13 February 2013

The ambulance at the bottom of the cliff

The ICAC investigation into the business dealings of the Obeid family and Ian Macdonald has been compelling and disturbing. Every day, TV runs the same footage: the witness of the hour waddling down that section of Castlereagh Street behind David Jones, then the day's revelations, cut to a bit of recreated back-and-forth between the Commissioner/Counsel Assisting and the witness, followed by a pack of journalists following the witness walking away and pursuing him with banalities like "Did you have a nice day?" or "Are you a crook?".

Inside the ICAC hearing room, there is an area set aside for journalists and an area set aside for members of the public to sit and watch proceedings. All the journalists have to do is listen to what is said, write it down, and then describe it in the format relevant to their employer. I wonder if any journalist attending that hearing scans the public gallery and realises that what they are doing is not beyond the competence of anyone else who walked in off the street to attend that hearing.

Ten years ago, Macdonald and Obeid were ministers in the Carr government. Ten years ago, there were plenty of journalists who were paid to cover NSW state politics. They all reported that the government was brilliant, capitalising on all those opportunities from the Olympics, chock-full of bright rising talent and so far ahead of the stumblebum opposition that they weren't even worth talking about. There was no sustained critical coverage of the Carr government by the media, not of Obeid or Macdonald or anyone else. Any criticism was occasional and jumped on with both feet by the then government; it was always the media who backed down whenever the government shrieked at them.

Where, I wonder, were all those top-notch Walkley-wining investigative journalists when the deeds under investigation were actually underway? What was stopping them putting all that stuff to air/on the front page when Macdonald and Obeid and all the hangers-on were up to whatever it was they were up to?

A quick trawl back to those days reveals exactly where they were: traipsing around north-western Sydney with Carl Scully. Twenty years ago, when the Coalition were last in government in NSW, there was a proposal to run a rail line between Parramatta and Chatswood via Epping, but nothing was done about it because a) Olympics and b) we don't do forward planning for infrastructure in Sydney, we do half-arsed compromises decades after the need becomes acute, if at all. Scully, who was Transport Minister and a Cabinet colleague of Obeid and Macdonald, announced and reannounced that proposal more than sixty times. Every time he did it, a bunch of journos would happily follow him and record their adventures. Some of the more daring ones would ask Scully if he wanted to be Premier.

Scully was a loyal member of the Terrigals, the Obeid sub-faction. He did a good job in dulling the senses of all those super-sleuths from the NSW Parliamentary Press Gallery. If you're going to get supposedly hard-headed and relentlessly questioning investigators away from a place where things are happening, a windswept vacant block of land by a dull but busy road in Carlingford is the place to do it.

Not one journalist from that era has realised just how badly they were duped by the formidable state government media machine of that time. Bob Carr, then Premier, used to ring state press gallery journalists and tell them where they got their stories "wrong", and what they should have done instead. You show me a NSW State politics journo who wasn't in tight with Macca and Eddie, and I'll show you someone who lacked the connections to get the sorts of stories the editors at the time considered good enough.

The then State political reporter from The Sydney Morning Herald was hopeless as state politics reporter, doing quick and unquestioning summaries of government press releases (well, I'm sure Bob Carr and other members of that government thought she was very good). Reading her articles showed me what a bludge journalism could be if you couldn't be bothered digging for stories. She was equally bad in Washington, doing quick and unquestioning summaries of The Washington Post and The New York Times, not realising that people who follow US politics read those papers too. She showed me that a poor journalist could not cruise into an important-sounding job but stay there, and then get promoted. I did a quick search for that journo, assuming she'd long since dropped out of journalism and/or been purged by rounds of Fairfax cost-cutting; imagine my surprise to find she is that masthead's Investigations Editor.

On discovering that I thought: the joke's on me, the journalistic ugly-duckling of Macquarie Street has transformed into this swan of investigative reporting. I remember the Bulldogs scandal (and would have read about it in the SMH) but had no idea Davies was involved in any way. If she and McClymont had devoted a fraction of the effort to Macdonald-Obeid that they devoted to the Bulldogs or the Bush Administration, who knows what they might have uncovered at the time? Who knows how things might have been different?

Let there be no nonsense about limited media resources or the dreaded social media. In 2003 the only facebooking going on was when people nodded off in the Parliamentary Library. Journalists could and did go about their jobs while ignoring media consumers, and their employers still surfed the 'rivers of gold'. Back then the Bylong Valley would have been full of small-t twittering, but it wouldn't have impeded Macdonald and the Obeids any more than the press gallery did.

I think about John Brogden, who was (along with Joe Hockey) the most promising Young Liberal of my generation; ten years ago he was Leader of the NSW Opposition. Imagine if he, or those he appointed to shadow Macdonald and Obeid, had dug for what has since come before ICAC. Imagine they had laid it all out in Question Time and called for their heads. How would Davies and the press gallery reported it - they would have waited for Carr's quip in response, something stale from Cactus Jack Garner or Boss Tweed perhaps, and run that. Brogden might have become Premier; Scully, Iemma, Rees and Keneally would still be promising and unsullied members of a viable alternative government. Maybe the Doggies would have fared better in the NRL.

When he was in student politics, Ian Macdonald stiff-armed the left. He entered NSW Parliament in 1988, forgiven and backed by the Labor left, in clear breach of one of the most binding laws in Labor politics: The If They'll Rat On You Once They'll Rat On You Twice Act. In his first speech he denounced the very idea of the ICAC when it was first proposed, without a scrap of irony. I still say he reached his parliamentary peak soon afterwards when he smuggled Kylie Minogue into a speech on superannuation, and made canine-related puns in a speech on the Dog Bill.

Labor Left people fancy themselves as salty, hard-to-impress types, utterly unmoved by NSW Right popinjays; yet Macdonald managed to herd them behind Obeid when required. The people who voted the way Macdonald told them to are the same people who think that the decline of the NSW Labor Right is good for Labor's left. I don't know how he persuaded left members like he did, and it probably won't come out in ICAC, so Walkley-winning investigative journalists and anyone else who was not a member of the ALP in NSW back then will never know how it was done.

Are Eddie Obeid and his scions more or less full of born-to-rule entitlement than, say, Tony Abbott? Does anyone doubt that Ian Macdonald, if challenged/asked nicely and pumped full of red wine, could stand on a chair and sing Solidarity Forever with the best of them? Do he and Obeid still bear the title "The Honourable"?

The media and what is now the main part of the government of NSW did nothing to stop the twists and turns of the Obeid-Macdonald juggernaut: no check, no balance, no investigation. Yet here they all are, providing the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff after it is all too late, and it has nowhere to take the damaged body politic anyway.

10 February 2013

Enduring ideas

There was a time when conservatives had plenty of policy ideas: the late 1960s. From that time came a number of initiatives that have had an enduring impact on public debate. The Labor Party generally, and Whitlam in particular, snaffled all but two of them.

Ask anyone: who brought the troops home from Vietnam? Whitlam (actually, McMahon had done most of that work earlier in 1972). Who set up the Australia Council to foster Australian film, literature, theatre and culture more broadly? Whitlam (Gorton set up the initial, tentative and under-resourced version of this entity). Plenty of big ideas from the Liberals are owned by Labor.

Liberals get no credit for the 1967 referendum on counting Aborigines in the census, nor for the (accidental) career of Neville Bonner, and Malcolm Fraser achieved quite a lot in Aboriginal Affairs (with ministers like Fred Chaney and Ian Viner) - but it is all knocked into a cocked hat with that image of Gough Whitlam's white fist leaking red soil into Vincent Lingiari's outstretched black hand.

That's where big ideas gets the Liberals: nowhere, politically. Proponents of big ideas seeking bipartisan support are wasting their time because there's nothing in it for the Coalition. To understand this is to understand why their only big ideas are warmed-over and inconsistent exercises in frustration and disappointment.

In the 1980s the Liberals organised around ideas, wets and dries, and a fat lot of good that did them. "Incentivation" failed in 1987. Shack's great health plan and the questions needing to be answered failed in 1990. Fightback! failed in 1993. John Howard led the tendency in the Liberal Party to disdain big ideas, and by 1996 Liberals flinched when confronted with ideas. Howard won in 1996 by stirring up apathy to Keating's "big picture" ideas on Aboriginal reconciliation, the arts and the republic. The defeat of the republic confirmed and reinforced it: forget big ideas.

Conservatives don't do big ideas. When in power conservatives see themselves as guarding the Treasury and the common weal generally, forming a gauntlet through which ideas that are costly, faddish, socialistic, or otherwise undesirable are filtered out. Any initiatives that survive such a rigorous process must truly be the Unstoppable March of Progress. Because any initiatives that survive conservative governments are considered inevitable, conservatives get no credit for them. Meteorologists get no credit for good weather nor any blame for bad.

Conservatives are disappointed that major policy initiatives in Australian politics come from outside their ranks. Independence for East Timor was a far-left irrelevance until John Howard seized the opportunity to realise it; apart from Jose Ramos Horta, nobody gives Howard much credit for that. Kevin Donnelly is trying his best in pushing for a return to classical education, but too few Liberals enjoyed such an education themselves and Donnelly has failed at persuasion/doing the numbers; they can't and won't sell it.

Howard's one enduring initiative, the gun buyback, occurred on the fly from within his office and not from the grass roots of the Coalition parties. It is being undone by conservative state governments fostering hunting in national parks and lifting restrictions on ammunition (the current government had a case to answer with lax customs detection of weapons imports, but Jason Clare appears to be limiting scope for criticism and will have made his reputation if he can render it a non-issue by September).

They can't have it both ways, acting as the scourge of new initiatives and wondering why none come from within - but yet they still wish it were otherwise. The central weakness of conservatism is that it can't distinguish between a structural shift and a passing fad, which is why structural shifts have to assert themselves politically in a way that passing fads can't. Conservatives were kept out of office until they embraced Medicare, and were not allowed in until they accepted warnings not to dismantle it. Gay marriage still looks like a passing fad to conservatives; but it isn't, and future conservatives will claim to be upset that doubt will be cast on their not-yet-evident support for this initiative.

In his youth, Tony Abbott learned the Big Ideas of Santamaria and the DLP: nuclear families made from wedded straight couples; opposition to abortion and euthanasia; and that the Church is never wrong and owes no compensation to anyone. From Howard he learned to disdain Big Ideas, and he generally does: but he is conflicted. He can't be trusted in his claims to support the NDIS; statements that the Coalition would only support an NDIS at some future time when the land is flowing with milk and honey is far more credible, however disappointing that might be for supporters.

He can't be trusted in his claims to support a comprehensive Asian language/cultural exchange program between Australian and Asian education systems (he calls this a "new Colombo Plan" for those seeking certainty in old ideas, but his proposal is nothing like that limited and outdated program). His dismissal of Big Ideas can be put down to 1 Corinthians 13:11 when it suits him, but when it doesn't his rhetoric keens for Big Ideas and the credit that attaches to them.

The two ideas from the late 1960s which Labor have been happy to leave to the conservatives are nuclear energy and northern development.

There was a serious proposal by the Gorton government to develop a nuclear energy industry. Within the current term of Parliament Josh Frydenberg attempted to revive the idea in his intellectually and politically timid way - to "call for a debate" without leading one, to ignore the developments in this area (including environmental knowledge) over the past forty years, and to generally overestimate the importance of Josh in making things happen. In Liberal terms, however, Frydenberg has revived a trusty Liberal issue that has sat in the bottom drawer awaiting its hour and its champion, and the opponents of the issue are almost all lefties so don't underestimate the frisson of political correctness that attaches to even talking about an Australian nuclear industry.

An Australian nuclear industry would be expensive to set up and maintain, and would take a long time to do so even with an unequivocally supportive government. It would, however, make a few people a lot of money. It follows, therefore, that those who stand to reap the rewards can bear the risk involved in getting the idea up. The fact that they have preferred for government to bear this risk leaves proponents looking politically exposed, attracting criticism without any compensating reward.

Northern development is like that, too:
  • If you want to pay less tax, then forget about government building you free dams, rail lines and roads.
  • Landholdings in southeastern and southwestern Australia tend to be small and numerous, so when you build dams there the economic benefit is widely spread through surrounding communities. Landholdings in northern Australia tend to be large and few, so a government that builds them a dam it will basically be donating public money to a small group of people who don't pay tax and aren't even Australian.
  • The Co-Chairman of ANDEV, Gina Rinehart, lives far to the south of the Tropic of Capricorn, in Perth. Dominic Talimanidis, Director of the North Australia Project at the Institute of Public Affairs, also lives far to the south of the Tropic of Capricorn - in Melbourne, as does the Shadow Minister responsible for confusing this with a policy idea, Andrew Robb. All three are incurring vastly inflated labour costs. If these people won't live their own proposals there is no reason why anyone else should.
  • As to 'immigration' magically solving labour-shortage issues in northern Australia, I'd suggest that Gina Rinehart saw the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory at an impressionable age and won't be told there's no such place as Oompa-Loompa Land from which sufficient numbers of willing and underpaid workers can be drawn.
  • Forget about setting up some sort of Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine because it already exists and has done for a hundred years. If you were in a position to do so, you'd write them a huge cheque to encourage them to keep up the good work and challenge the government (the incumbents and/or the opp-pose-ition) to match it - this would have far more credibility than sitting around in Perth or Melbourne dreaming up ways of spending taxpayer money by people who would rather avoid contributing, and proposing entities that exist already.
  • Alternative to previous point: set up the Lang Hancock Centre for Tropical Medicine (motto: "Get out of bed and do some bloody work!") and see how you go attracting serious research talent.
  • Speaking of health, if government was serious about this proposal it would be building hospitals, schools and other social infrastructure in northern Australia. It would be costing that infrastructure and preparing detailed assessments about labour needs. In the absence of such planning, with attendant budget estimates and opportunity costs etc.
  • The government has avoided deploying ADF personnel to northwestern WA for very good reasons. ADF personnel are well-trained, fit, work in teams, follow instructions, and are underpaid compared to mining industry norms. If you wanted to cut the Defence budget and our operational readiness, you'd send them to areas where they earn a fraction of their neighbours.
  • If you expect government to build all this infrastructure up north, proposals like this and this and that - and donations to the vehicle industry on which they run - will need to be revised (at the very least, journalists should question them). Think about what we could have done with all that money flushed down the Ord. It's either-or in this budget climate, not all-this-and-more.
  • Where is the Australian FMCG company that could actually ramp up exports to Asia if required (because only then do we even get to the idea of a "northern foodbowl")?
  • Given the shelving of Olympic Dam (south of the Tropic of Capricorn) and Ravensthorpe (likewise), what problem is this 'solution' trying to solve? Engineering types working in mining and construction should have a simple and firm answer to this question: what problem is this 'solution' trying to solve?
  • The Northern Development plan is pretty much limited to farming and mining, as it was in the 1960s. No Karratha Google, no Ayr Apple, nothing that takes away from those who would take more than they contribute.
  • Why aren't Aboriginal communities leading, or at least involved in, this push? Normally voluble people like Noel Pearson, Alison Anderson, and Bess Price seem very, very quiet on this arrangement.
Where the Coalition's push for northern development moves from merely being silly to being fraudulent and hypocritical comes when you look at recent political history in, of all places, South Australia:
  • In the 1970s the SA government proposed to build Monarto to alleviate overpopulation in Adelaide. The Liberal Opposition regarded it as an ill-conceived and expensive extravagance;
  • In the 1980s the SA government proposed to build a Multi-Function Polis to boost hi-tech employment in (not-necessarily overpopulated) Adelaide. The Liberal Opposition regarded it as an ill-conceived and expensive extravagance;
  • In the last decade the SA government sought to facilitate a mine at Olympic Dam that would consume more power than the city of Adelaide. Who knows what the Liberal Opposition thought of that? Do you think such a power-hungry entity, mining uranium amongst other things, would have set up a nuclear power station at its own expense to show how it's done?
The Coalition is basically proposing a dozen Monartos in northern Australia. They'd be dual-function polises (farming and mining). The main argument against the "northern development" proposal is that those proposing it are refusing to face up to the electorate and economic situation that exists and seeking to socially-engineer a society that is more amenable to keeping them in office:
... Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

- Bertolt Brecht The Solution
There is something to Craig Emerson's quip that Abbott can't even be positive about own policies. Suspicion immediately falls upon Peta Credlin, who loathes Robb and probably thought such a leak would not rebound upon the leader to the extent that it has. Why does anyone think there's a scrap of electoral kudos in a 40-year-old idea that is so obviously doomed? What's the alternative?

With education and health - always big issues in Australian elections no matter what pollsters say - there are signs that the old ways won't do and that people are more open than some might imagine to trying new ways of doing things. Chris Pyne's insistence that the status quo of school funding is ridiculous. Peter Dutton's pronouncements would be just as silly if there were any. Neither man can maintain the assertion that local boards will fix more problems than they cause, or make worse. They simply aren't offering solutions to actual problems facing this country.

With his backdown on supporting people and communities with alcohol problems, and a couple of leaks, we would describe him and his team as in disarray if only these events had happened to the government. Abbott's problems run far deeper than that. This is the last election when the Liberals can dig their heels in and demand a return to all things Howard (well, except Howard himself, and Costello, and the heady pre-GFC economy ...).

Abbott suppressed initiative and centralised policy development in his own office, which he stuffed full of control-freak message numpties. Journalists should not be forming mutually-beneficial relationships with such people but going around them. Moderates of old would have bucked centralisation in the leader's office, but the hollow shells that remain have happily gone along with Abbott because they see no other alternative.

In order to cement his own position, Abbott has leached the Liberal Party of its capacity to articulate how the country could be governed differently and what it might look like if it so chose. That capacity will not return soon, either. Warmed-over ideas from the 1960s accrue no interest in the vault and get overtaken by new ideas, the development of which the Coalition play no part. They need to expire, and be seen to expire, publicly and unavoidably. New, big ideas from the Liberals will need a track record of success that they currently lack before they can take their forfeited place among those who help this country grow and prosper.

06 February 2013

The impact of Michelle Grattan

Long-serving press gallery journalist Michelle Grattan announced yesterday that she would be leaving Fairfax to work in a couple of other roles (one of which puts her under a former Fairfax editor). I've long thought she was an irrelevant anachronism but the journosphere as one disagrees: what does it mean to be a significant journalist?

The journosphere loves Grattan because she's stuck around for forty years in an industry that is increasingly uncertain. In an industry led mostly by clueless and arrogant dickheads, Grattan is mostly nice to her colleagues and takes pains to show newbie journos the ropes around Parliament. Female journalists in particular speak highly of her, in an industry with few female role models. She meets the journalistic imperative of being able to churn out 600 words on demand. She reports on things that journalists think are important.

She checked and re-checked facts with politicians before they became part of her stories. This doggedness impresses journalists, politicians, and others in the politico-media complex no end, because they tend to be people in pursuit of the snappy line or the knockout blow and resent having to do the sort of slow, hard grind that was a feature of Grattan's work.

Michelle Grattan joined the Federal Parliamentary press gallery in 1971. In that time she has covered 16 Federal elections, and seen government change political complexion five times, with dozens of changes to the leadership of both government and opposition over that period. She has a wealth of experience to draw upon, and she clearly put it to use for the benefit of grateful journalistic colleagues. She may even use it for the benefit of students at the University of Canberra.

The people left out of the Grattan value equation were the public at large, readers of the various publications which employed her.

For people who don't follow politics closely, but who felt a duty to keep up from time to time, a Grattan article was easily digestible. It reported petty, mundane activities and then linked them to the careers of political participants, as though the fate of those individuals - if not those of their parties, or even the nation! - rose or fell on the basis of those activities.

They rarely did, of course. For Grattan, politics was something that took place within one of two buildings in Canberra. Outside the building was a continent, several excluded-for-immigration-purposes islands and a world that acted as passive recipients of whatever came out of the particular building in use at the time. From inside that building came announcements, largely unconnected to policy developments in that area or to self-interested lobbying efforts, and almost never followed up as to their effect in the country beyond. Wash, rinse, repeat, for four decades.

For people who do follow politics closely - and who are avid readers of Fairfax publications - Grattan's offerings were thin fare. It may be true that if Tony Abbott does not succeed he runs the risk of failure, but there is more to it than that. She had a wealth of experience to draw upon, yet she set it aside in favour of formulaic reporting of the same old same-old, trying to make it sound fresh and exciting and mostly failing. Her daily journalism is an odd combination of grind and hype: each article stands like a bowl of tepid porridge with a lit sparkler stuck into it.

When Grattan wanted to provide context, she wrote a book. Her first book, Can Ministers Cope? (co-authored with Patrick Weller), dealt with the relationships between politicians and the public service. It was written in 1981 and remains a key work in that field, despite developments in both public sector accountability and political behaviour since that time. Her next book, Reformers (again co-authored, with Margaret Bowman) presented interesting people in a dull way. Her next book, which she edited, provided useful introductions to the first 25 Australian Prime Ministers.

Grattan never attempted the High Road of Big Themes, like Paul Kelly and Peter Hartcher. She did not attempt to collect wacky anecdotes (books which are, in effect, the author's Greatest Hits reel) like Laurie Oakes. She reported what was in front of her and was incurious about how taxes brought into the capital were expended in the delivery of public services, and how the delivery of those services framed how politicians were perceived, and how politicians thus perceived went about the communities that they supposedly represented. Her pronouncements and predictions on Fran Kelly's Radio National show had no value at all.

A prime example of the failure of this approach is the figure of Eddie Obeid as revealed by the NSW ICAC investigation. From a journo perspective, the demarcation is simple: Obeid was a member of the NSW Parliament, and therefore federal politics reporters can be forgiven for not having heard of him let alone reporting on his impact in federal politics. There is no reason why someone reporting on federal politics could not have examined Obeid's impact on their field: it's lazy journalism to sit in your office under a hill and be incurious about the factors that influence politicians. This isn't limited to who did or didn't stay at a ski lodge; a journalist needn't have to wait for an announcement.

Another is the repeated attempts of President Obama to schedule a visit to Canberra. Each time he scheduled and postponed, Grattan commented on it. When he eventually came and spoke, Grattan commented on that too. The fact that Obama's speech promised far-reaching change to Australia's foreign policy - and yes, its politics - has simply passed Grattan by. She has treated Obama like a blow-in to Federal politics (which seat does he represent?).

What was important to Grattan was who was making the announcement. What was important to those making the announcement was that Michelle Grattan noticed and passed it forward to the then-large readership of The Age. And so the politico-media circle went around: Grattan noticed those who were important, and those who were important were those whom Grattan noticed, and what those people did was important because Grattan noticed what they did, etc. It must have been fun while it lasted.

Male politicians knew to butter Grattan up, and they did. Women politicians, a minority for most of Grattan's day, found The Doyenne would ignore them if a man of equal stature was making an announcement of equal import. As recently as 2006 she found it hard to believe that Kevin Rudd depended on Julia Gillard to get the numbers to roll Kim Beazley, preferring to believe - and pretend to her readers - that Rudd was a force of nature in himself.

Julia Gillard is the first Prime Minister in Grattan's long experience who did not engage in a concerted campaign of buttering her up before taking the job. Gillard appears less frequently in Grattan's articles 2007-10 than she did elsewhere in the media; since then Grattan has given her substantially less than an even break, and not just because Abbott plays her to get a good run.

Gillard had the effrontery, the sheer gall, to go for the Prime Ministership without even pitching the idea to The Doyenne. By the time Grattan discovered that Rudd was in trouble, he was finished. It was the biggest political story of 2010 and she, with her ear to the ground and her finger on the pulse and savvy as billy-o, missed it. Since then, Gillard hasn't been able to do a single thing right according to Grattan. Her straight-journalist reporting would set out logical reasons why the PM did or did not do something, but the bruised ego would follow up with an insistence that it was not a good look.

Take, for example, today's serving-out-notice effort:
The Prime Minister's frustration that everything she does is seen in a bad light is obvious.

She feels herself, and indeed is, victim of a media storm but she knows those in her own ranks have fanned the winds.
The PM is the victim of a media storm, and there's nothing anyone can do about it. A small bunch of backbenchers can beat up the story and everyone else, Prime Ministers or Doyennes or whomever, is powerless to report on any other issue than this. This Is The Narrative, baby, and readers looking for more than The Narrative are wasting their time.

Grattan reported on the departure of Nicola Roxon and Chris Evans in the same way every other journalist did: disaster for a shambolic government.
JULIA Gillard's problems with her reshuffle will be how it is perceived.
What Grattan means here is: how it will be perceived by the press gallery, including Grattan. This is an insistence that the press gallery had the primacy that it had last century. It's wounded-ego stuff, the idea that how a policy plays (among journalists for a day or two) is more important than how it works (on people in the community, whose lives and livelihoods and other social amenity depends upon the policy under discussion). She mentions that Evans has been in the departure lounge for the past year, but it didn't seem to colour her coverage of his portfolio or of the Senate over that time.

It took a blogger, Paula Matthewson, to point out that governments lose a couple of senior ministers just before elections as a matter of course. All of those names Matthewson rattles off - Tanner, Reith, McLachlan - are people Grattan knew. There are journalists in the press gallery who were at school when Peter Reith was in his pomp, but Grattan has no such excuse. Grattan could and should have used her years of experience as a counterpoint of calm against the Narrative that this government is shedding ministers willy-nilly. Grattan herself, and all those journos who venerate her, have been shown up by a blogger.

The only reason to read Grattan was to find out what The Narrative is, so that you don't have to wade through all the other Narrative-surfers clogging up the old media's space and time. Grattan had the stature to make The Narrative about more than petty ephemera, but she chose to be one of the gang.

The articles on Australian politics in The Conversation were refreshingly free of The Narrative, but Grattan is likely to kill that; denying the very diversity she has called for at The Age. The site's editor is Andrew Jaspan, a former editor of The Age, so while this might be nice for both these old mates the reader has less incentive to check The Conversation for political articles in this election year. This is what 'new media' apparently means in this country: The Conversation becomes like The Age's A2 section from about ten years ago, while The Global Mail is basically SMH Spectrum from five years before that.

With the advent of ABC24, people can see and hear how the press gallery operates: Grattan had a knack for asking questions in her distinctive March-fly drone that were obtuse, or (when speaking to the current Prime Minister) rude, and so general that any experienced politician could simply bat them away. Her question to Tony Abbott at the National Pikers' Club last week was stupid, a wasted opportunity. She had little to show newbie journalists in how to extract value from a press conference and make attending them worthwhile; to make those who called them both scared to pick you for a question, and scared not to pick you.

A rarely-mentioned aspect of Grattan's career was that she had been appointed editor of The Canberra Times, one of the first women to be appointed to such a role. She was tasked with making that paper more like The Washington Post, with both excellent coverage of politics and the business of government more broadly, as well as relevance on a small-c civic level to people who live in that city.

Grattan had been a Canberra resident herself for more than two decades by then, but clearly had nothing in common with those of her neighbours who bristle at "Canberra" being used as shorthand for the actions of the federal government. She pinched a few politics journos from other Fairfax publications but failed at both tasks. She took newspapers for granted rather than seriously questioning what they were for, what they could do, and how they might have been saved from their current predicament.

The worst thing of all about Grattan was that she was and is a dull writer. No phrase, no sentence, no article of hers sticks in the mind or helps you understand a complex situation. Think about any major development in Australian politics 1971-2013, then go to her article on the matter the following day: marvel at her reverse-alchemy of rendering the interesting dull.

People who don't follow politics closely think it has to be dull, so they don't understand what the problem is. Her role in turning people off politics, in convincing them that it is about anything other than their hopes and concerns for the type of country we live in, cannot be underestimated.

For readers, the news is that just another journo has shifted jobs. Don't make your daughter a doyenne, Mrs Worthington. This is an attitude that will probably appal journos who regard her as the epitome of their craft, but so what?

03 February 2013

But enough about you, let's talk about Tony

Tony Abbott's brochure and speech show one thing clearly: he's had quite enough of talking about you. He wants to talk about himself. He wants you to think well of him, and hope this will be the same thing as thinking that he can adjust policy settings to get whatever you want (it isn't, but still). So long as he talks about what you want, Abbott gets what he wants, and everyone's happy: that, in a nutshell, is pretty much the Coalition strategy for government of this country.

The brochure has the word "plan" on the cover. Its purpose is for Liberals to say that Tony Abbott has a plan and that Julia Gillard doesn't. A plan contains a detailed proposal for a course of action: Real Solutions is no more a 'plan' than it is a 'sausage', or a 'grenade'. It's a statement of aspirations, not a plan, in the same way that buying a lottery ticket is not an investment strategy.

Unlike many public speakers Abbott didn't, of course, start with a "welcome to country" (an acknowledgement of Aboriginal custodianship of the particular part of the country the speaker is in): nobody would expect him to. He began with an acknowledgement that the country can be randomly terrifying and destructive and can take from you all that you have.

He started with a bit of disaster porn in an attempt to give his speech a gravity and a topicality that it turned out not to have. I had expected him to talk about his experiences with those communities, but he didn't have any. To turn up to a picfac and then go again doesn't make for a lot of human contact, nor any scope to shift a pre-defined agenda. Instead, he followed with a homily that is hard to hear, coming from him:
Here in Canberra, we must never forget that our task is to serve the Australian people.

The political battles we have to fight are but a means to that end.
It's the voters who decide what service they want and who best is able to provide it. Why anyone would decide, as Abbott and Pyne have, that hooting like apes through Question Time constitutes service to the Australian people was not made clear by Abbott. So, what do voters want?
It’s clear to us what you, our fellow Australians, want:
  • you want less pressure on your cost of living;
  • you want more job security;
  • you want our borders under control;
  • you want stability and certainty returned to decision-making; and
  • you want leaders you can trust.
Our plans for a better Australia are our response to you.

The carbon tax will be gone – so power prices will fall.

The mining tax will be gone – so investment and jobs will increase.

The boats will be stopped – because what’s been done before can be done again.

And the budget will be back in the black – so government has the resources to deliver the services that are really needed.

Our vision for Australia is about you.
That focus-group excreta is the policy core of the speech - so many begged questions, a journalist could spend every day between now and September exploring them. You want more job security, but are you going to get it under an Abbott government? Does the mining tax depress jobs and investment? Do you think any journalist asked any questions about those matters at all?

The begged questions are also present in the brochure. Just because the budget is in deficit during a recession, it does not mean that it is "out of control". You'd have to write off John Howard's entire time as Treasurer if you believed that.
As Australians, each of you has a right to elected leaders who are straight with you and who don’t waste your money ... So my pledge to you is that I won’t say one thing before an election and do the opposite afterwards because fibbing your way into office is what’s brought our public life into disrepute.
You would probably get thrown out of the National Press Club for laughing at that. For all its self-importance as an institution, the National Press Club would be poorer for such a policy; but then it allows Steve Lewis to walk in through the front door and chair its big events, so obviously this is the kind of club where you wouldn't want to be a member.
The Coalition understands that every dollar that government spends is a dollar taken from you in taxes today or two dollars taken from our children in a few years’ time when the debt has to be repaid.
This is as clear an example as you can get that the Coalition is living down to Oscar Wilde's definition of a cynic: who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. If you can spend a dollar today that yields you and your family five dollars down the track, you'd spend the money - but Abbott won't. That much-needed infrastructure and the shimmering promise of education he talks about is the much-needed infrastructure Howard didn't build.

The defeat of the Howard government showed that people don't necessarily want the buck back or are grateful to those who do so. On day one of the 2007 election campaign the Coalition promised $34b worth of tax cuts, but (especially when you consider their claim that they left Labor a $20b budget surplus) so what?
The Coalition’s last eleven budgets delivered ten surpluses.

This year’s deficit will be Labor’s eleventh in a row.
Why does he get away with refusing to link Australia's economic position to that of the global economy? Why hasn't the smart-alec Catch-22 of the budgetary position (surplus = sucking money out of the economy and driving up unemployment, deficit = broken promise and uncertainty) been quashed? There are two basic reasons why the Australian media give Abbott such an easy ride on big issues and tough questions, both of which benefit the Coalition.

The first is that the Murdoch media openly, unabashedly back the Coalition. Their presence in the Australian media and the virulence of their fervour is such that it skews any question of balance. Strangely, it is proud of its EXCLUSIVEs but occasionally it will upbraid other media outlets for not taking its EXCLUSIVEs as seriously as they do - and worse, the other outlets quail before this and run warmed-over imitations of Murdoch pieces.

Second, the non-Murdoch outlets want a contest, even though there is no contest of ideas. The government has policies and the opposition has modifications. Same asylum-seeker policy, but TPVs. Same defence policy, but - um, any change would involve new money, so let's leave that. The non-Murdoch media did this with last year's US election, framing it as a close contest when in fact President Obama won resoundingly.

Regardless of the agendas of their proprietors, for press gallery journos, it's personal. Gillard is right to disdain the press gallery given that her speech was given over to her glasses and the election date, and the fact that the press gallery like Abbott and they're going to give him an easy ride and there's nothing you can do about it.

It was about this point that Abbott began reading his speech in the same tone that one uses when reading to children, not the way one talks to adults about the problems and opportunity facing the nation. The audience before him were journalists and Coalition MPs, but to the unseen audience far beyond it looked like he was patronising us.
Let’s be clear.

The coming election will be a referendum on the carbon tax.
After all the evidence that this scare campaign hasn't worked, he is still plugging away at it. If you were an experienced journalist you would wonder if this obtuse quality would have any bearing on the sort of Prime Minister he'd be, but if you're a press gallery dill you'd just accept that is Tony being Tony.
Here at the Press Club 12 months ago, I outlined the Coalition’s plan for a stronger and more prosperous economy, and a safe and secure Australia.
No you didn't. There is a reason why that blogpost is the second-most viewed post on this blog, and that is because no journalist examined that speech as closely as I did.
So far, the Coalition has made literally dozens of big policy commitments:
No it hasn't. It's done a bit of trimming. It doesn't really have a fundamental problem with the Gillard government but it wants to look like it's offering a real alternative, so it offers desultory efforts like these:
We’ll abolish the carbon tax – because it’s the quickest way to reduce power prices.
After years of underinvestment in power generation, and misinvestment in the wrong technologies, "quickest" is not what we're after here.
We’ll abolish the mining tax – because it’s the quickest way to boost investment and jobs.
Think of all the investment and jobs that could be created if all the $0 that has been paid in mining tax was redirected. They think we're mugs, don't they.
And we’ll cut red tape costs by at least $1 billion a year – to give small business a much-needed break.
No you won't.
By restoring the jobs growth of the Howard government, there’ll be two million more jobs over a decade.
To achieve that, we'd need a global economy to be overheating as it very much isn't now. I guess you're just not made for these times.
There’ll be border protection policies that have been proven to stop the boats.
Got those already, and they are not proving much at all.
There’ll be a swift start on Melbourne’s East-West link, on Sydney’s WestConnex and on Brisbane’s Gateway motorway upgrade.

And the Pacific Highway will finally be duplicated well within this decade.
No there won't.
We’ll reduce emissions by planting more trees ...
... which will burn down or get washed away by increasing extreme weather events. Not good enough.
There’ll be a one-stop-shop for faster environmental approvals.
No, there'll be an eight-stop-shop because you're going to shunt environmental assessments back to the states and territories, remember?
There’ll be the same penalties for union officials and company officers who commit the same offence.
What, none? When David Coe died the death of a reckless fool last month at a high-end US ski resort, the MSM business pages were full of clowns recounting what a great guy he was. Mind you, Abbott has nothing but good to say about Kathy Jackson.
There’ll be schools and hospitals run by community leaders, not by distant bureaucrats, so they’re more responsive to the parents and patients they serve.
This is not a recipe for improving schools or fundamentally changing in response to needs of the 21st century. Community leaders in areas where schools underperform are looking for guidance, and you're admitting that guidance won't be forthcoming. Hospital boards add nothing to governance and Abbott will stack them with busybodies seeking to frustrate abortions and euthanasia by measures beyond the law.

The brochure claims that bureaucrats are "unaccountable", which demonstrates such a lack of understanding of how government works that it may as well have been written by one of those fringe parties that never comes close to getting any of its members up. You can imagine the "school boards" Abbott would set up, teaching creationism and wasting government-funded medical research by claiming Gardasil is a poison.

The brochure claims:
We will establish a bi-partisan parliamentary committee jointly chaired by both sides of the Parliament, with Members and Senators with a strong personal interest in making the NDIS happen.
Bullshit. This will be political trench warfare, blocking and obfuscating with no regard for disabled people and their carers, a gravy-train for NGOs that have little involvement with disabled people currently and a tough time for smaller organisations strong enough in expertise to call the Coalition out.
We will restore transparency, certainty and confidence to the process by which medicines are listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) – ensuring medicines are listed on the basis of advice from the independent Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee, not on the whim of
the government.
Remember Abbott on RU486? I do. That's why this is bullshit.
We will support our veterans by properly indexing the Defence Force Retirement Benefits and Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefit military superannuation pensions and we will deliver this in our first Budget.
That's all very well if you assume that veterans are mainly elderly people past retirement age, as was the case under Howard and previous governments. Increased military commitments over the past decade meant that there are more veterans - including those with longterm care needs - who are of working age. This means a whole new way of thinking about veterans' affairs, including greater expenditure. No sign of that kind of thinking here - the reference to veterans was stuck under "Older Australians".
There’ll be a new Colombo Plan that’s a two way street between Australia and our region sending our best and brightest to study in the region and bringing their best here.
Stop referring to it as 'Colombo Plan'. This will require more and better diplomacy than the Coalition has shown themselves to be capable of. Reminds me of a Politically Homeless proposal of long ago, actually.
There’ll be a comprehensive review of childcare so it’s more responsive to the 24/7 needs of today’s working families.
That's it? You're going to hit the ground reviewing? Is Margie Abbott the only Liberal with any expertise in this area?
There will be no unexpected changes that are detrimental to people’s superannuation.
Unexpected by whom? You're already cutting assistance to low-income earners.
There will be no further reductions in defence spending – that’s already fallen to the lowest level, as a percentage of GDP, since 1938.
Where's the money coming from? More importantly - where's it going to (in terms of new defence initiatives) and where's the bloat?
And we will protect spending on medical research where Australia’s talented scientists give us such a comparative advantage.
Unless it's research into reproduction or stem-cells, of course. Besides, don't we want a government that will increase spending on medical research? Maybe it's just me.
Between now and polling day, we will be constantly developing our policy commitments so that you know exactly what will happen should the government change.
That's the point at which any self-respecting journalist should have gotten up and left. The same old same-old.
Our fibre-to-the-node plan will deliver superfast broadband for a fraction of the price and in a fraction of the time required to deliver fibre to the front door.

And Malcolm Turnbull is the right person to give Australians a 21st Century network because he is one of Australia’s internet pioneers.
Turnbull's scrappy policy has been hammered by the tech press to the point where he is no longer able to defend it; Abbott will have Buckley's. ICT is one area (health is another) where people defer to experts; the Coalition has learned nothing from their debacle at the last election.
And when this government claims that it’s attacking “middle class welfare”, it’s just attacking the middle class – because the family tax benefit and the private health insurance rebate are tax justice for families, not handouts.
Really? Surely "tax justice" means cutting expenditure overall and lowering taxes, rather than handouts - right Joe? This split between paternalism and small government is a fundamental one within the Liberals and one would hope it had been better worked out by now. Once you start loading policies on top of it the cracks will open up, and no amount of stunt-work can save it.
Along the way, though, I’ve been a concrete plant manager as well as a Rhodes Scholar; a footy coach as well as a journalist; a nipper parent as well as a political adviser.
This guy has been a dilettante. As soon as things have gotten hard, he's flitted away and left problems for others to clean up.
I cherish my time on patrol with the Queenscliff surf club and with the local brigade – not just for the community service – but because working with people without a political agenda helps to keep politicians grounded in the real world.
This man does nothing to foster voluntary community organisations. This man has spent his career sneering at "do-gooders", the very people who hold those organisations - indeed, the very country - together. If experience as a journalist means anything, it should mean calling Abbott out on this crap. Abbott regards "people without a political agenda" as mugs, and treats them accordingly.
It’s why I’ve tried to be useful in remote communities as a teacher’s aide and builder’s assistant rather than just a glorified tourist from Canberra.
So hammering in some nails for the camera makes you a poser "builder's assistant"? There are people who do those jobs for a living and you have no insight into how or why or what they need to do their jobs better. We're expected to vote for a man in his fifties to do work experience (while unemployed people of that age can't even - oh, what's the use)?

And that's what we're meant to buy here: the Tony Abbott Action Figure, with accessories sold separately. Sluggos Tony, Firey Tony (about whom, more later), Handyman Tony, Bicycle Tony; a man trying to match it not with Julia Gillard, but with Barbie. No wonder it was such an insubstantial speech, from such an insubstantial man.
I’m ready for the election.

The Coalition is ready.
Oh no you're not.

Abbott is the most vain Liberal leader since Andrew Peacock, further demonstrated by his plastic face at this appearance. This does not reinforce an image of youthful vigour; it reinforces the image of a man who will not grow up, and who will block out reality with quick fixes rather than deal responsibly with what is really happening.

Good on Lenore Taylor and Laura Tingle for asking Abbott about Ashby-Slipper. Michelle Grattan's effort is the sort of thing that homeless people mutter as they push shopping trolleys around; junior journalists with real questions to ask Abbott must have chafed at Grattan's seniority without anything to learn from it.

The most telling moment was where he promised "hand on heart" that no member of the Coalition was involved in a conspiracy to use Ashby as a catspaw against Slipper - and then he placed his hand somewhere near his pancreas. From this we can conclude his promise is hollow - and that a man who has supposedly led a full life, and who aspires to high office, is not in touch with his own heart.

The arrest of Craig Thomson saw political partisans shelter behind either of two conspiracies:
  • the PM knew Thomson's arrest was imminent, so she called the election date early to lock the ALP in behind her and draw out Abbott on policy detail; or
  • the NSW government was in cahoots with Abbott to schedule Thomson's arrest so that Abbott looked like he has a real policy win.
As David Donovan points out, police go in heavy-handed when they have genuine fear (e.g. against violent criminals like Malcolm Naden) or when they are putting on a show. It looks like the verdict on Thomson will not be clear before the election, which is a pity overall and may not represent the triumph Liberals would hope.

Abbott is wildly praised by the press gallery for his speechcraft, but up and down the country there are high school prefects who are far more confident and capable speakers. He wants the press gallery to think he's a nice guy, which is how they regarded Kim Beazley. He really has put all his eggs into the MSM basket, while the Prime Minister hasn't. Maybe there's nothing we can do about it and the press gallery just like him and so there; we've just got to eat shit badly though-out Liberal talking points until after the Gillard government is re-elected in September. Finkelstein will be the least of their worries.