations from that time.
Why on earth people think they're being clever or even adequate with a statement like that is unclear. Abbott and Pyne have rendered "no specific knowledge" a national punchline. Gazard is an experienced and highly-regarded Liberal staffer-consultant in Canberra, despite his disastrous foray into practical politics (he was Liberal candidate for Eden-Monaro in 2010, a seat regarded as an indicator of the national result; it swung hard to Labor as very few other seats did. The Liberals have preselected a candidate for 2013 who's very much like Gazard). For all that, Gazard is more highly regarded in politics than two-time winner Ken Ticehurst, and nobody in the media other than a state politics reporter have even questioned Gazard on this (never mind turning up the heat on the guy; what other dirt does Gazard have on Labor figures?).
Mr Ticehurst, who still lives in Dobell, said he would seek legal advice. "There could be a case and I think it's worth pursuing. If he gets charged with anything, which seems inevitable now, I will be taking action."
There have been a plethora of threatened lawsuits used to pressure people into silence - Chris Mitchell and Julie Posetti, Melinda Tankard Reist and Jennifer Wilson, George Pell and Catherine Deveny - without taking the financial and reputational risk of testing their claims against the law of the land. It is tempting to lump Ticehurst's proposal in with this same gutless bunch. In any case, a lawsuit is commenced with a writ, not a press release.

Ticehurst could have deep-sixed Thomson himself, but he chose not to. If he is right about then-staffers of the Liberal Party (including Gazard), then they have squibbed the chance to retain a seat that they could ill-afford to lose at any of the last two elections.

Until recently, Abbott's office was accused of managing media too tightly. They may think they're being clever in refracting their message off dead satellites like Ken Ticehurst, but all that's happening is that they're losing control over the narrative. An old chancer having one last pitch for his pension is just another complicating factor in what should be a simple bad-news story for Labor, playing the same role that James Ashby is to Slipper. Factor in Kroger-Costello on top of that and the unravelling is at hand; the Coalition never understood why it lost in 2007 or 2010 and thinks that anything that denied it can only be illegitimate. Any action Ken Ticehurst may take against Thomson will draw publicity and attention away from the Liberal candidate for Dobell. The Coalition isn't ready for government at the next election, and Dobell is just another example why they will botch it between now and election day.

11 May 2012

Adding value

Tony Abbott made a lazy speech in reply to the budget last night. He thinks he's going to cruise into office. Against a dispirited and disorganised government, and given a lazy but powerful press gallery, he may be right; but the government is showing some fight and the press gallery are less than they were.

Lenore Taylor points out that Abbott is relying on a set of lazy assumptions, and she's right. What she doesn't point out is that it's fair for Abbott and Liberal strategists to make that assumption.

Taylor and her colleagues have demonstrated over the past few years - not over the past couple of "24 hour media cycles", we're talking years, including before Abbott became leader - the press gallery will not call Abbott on it. They won't question him, they won't impose conditions on his access to their media space or add value in their own right. Apparently it is better for the press gallery to perpetuate a low-value existence than to take a chance on adding value for media consumers but irritating politicians and their staffs within Parliament House.

The lowest value journalist is the one who merely reports on and broadcasts what a politician says. The ABC's Latika Bourke has become a national punchline for her tweets that begin with "Tony Abbott said ...", as though we'd have no idea that the man had spoken without her tweets, as though reporting consisted of merely passing on his words unmoored to any facts or data or alternate perspectives; as though Abbott were paying her salary, and that his interests were hers. This is the lowest value journalism because it rests on the assumptions of an age that has passed, that a politician must rely wholly upon journalists to get their message out, and that the message is best reported when a politician is taken at his or her word.

Only in political reporting is a participant taken at their word. When business leaders talk about the competitive environment in which their company operates, business reporters put the announcement into context of the company's performance against its competitors, the exchange rate, and other related issues. When a sportsperson says something like "the boys really put in the work, we done real good", this is reported in context of how the speaker's team actually fared, the hard cold reality of the score, and their prospects for the season given patterns of actual performance to date.

No politician is entitled to be taken at their word. No quote makes sense out of context. The value of journalism lies in contrasting a politician's words to observable reality because therein lies the value of the words, and of the politician. Merely broadcasting their words might make a politician feel important, but it's not enlightening or helpful really.

Taylor's journalism is the next worst to the mere broadcasting of quotes. Taylor would have you believe that lack of scrutiny of Tony Abbott's words is like bad weather, something to be noted but something mere mortals can't do much about. Why she wants to advertise her own indolence to an employer with a yen for cutting costs is a mystery.

It falls to someone like Stephen Koukoulas to do the work that journalists can't and won't do. This is what added value looks like. Yes, it's pitilessly unsympathetic to Abbott and it leaves him looking merely negated, rather than wondering what Abbott really is about with such a major speech full of holes. This is the foundation of a story (or several) rather than a media story in itself, but in terms of valuable journalism it knocks anything Bourke does and most things Taylor does into a cocked hat.

I am sympathetic to Koukoulas' analysis of the numbers but even if you disagree with him, the following is designed to be numerically agnostic. What follows is a detailed look and what Abbott said and how he said it; it's the kind of thing that journalists should do but can't be bothered doing, because see you down at Kingston and mine's a Mai Tai!
The job, Madam Deputy Speaker, of every member of this parliament is to help shape a better Australia.

It’s to listen carefully to the Australian people, respect the hard-won dollars they pay in tax, do our honest best to make people’s lives easier not harder, and honour the commitments we make to those who vote for us.

If that’s how we discharge our duties as members of parliament, politics is an honourable calling, the public can respect their MPs and MPs can respect each other even when we disagree.
The first thing that occurred to me on hearing this soaring opening was: who are you and what have you done with Tony Abbott? Where is the hot blast of negativity? It didn't take long for the dog to return to his vomit:
The fundamental problem with this budget is that it deliberately, coldly, calculatedly plays the class war card.

It cancels previous commitments to company tax cuts and replaces them with means-tested payments because a drowning government has decided to portray the political contest in this country as billionaires versus battlers.

It’s an ignoble piece of work from an unworthy Prime Minister that will offend the intelligence of the Australian people.
Why have respectful disagreement when you can have: deliberately, coldly, calculatedly, drowning, ignoble, offend the intelligence of the Australian people.

Abbott could have lifted the tone if he'd wanted to - but don't blame him, it's our unhealthy democracy:
In a healthy democracy, people need not agree with everything a government does but they should be able to understand its purpose and to appreciate why it could be for the long term good of the nation as whole.
A democracy which puts Mr Abbott out of government is inherently unhealthy, it would seem. This is a contemptible attitude and he ought not be rewarded for holding and asserting it.
Government should be at least as interested in the creation of wealth as in its redistribution.

Government should protect the vulnerable not to create more clients of the state but to foster more self-reliant citizens.

The small business people who put their houses on the line to create jobs deserve support from government, not broken promises.

People who work hard and put money aside so they won’t be a burden on others should be encouraged, not hit with higher taxes.
This is the sort of stuff the Liberals said during the 1980s, which inspired me as a Young Liberal. I had no idea that they lacked the policies to realise those statements. John Howard used to say that sort of thing often, then he became Prime Minister and insisted on creating as many clients of the state as the Australian transfer payment system would bear. This is an example why Abbott isn't entitled to be taken at his word.
And people earning $83,000 a year and families on $150,000 a year are not rich, especially if they’re paying mortgages in our big cities.
Nobody but the Murdoch press said they - we - were. In a time when we all have to be careful about spending, it is understandable that the gravy train will pull into the station and some of us will have to get off, and that's what happened in this budget. The idea that we should shriek about our entitlements is nonsense, as Joe Hockey pointed out. I spent many years in the Liberal Party being confused about the rhetoric against entitlement and the reality in favour of it; now I just wish they would just decide which way they're going to go and stick with that.
Madam Deputy Speaker, from an economic perspective ...
Abbott has no right to claim such a perspective. Never mind what follows, this is simply not a perspective that he has.
Without a growing economy, everything a government does is basically robbing Peter to pay Paul.
But we aren't "without a growing economy". The economy is growing at about 3%. It should be possible for the standing orders or convention to interrupt Abbott with a point of order to point this out. Abbott is warning about a problem that doesn't confront us.

With a growing economy, it’s possible to have lower taxes, better services and a stronger budget bottom line as Australians discovered during the Howard era that now seems like a lost golden age of prosperity. It seems like we were being set up for the great fall that was the GFC. Some places fell harder than others, and I have more sympathy for this government than many do because of that. There is an implicit idea that Abbott can bring back the good times is a lie. It isn't charming, as his fans think. It isn't a fact to be reported, as Bourke or anyone at Sky News thinks. Nor is it the sort of thing you just have to put up with, as Lenore Taylor would have it.
As this budget shows, to every issue, this government’s kneejerk response is more tax, more regulation and more vitriol.
Sounds just like Howard. Seriously though, fancy Abbott complaining about vitriol: anyone who dishes it out like he does should be better at taking it.
The Treasurer referred just once on Tuesday night to what he coyly called the carbon price ...
What was coy about it? It's not a tax. Remember how Joe Hockey goes on about how it's designed to decline in revenue terms over time? Taxes don't do that. It's designed to impose a price to encourage low-carbon outputs: much like the Howard government's policy in the 2007 election, way back in the golden age.

Look at Peter Costello's 2000 Budget speech: he didn't labour the point about the GST because he didn't need to. The then opposition's screeching about A Great Big New Tax and promising to roll it back did them no favours.
If the carbon tax won’t hurt anyone why is the government topping up compensation in this budget?

If the carbon tax won’t hurt anyone, why did the Prime Minister promise six days before the last election that there would be no carbon tax under the government she led?

If the carbon tax won’t hurt anyone why are Labor members of parliament now frightened to go doorknocking even in their heartland?

Let’s be clear about this: no genuine Labor government would be hitting the families and businesses of Australia with the world’s biggest carbon tax at the worst possible time.
Let's be clear about this: why would the Liberals seek to compete with a Labor government about who's more genuinely a Labor government?

When I was in the Liberal Party, moderates like me were blasted hard and often by people like Tony Abbott, who asserted that moderate policies and beliefs were not really Liberal and that people who held them should go and join the Labor Party. Now all the moderates have gone and Abbott is fighting Labor over who's more Labor. It's funny how things turn out.
It doesn’t matter how many times the Treasurer refers to a Labor government with Labor values, the real Labor people with whom I mix beyond the parliamentary triangle despair of the politicians who have sold their party’s soul to the Greens.
The "people with whom [Abbott mixes] beyond the parliamentary triangle" include Clive Palmer, Ray Hadley and Cardinal Pell, all of whom have disparaged the Greens and Labor's association with them. Even so, it's hard to determine how such people might be considered "real Labor people". Abbott would have a hard time mixing with people who don't substantially agree with him, or at the very least won't challenge him, which would make any of his muckers who might fairly be described as rusted-on Labor few and rare. It's unlikely such people would do much mixing with our Tony anyway because, y'know, he's a busy man.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I applaud the Treasurer’s eagerness to deliver a surplus – but if a forecast $1.5 billion surplus is enough to encourage the Reserve Bank to reduce interest rates, what has been the impact on interest rates of his $174 billion in delivered deficits over the past four years?
Hmm, not sure. What about all those countries that have deficits bigger than the Australian government's budget, and whose reserve banks have interest rates at or near zero? I'll leave this to economists, but basically Abbott's assumption that government deficits = high interest rates isn't strong, and if someone's economic assumptions are dodgy I won't vote for them.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I know what it’s like to deliver sustained surpluses because I was part of a government that did
You helped lead us into the GFC? Is that your idea of economic credentials? You're going to manage the budget so that walk smack into another disaster, unprepared? Thanks for the warning.
I challenge the government to stop hiding this massive lift in Australia’s credit card limit in the Appropriation Bills and to present it, honestly, openly to the parliament as a separate measure where it will have to be debated and justified on its merits.
If they did that, it would sail through just like every other piece of legislation this government has put up.
Madam Deputy Speaker, just two months ago, the Prime Minister said that “if you are against cutting company tax, you are against economic growth. If you are against economic growth, then you are against jobs”.

In dumping her commitment to company tax cuts...
Business could've had a bigger tax cut had the mining tax been bigger, but they didn't support the mining tax at all. They elected Graham Bradley as their spokesperson, the man who ran Bluescope while ignoring rising Chinese self-sufficiency in the product which he was increasingly less successful in selling them. Business has kicked the government unrelentingly, and not so much as asked the Liberals to vote them a tax cut. It's to the government's credit that they gave them nothing: self-respect at last.
... the Prime Minister has reinforced her trust problem: why should this year’s budget commitments be any more reliable than previous ones, especially when so much is such obvious spin.
Every Opposition says this. Even the ones that are no mean spinners themselves.
He hailed the delivery of the National Disability Insurance Scheme but neglected to mention that it was short-changed $2.9 billion from the Productivity Commission’s version.
Abbott should have mentioned that he regards the NDIS as an optional extra, to be introduced at some undetermined point into the future as and when he felt like it. That would have been the decent thing to do.
The Treasurer insisted that military spending could be cut, breaking more commitments in the process, without harming our defence capability even though defence spending, as a percentage of GDP, will soon be at the lowest level since 1938.
I am so sick of the idea that more money = better defence. If Abbott is seriously making the case that our country today faces the same threat that it faced in 1938, he has a duty to let us know and make a case against it, like Churchill did at that time, not just fling it across the dispatch box like some verbal booger.
Madam Deputy Speaker, the Australian people deserve better than this and they’re looking to the Coalition for reassurance that there is a better way.
Notice how Abbott buttresses his more dodgy assertions with unrelated but sturdier claims. That "the Australian people deserve better" is unarguable; that "they’re looking to the Coalition for reassurance that there is a better way", less so.
The Coalition has a plan for economic growth; it starts with abolishing the carbon tax and abolishing the mining tax.
So big mining companies can rake it in and hopefully it will trickle down to the rest of us. That's how it starts, so the rest of it would want to be a doozy.
Abolishing the mining tax will make Australia a better place to invest and let the world know that we don’t punish success.
Where is the investor holding off investing in this country because of the mining tax? It's one thing to stand up for one interest group over another, but standing up for an interest which doesn't exist is not necessarily a winning strategy. Standing up for mining companies isn't standing up for families.
Abolishing the carbon tax would be the swiftest contribution government could make to relieving cost of living pressure; it would take the pressure off power prices, gas prices and rates; it would prevent more pressure on transport prices.
If we keep emitting carbon at the rate we are, cost of living pressures will increase. The campaign against carbon emissions is not just another environmental campaign, like those for whales or koalas; it is economic policy at its most hard-headed. Going ahead with the carbon price avoids compensation to the big emitters; Abbott may bristle at the whole idea that he's taking money off battlers to give to billionaires, but that's what would happen if the carbon price were to be repealed.
It would help to ensure that we keep strong manufacturing, vibrant agriculture, growing knowledge-based industries and a resilient services sector – as well as a mining industry – in a vigorous five pillar economy.
Pillars aren't vigorous, they have to be still and inflexible and separate in order to hold up, uh, whatever it is they're holding up. I know the difference between agriculture and manufacturing but I'm less clear about the difference between "knowledge-based industries" and "services". You need a bit of knowledge to be successful in agriculture or mining. Again, I'd want Abbott to explain what he means, given that his understanding of the economy depends on it. It would be nice if one of those professional journalists he mixes with inside the parliamentary circle would step up and put this to him, rather than leaving it to scruffy unprofessional bloggers.
Under the Coalition, there will be tax cuts without a carbon tax because we’ll find the savings to pay for them ... The Coalition identified $50 billion in savings before the last election and will do at least as much again before the next one.
Government is smaller today than it has ever been under the Coalition. The Coalition didn't identify anything like that amount of saving before the last election, one reason why it is not in government; Abbott is wrong to assert that they did, not only to avoid rewriting history but because it won't help him change to get a different result next time. Before and since the last election they did, however, burn a vibrant knowledge-based industry provider in the process.
Why should the government commit nearly $6 billion to power stations that the carbon tax would otherwise send bankrupt rather than just drop the carbon tax?
Because dropping the carbon price won't help. The electricity sector in NSW was in trouble before the carbon price and only a carbon price will lift the thinking about our power needs above the half-witted political fixes that we saw from Egan et al.
Why spend billions to put people out of work rather than into it?
Good question. Then again, carbon-intensive industries were putting people off long before carbon price.
Why does the Defence Materiel Organisation need 7000 bureaucrats especially when major equipment purchases are being put off?
Ah, but that would mean "DEFENCE CUTS", you see. I see what you're doing there. Why not retrain them as submariners, or teachers of Asian languages?
Why does Australia need to spend millions to join the African Development Bank?
Much more cost-effective to wait until their economies collapse and welcome them in as refugees. Oh, wait ...
Why spend $50 billion on a National Broadband Network so customers can subsequently spend almost three times their current monthly fee for speeds they might not need?
This is an address in reply to the budget. The NBN isn't in the budget. Future generations will laugh at the very idea of "speeds they might not need". Indeed, contemporary Liberal MPs whinge loudly that the NBN isn't coming to their areas now.
Why put so much into the NBN when the same investment could more than duplicate the Pacific Highway, Sydney’s M5 and the road between Hobart and Launceston; build Sydney’s M4 East, the Melbourne Metro, and Brisbane’s Cross City Rail; plus upgrade Perth Airport and still leave about $10 billion for faster broadband?
Great ideas all; how are you going to pay for all that? Why not jack up the mining tax?
And why spend another $1.7 billion on border protection cost blow outs because the government is too proud to admit that John Howard’s policies worked?
Worked at what? Was there really a correlation between punitive detention and reduced refugee numbers, or were other factors at work? If reintroducing those policies would make the country less proud, let's not.
Madam Deputy Speaker, the Treasurer boasts that our economy will be 16 per cent bigger by mid 2014 than it was in mid 2008 before the Global Financial Crisis.

What he doesn’t mention is that over the previous six years growth was 22 per cent ...
Yeah, anyone can achieve growth in an overheated economy.
We’ll cut business red tape costs by at least a billion dollars a year by requiring each government agency to quantify the costs of its reporting and compliance rules and delivering an annual savings target.

Public service bonuses won’t be paid unless these targets are met.
A recipe for Canberra fudge, right there.
There’ll be a once-in-a-generation commission of audit to review all the arms and agencies of government to ensure that taxpayers are getting good value for money.
Like Kevin Rudd, he'd hit the ground reviewing. That, and the pantomime surprise of it all being "worse than we thought".
We will respond carefully but decisively to the problems that the community has identified in the Fair Work Act so that small businesses and their staff can get a fair go and our productivity can increase.
What community? Is this a definite policy, or a placemarker that doesn't bear scrutiny?
... unlike the government, we didn’t need the Fair Work report into the Member for Dobell to realise that some unions are corrupt boys clubs.
Proof? I've blogged on sloppy governance in the union movement but I make no allegations as Abbot does. Why unions have let this pass is a mystery.
We’ll work with the states to put local people in charge of public schools and public hospitals because they should be as responsive to their patients and to their parents as businesses are to their customers.
What Abbott wants to do here is appoint busybodies who think all health policy involves abortion/euthanasia and all education policy is about sex and/or religion. This would be an accountability nightmare with no improvement in outcomes.
Where unskilled work is readily available, unemployment benefits should be suspended for fit people under 30 – as recommended by Warren Mundine, a former Labor Party National President.
As long as there's an hour a week somewhere, no unemployment benefits for anyone. Remind me why Warren Mundine is any sort of expert in anything?
And yes, there will be a fair-dinkum paid parental leave scheme, giving mothers six months at full pay with their babies, to bring Australia into the 21st century, finally, and to join the 35 other countries whose parental leave schemes are based on people’s pay.

Parental leave is a workplace entitlement not a welfare benefit so should be paid at people’s real wage, like sick leave and holiday pay.
Ah yes, the Great Big New Tax.
Plus there’ll be a Productivity Commission inquiry to consider how childcare can be made more flexible and more effective, including through in-home care, so that more women can participate in a growing economy if that’s their choice.
This is why public servants hate politicians.

There has been enquiry after enquiry into publicly subsidised nannies, and every one of them has said it's a crap idea. The PC will almost certainly return the same finding. Then there'll be another enquiry, and another one, until Abbott says: we had the inquiry, promise fulfilled, and everyone who voted themselves a nanny will feel cheated. Ever since the Women's Land Army there have been career opportunities for women in this country other than nannying. In an era of 5% unemployment it isn't clear where these nannies will come from, unless ... nah, as if Immigration Minister Ray Hadley will let us have Hazara nannies, I mean come on.
I will continue to work with Noel Pearson to help shift the welfare culture that’s sapped Aboriginal self-respect and with Twiggy Forrest to get more Aboriginal people into the workforce.
More than what? Forrest's employment program has been embarrassing window-dressing at best.
I will keep spending a week every year volunteering in Aboriginal communities and I hope that a tribe of public servants will soon have to come with me to gain more actual experience of the places we are all trying to improve.
Do you want people to develop self-respecting communities or do you want a Potemkin village with a "tribe" of public servants on allowances? You haven't thought this through, have you.
The Coalition will reward conservation-minded businesses with incentives to be more efficient users of energy and lower carbon emitters.

Our policy means better soils, more trees and smarter technology ... There will be a standing Green Army, an expanded version of the Green Corps that I put in place in government, to tackle our landcare problems so that beaches and waterways can be cleaner and land more productive.
That policy, not the market-based mechanism of the ALP, is "socialism masquerading as environmentalism". It's more expensive and less effective.
The next Coalition government will fund infrastructure in accordance with a rational national plan based on published cost-benefit analyses.

We’ll also find the most responsible ways to get more private investment into priority projects so that the new roads, public transport systems and water storages that we need aren’t so dependent on the taxpayer.
All infrastructure is dependant on taxpayers. They're going to do the cost-benefit analyses, aren't they? Well, aren't they - or are merchant banks proposing the projects also going to do the CBAs, like those expensive and ill-used road tunnels in Sydney?
Madam Deputy Speaker, too often, government’s focus is on the urgent rather than the important; on what drives tomorrow’s headline rather than on what changes our country for the better.
Abbott shows he'll keep this going. An Abbott victory is a victory for the idea that the media stunt is the only way to run this country.
We are supposed to be adapting to the Asian century, yet Australians’ study of foreign languages, especially Asian languages, is in precipitous decline.

The proportion of Year 12 students studying a foreign language has dropped from about 40 per cent in the 1960s to about 12 per cent now.

There are now only about 300 Year 12 Mandarin students who aren’t of Chinese-heritage.

Since 2001, there has been a 21 per cent decline in the numbers studying Japanese and a 40 per cent decline in the numbers studying Indonesian.
This is because the Howard government axed the Asian languages program. There were six more years of Howard government following that, including with the now Shadow Foreign Minister as Education Minister. There is no demonstrable Coalition commitment to Asian language teaching.
If Australians are to make their way in the world, we cannot rely on other people speaking our language.

Starting in pre-school every student should have an exposure to foreign languages.

This will be a generational shift because foreign language speakers will have to be mobilised and because teachers take time to be trained.

Still, the next Coalition government will make a strong start.
The only way to get that generational shift happening is to import graduates from Asian universities who are native speakers and willing to train as Australian teachers. If you're going to do this there would have to be thousands involved ... see, the Coalition aren't as visionary as they need to be, In their current configuration the Little Australia mob will hold them back.
My commitment tonight is to work urgently with the states to ensure that at least 40 per cent of Year 12 students are once more taking a language other than English within a decade.
This is Abbott's clearest promise, and his least credible. He doesn't have the money and nowhere in his past is there any sort of commitment to Asian languages - not a semester of Japanese, no post-graduation trek through Thailand, no Hong Kong girlfriend. Nothing.

Rudd's scheme had credibility because of his own studies in Mandarin and his lived experience. It is flatly untrue that Abbott could or would introduce such a scheme. To see his contempt for Education generally, look at his shadow minister, look for any evidence of policy.
Madam Deputy Speaker, there is little wrong with ... our cities.
The same bogus wishlist, reasserted but not costed or put into any context about what our country wants or needs.
Every day, with every fibre of my being, I would be striving to help Australians be their best selves.
Not with that list; you can't even be your best self.
Madam Deputy Speaker, as someone whose grandparents were proud to be working class, I can feel the embarrassment of decent Labor people at the failures of this government.
Maybe this is another legacy of taking too much notice of pinheads from the US Republicans: embarrassing attempts at reverse snobbery and insinuation into a working class that no longer exists and doesn't include that speaker. Those "Howard Battlers" who elected Liberal MPs from seats they'd never won before know now that Abbott is jerking them along, that he isn't one of them/us and can't deliver Howardism redux.
I regret to say that the deeper message of this week’s budget is that the Labor Party now only stands for staying in office.
Only if you ignore all the policy and economics and stuff, and if you can rely on a lazy and stupid media to present your view as much more valid than all that.
Everyone knows that the Prime Minister is a clever politician but who really trusts her to keep any commitments?
Change the pronoun and you could have said that about Howard. Abbott does this when he gets frustrated that the government won't just lay down and die like he wants it to, that he has to fight a tough and shrewd opponent - and who instead can only gut an already-dead fish with an already-sharpened knife until the cameras switch off and he hands that work back to working-class people who do that sort of work every day.
Then this parliament can once more be a proper contest of ideas between those who see bigger government and those who see empowered citizens as the best guarantee of our nation’s future.
In such a debate it isn't clear which side Abbott would be on. Maybe a journalist might ask him, one who'd know big government when they saw it and who understands why it's an issue.
As budget week has demonstrated, minority governments are too busy managing the parliament to manage the economy properly.
Seems they're doing both. Labor has demonstrated the ability to turn minority government into majority government; Liberals can't make the transition, which is why Abbott is having problems with his so-close-but-yet-so-far predicament.
With each broken promise, with each peremptory change, with each tawdry revelation, with each embarrassing explanation, the credibility of this government and the standing of this parliament is diminished.
Abbott can't promise or deliver decent government. James Ashby is proof of that.

At least half that speech is the same old shit Abbott says at any occasion where he is called upon to speak: journalists have heard it so often they don't question it, but if Australia deserves better as Abbott says, then the scrutiny has to be applied - to his face, and by cross-checking what he says against what actually happens.

It doesn't need Peter Costello shouting speechlessly at Abbott's flukes of thought to see that the guy is cruising to irrelevance. This week showed the government can stand its ground when it has no choice. The politics was settled with the Rudd burial, now the policy is in place with the NDIS, carbon price and a surplus budget. If the experience of senior press gallery members was worth anything, they'd spot this shift and tell us more than what I could see.

Abbott will not collapse in a hurry but already his momentum is not what it was. His attacks have an increasingly cracking-hardy air and the faces behind him on the Coalition benches last night were grim. They were not the forward-leaning, grinning and urging faces you see from an opposition that can smell government approaching. I doubt the faces of government MPs opposite them had the beaten look that they needed to reinforce them and their leader. They seemed to be doing what Liberals do best: keeping up appearances, and waiting for a real leader to come along and sort them out.