31 January 2014

The new marginals

Since the late 1960s, the marginal seats in Australian politics have been on the suburban fringes. The diviners in the major parties have devoted much energy to determining what people who live in those places think, and how to develop policies that mirror those thoughts.

The media has basically parroted the beliefs of the diviners. This does two things. It reflects those views back on the diviners. It makes people (whether in outer-urban marginals or not) think that major-party responses to such views are all there are, and all there can be, to modern politics.

As ever, the traditional media is reporting a new and different politics but it can't tell what it is. It can't tell because none of their existing sources spell it out for them, and because press gallery experience counts for fairly little they can't see it either. The marginal seats for this government are no longer on the periphery of the major cities (with one exception, which I'll get to later). The next election will be decided in rural and regional Australia.

The phenomenon of treating the outer-suburbs as a homogeneous constituency began with Whitlam Labor in the late 1960s and was vindicated by his 1972 victory. Since then, every time the government has changed, outer-suburban marginals have gone with the winning side. Look at this list of electorates won at the last election (thanks to Antony Green and to the tweep who pointed this out): the ones marked (**) are those with new MPs with different party alignment to those elected in and before 2010. Many of those, like Lindsay and Robertson (NSW) or Petrie (Q) or La Trobe (V) are pretty much standard outer-suburban marginals.

Students of political behaviour tend to be more reliable than pollsters, and they note that marginal seat MPs tend to get re-elected at least once. There are exceptions, of course, like Maxine McKew and whoever denied Kevin Rudd in 1996, but basically most of the (**) crowd can expect to hold the line next time. This leads people to assume that Abbott will have at least two terms in office.

Nothing is better as a result of this government having been elected, not a scrap of "glad confident morning" for anyone other than gloating loyalists who waited too little and gained more than they can handle. It has applied the reverse-Midas touch to every issue facing the nation. The idea that this stuff-up squad will be able to deftly outmanoeuvre the entire union movement as unemployment rises is the stuff of fantasy.

In every new government is the seeds of its destruction. Malcolm Fraser won office by outfoxing Labor with the Governor-General, and lost it when Labor outfoxed him as he went to the Governor-General again. The people who voted for Howard in 1996 voted for Rudd in 2007 on much the same basis. In 2013, the seats to watch were not the outer-suburban marginals - but for lasting impact you have to watch two regional seats, Indi and Fairfax.

The campaign for Indi, with its combination of grass-roots community activism, marketing savvy and social-media acuity, has been covered here and there and elsewhere. McGowan ran the sort of community campaign that Bob Katter threatened to run but never did. That result has put the wind up the entire Nationals organisation, and exposed them as a hollow shell where a vibrant community party once had been. It has put the wind up rural Liberals like Bill Heffernan; once regarded as a wily old bull but now just an old man with nothing useful to say, and no time to start again.

The Coalition holds the majority of rural and regional seats by default and has nowhere to go but down. Members in those seats have almost all had more than one term in office (Barnaby Joyce, newly elected to the House, does not count as a newbie; watch him squirm at State of Origin time), they've had a fair go. Drought, and issues like fracking or water-use conflicts, will see more community-based activism and less resort to the blandishments of the Coalition.

This government thinks it's good at playing up issues through brinkmanship, but it isn't. Abbott's negotiations for government in 2010 showed how bad they are, and how little they've learned since. The 'debt crisis' has been utterly negated, as has the idea that the carbon tax is killing the economy. The people who've learned most about brinkmanship are the Nationals. They are at the abyss, it is two minutes to midnight for them, and anything that pushes this government into decisions where the rural/regional members don't want to go means the whole government goes over the edge.

This country has long promised to be "the food bowl of Asia", providores of fine food in bulk to a hungry and growing region. Insofar as this government can be said to have any policies at all, this was one of them. It is fair to start judging them against that record.

If we are to succeed as exporters of high-quality food, we need high-quality food handling and processing companies. We need people who understand Asian food markets, and there is scant proof that such persons exist and/or are being developed through a career path in target-market countries. The people who ascend to run Australian food companies tend to be cost-cutting accountants.

Graincorp is a badly-run Australian company (spun off from a government entity, a corporate history designed to cultivate the dumb arrogance of a big private sector company married to the inertia of a government department - see also Telstra). In theory, it would be overtaken by a better-run competitor; in practice, Archer Daniels Midland was prevented from putting Graincorp out of its misery without other misery-abatement solutions being available.

It was cheeky of Coca-Cola Amatil to ask the federal and Victorian governments to bail out SPC Ardmona, but both those governments did bang on about food exports and jobs in rural areas, so it was worth a shot. Is the government serious about that "food bowl" stuff, and if so where's the proof? Rural MPs' brinkmanship is being explicitly invoked in the neighbouring seat of Murray, because party discipline is so tight that no allowance can be made for a long-serving local member to go off pop at a decision affecting their electorate.

Australia Post will not become the fifth pillar of the banking system. It will not develop innovative payment solutions as a hub for local communities. It will not even become a dynamic delivery service like DHL did. It will become a bloated irrelevance and will have to be killed off, because of this government's limited vision and capacities.

As for Fairfax: one of the Coalition's toughest and smartest backroom boys, James McGrath, fled before the prospect of contesting the seat. His replacement was edged out by Clive Palmer - one of Antony Green's (**) MPs - probably because of gems like this:
... more jobs, higher wages and better services for all Australians ... keep fortnightly pension and benefit increases, help small business employ people, get the Budget under control ... Only the Coalition offers our country a competent, experienced and united government that is focused on delivering real change for our country.
That hasn't even worked for Ted, never mind anyone else.

Every rural/regional MP, within the Coalition or without, now knows that if they go to this government for help with a major employer in their electorate they will be sent away with a clip over the ear. A government handout will cultivate self-reliance in some people, while other programs do the opposite. Every rural/regional MP inside the Coalition, and every wannabe Coalition candidate, knows that if they promise to stand up for their community Peta Credlin and Joe Hockey will screech at them, and background journos that they're not team players anyway.

The government will dish out little projects to MPs who behave, which will be taken for granted by all sides the next election. Coalition MPs and candidates are sitting ducks waiting to be picked off by independents and stuffed about by the wide boys in both party head office and Canberra.

This government doesn't have a job-creation strategy. The job-shedding strategy with Holden and SPC will look nihilistic, but only if Shorten starts framing Abbott thus right now, so the impression sinks in and cannot be shifted.

In the horse-race politics of someone like Michelle Grattan, what's bad for the Coalition is good for the ALP. Labor holds few regional electorates and its head offices are not geared to win many more. Its preferences can boost independents standing against the Coalition in those seats, but absent compelling strategies and candidates it cannot win them. Labor's power structure is such that nobody will fail politically for failing to win seats the party has never held. Labor's shadow minister for agriculture and rural matters is Joel Fitzgibbon; enough said about his abilities, and about Shorten's foresight for wasting a promising role on such a drongo. You'd have to fancy an independent to knock him out of Hunter.

Labor does hold some regional seats - many of whom are women - but, um, yeah. It should target the following seats but it doesn't know how:
  • Gilmore (NSW)
  • Cowper (NSW)
  • Wide Bay (Q)
  • Hinkler (Q)
  • Leichhardt (Q)
  • Forde and/or Flynn (Q)
  • Lyons (T)
  • Gippsland (V)
  • Grey (SA)
  • Durack (WA) and Capricornia (Q) - representing communities disrupted by FIFO miners
Apart from Drew Hutton, nobody in the Greens is orienting their party toward land conservation or "brown" issues. The politics of that party is inner-urban Trotskyites vs other patchouli-scented suburbanites, and for existing members the emergence of rural blocs far from public transport is too wiggy to contemplate. You may as well have Indonesians voting as having knots of community-minded rural Australians upsetting the internal dynamics of the Greens.

We are going to end up with a sizeable number of independent rural/regional MPs in the next parliament, acting as 'honest brokers' between the urban parties. Major parties hate 'honest brokers' much more than they hate their opponents. Maybe the Abbott government will be returned but it won't get the benefit of the doubt. Imagine Margie-and-the-girls at rural-town shows, professing delight at steers and giant pumpkins in a feeble attempt to smooth over real concerns about education and jobs and water: here, have a brochure.

As it deals with its new paradigm the Coalition will probably have to do without one of its key personnel. With his knuckle-headed comments about Filipino porn stars and nobbling the ABC (the same ABC that gave the government its pretext to investigate the CFMEU), Mark Textor has clearly lost a plot that was always a mystery if you never took him at face value. What did Dick Wirthlin teach us about social media? Nothing, and the sheer depth and breadth of that nothing is swallowing up someone whom gullible Liberals, press gallery mouth-breathers and dills generally, regard highly and will miss without being able to properly articulate why.

Recently Textor took a holiday from politics to do some bicycle work and gobble up their website with pictures of himself. Nobody seemed to realise that the very dickheads who bully and injure cyclists are those he's spent his career cultivating: oafs, Alan Jones listeners, and other incorrigible morons. If Frank Luntz is having doubts then the post-Textor age of Australian politics is surely drawing nigh.

Shorten is hoping to give Labor the benefit of the doubt, but hopefully he brings other more tangible benefits too. He is more likely to adapt than Abbott to the new regionalism, where the Nationals fall away and are replaced by independent taskmasters. Adaptation to said taskmasters being the key lesson here - and while the Coalition have their own taskmasters, we'll see about them.

Update 2 Feb: it isn't only in Federal politics where regional electorates are the new marginals, as Farrah Tomazin explains.

19 January 2014

Scott Morrison should be sacked

... but he won't be, and that's why the Abbott government is pretty much done for.

It is not OK to conduct military incursions into other countries' territories. It has never been OK. Morrison promised never to comment on operational matters, but he had to comment on these 'repeated incursions' before the full details came from Indonesia, or from some source other than his own mouth.

All the PR smarties tell you that if you have bad news, get it out early and get it out yourself. Some news, however, goes beyond mere 'bad news' or even a misunderstanding. Military incursions into other countries' territories is in this category.

The other category error that Morrison made was to blame the Navy, as though it blundered into Indonesian waters:
It was brought to my attention at just after 4.00pm Wednesday that Border Protection Command assets had, in the conduct of maritime operations associated with Operation Sovereign Borders, inadvertently entered Indonesian territorial waters on several occasions, in breach of Australian Government policy.

I should stress that this occurred unintentionally and without knowledge or sanction by the Australian Government.
It strains credibility that the Navy veered off course and did not realise its vessels were in Indonesian waters. The Navy sent its vessels where government told them to go, and did what government told them to do. It is not OK to blame the military for government policy blunders, and ultimately such a tactic will work against the government rather than the military.

From now on people in the military are more likely to leak against this government. People in the military are more likely to have credibility that politicians lack. Any difference of opinion between a politician and the military will be resolved in favour of the military (with the possible exception of bullying allegations). When you consider that military personnel vote Coalition more than any other occupational grouping, this is a political own-goal as well as a governmental one.

Australia needs a long-term relationship with Indonesia more than it needs this or that lot of politicians in government. That relationship will change as Indonesia grows in economic and political power. A big part of Australia's economic growth prospects lie in our increasing engagement with Indonesia. This government has no capacity for improving relations with Indonesia. Even after this government loses office, the silly-buggers of the past four months will be hard to live down.

Almost every Prime Minister in Australia's history has been confronted with the prospect of politicising the military. On almost every occasion, they have flinched and backed down from doing that; indeed, the Coalition went too far in not standing up for service personnel returning from Vietnam and giving them fewer benefits than returnees from World War II got from the cash-strapped Chifley and Menzies governments.

Veterans from Afghanistan will get fewer benefits still, and naval personnel injured at sea while intercepting boats will get less than that. This is worth remembering when watching Abbott and his ministers proclaim themselves strong supporters of the military, and when the press gallery simply pass on words and images to that effect without comment or qualification.

If Howard had been Prime Minister, he would now be in Jakarta apologising, particularly to Mrs Yudhuyono. His smarter advisors would be casting around for someone with the same credentials with Indonesia that Dr Marty Natalegawa (PhD, ANU) and Dewi Fortuna Anwar (MA, Monash) have with this country. He would realise that a strong relationship with Indonesia is important and that anyone who had to go to maintain that would go.

Peter Reith lied about the military to advance the political prospects of the then government, and his own career. He left politics abruptly, suggesting that Howard basically lost confidence in him. Today, in the emerging Fairfax tradition of commissioning jowl-wobbling outrage from grumpy old farts as clickbait, he can make catty remarks about the Liberal Party presidency but he has little to offer (either from his own mouth or as an example) about how an elected government can and should relate to the country's armed forces as part of governing. Always be suspicious when a media tart goes to ground.

Peter Reith was once regarded by inside-Canberra sages as a potential future leader (while Reith has gone, many of said sages are still there). Senator Ian Campbell was pretty highly regarded when Howard sacked him for, um, whatever he sacked him for. David Jull was highly regarded within the Australian tourism industry, as Morrison was. None of the inside-Canberra reasons why Morrison is Too Big To Sack stand up.

The Liberal Party is organised around strong leaders; Labor has institutional checks and balances, but the Liberals are all about the Fuehrerprinzip. The Nationals can get a look-in when they bring quality to the table, as they did in the '70s with Peter Nixon and Ian Sinclair, but mostly they are passengers in a Coalition government.

Abbott is a weak Prime Minister: weak on ideas, weak on execution, weak on resolving conflict, weak on insisting that his team deliver more and better. The fact that he talks slowly is almost beside the point because his words seem to carry no weight. Because the press gallery are mugs, they agreed that his strutting around and declarative statements would make him a strong leader, and they are puzzled that the evidence before them contradicts their convictions. By this point in her Prime Ministership, Julia Gillard was pretty much written off by the press gallery.

What, then, should Abbott do?

Abbott isn't going to get rid of himself, though perhaps he should. When he was in South Africa, the big decisions on Holden and Graincorp were taken in his absence. He can commentate on the cricket, but not apparently on incursions into Indonesian waters. When the big decisions have to be taken, he's not exactly stamping his authority and nor is he conferring to find workable solutions. He's a passenger in his own government, not the pilot or even the navigator.

Getting rid of Bishop would be too hard. She would become a lightning rod for everyone who has their doubts about Abbott. We could end up with an unmarried woman who was a former law-firm partner in the Lodge with her male partner, and my goodness we can't have that.

Getting rid of "three star" General Angus Campbell would be too soft. Campbell was always human window-dressing and nothing would be achieved in scapegoating him, except to antagonise the armed forces still further.

Abbott hasn't thought through the implications of appointing Peter Cosgrove as Governor-General for our relationship with Indonesia. After hyping Cosgrove so much Abbott can't afford not to appoint him, as appointing anyone else would look like a slap in the face to a man widely admired in this country.

Getting rid of Morrison would be just right. The longer Morrison stays in office, the clearer it is that Abbott is not really sorry for the incursions, and that the whole policy of patronising Indonesia like we do Vanuatu or New Zealand will continue. Within the Liberal Party, nobody trusts Morrison: the right hate him because they regard him as a smarmy, self-promoting turd, while their opponents on the lesser right know him to be a smarmy, self-promoting turd. Right now he's doing nothing to turn around dicey polling numbers, but if he backs down altogether and starts weeping for the wretched cast upon the waters he is gone.

Like Kevin Rudd on 'the greatest moral challenge of our time', Morrison is finished no matter what he does. He isn't big enough to reinvent himself and spring clear of this current imbroglio, which is why he can't really 'resign' in any meaningful sense. He's just treading water and getting away with it. If you're the head of this government and you don't want the whole government to be similarly stuck, then you have no choice but to cut him loose and reframe the debate.

Mind you, Tony Abbott isn't one for public debate. He's never seen any good thing arise from public debate. Since he was at university, Tony Abbott aligned himself with powerful people and articulated their interests. The Catholic church and the monarchy are not democratic institutions, and neither is the Liberal Party in any real sense. As long as he's in with the decision-makers, he's happy to let what he regards as idle chit-chat run and run - but when the impressions of this government are so fluid and when simple declarative statements are contradicted by observable facts, he runs the risk that his own statements will be regarded as just more idle chit-chat, rather than the desired effect of Shut Up And Listen This Is Your Prime Minister Speaking.

It would be surprising, but not beyond the realms of possibility, for the Commission of Audit to decide that onshore processing is more cost-effective than Nauru or Manus Island. In the same way that only Richard Nixon could go to "Red China" without being red-baited by Richard Nixon, Tony Abbott could come to welcome boat-borne refugees without any of your "pick up the phone!" nonsense - but then, for the first time in his life, he would have to run a positive campaign and become a bigger person than he is. If you still believe that's possible, read this. Fat chance - not even with the considerable power of the office that he currently occupies.

16 January 2014

'The Prince' by David Marr

The summer holidays have given me a chance to catch up on some books I had been meaning to read for a while.

The first of these was The Prince by David Marr. It's too late to respond to Quarterly Essay directly, and none of the sites that pay me to write would regard the following as current. The official responses are worth examining in themselves.

Marr aims to see what can be learned about Australia's most senior Catholic cleric, Cardinal George Pell, from his time in his native Victoria and his ascent there from seminary-bound schoolboy through to Archbishop of Melbourne. He seeks to do that through the prism of the Victorian Parliament's inquiry into child abuse and other organisations, specifically where it overlapped with Catholic institutions.

Marr has a vivid eye for the telling detail. It was hard not to weep for those parents who told their son that, if they were ever late in picking him up from their parish school, to wait in the presbytery - the very place where the boy was in most direct danger. His comment that Victoria was one of the most dangerous places to be a Catholic child was chilling: so much for the bogeys of Protestants, Muslims, and the dreaded secularists.

The people who have spent years playing down sexual abuse of children, as though such events are unfortunate but as inextricably part of childhood as grazed knees or name-calling, are the same morally defective people responsible for decisions to take newborn babies from unwed teenage mothers. They are the same people who decided that Aboriginal parents could not raise their own children. They are the people who decided that Pell must rise and others must make way for him. This is a systematic failure of moral leadership.

A central idea of preferring one religious denomination over others is a belief that yours holds knowledge about the human heart and the divine will for it that is lacking in other denominations and faiths. The long-standing and still widely-held idea that sexual abuse is a trifle blown out of proportion by those who have always stood against the Church, or that slut-shaming is the way to treat keening and sore post-natal mothers, reveals such an understanding to be deficient, if not absent, consistently over many years. The Church loses everything if it loses its moral authority, and while Pell might assert it most forcefully it would appear that those who share his assertions are doing the most to let the side down.

Those who feed the hungry, house the homeless, care for the ill and frail, and who teach the children - i.e. those who engage in the Church's core stated business - seem to be spend their lives on the fringes of the Church's operations, scrounging for resources and overwhelmed by a growing society with weakening social bonds. Yet, when the Church is under attack for covering up child abuse or other depredations, it is these people who are clutched to the bosom of the Church like so many human shields. We know who the strong people are in that organisation, and it isn't the blowhards like Pell.

Marr paints a picture of Pell as someone who is fundamentally incurious about others and who seemingly neither blossoms under adulation nor buckles under condemnation. The result is a man opaque to those looking for warmth, sympathy or human qualities other than gruffness.

Maybe Marr was out of his Sydney milieu in Melbourne, and yes he was restricted for time and space; but there are four areas where his reporting is unparalleled and I wish he had brought them to this story.

First, Marr is a former lawyer and showed, through his reporting for Fairfax and especially in his biography Barwick, that he has a keen ability to draw the drama out of dry legal proceedings and easy-to-miss lawyerly maneuverings. At key moments in Pell's career, spontaneous bands of highly effective lawyers have sprung to his defence and pulled him out of situations that crush lesser mortals. Marr hints at this, but doesn't really go after key consigliere within the Church who made possible its long and cross-jurisdictionally successful defence of the indefensible. Such a study is key to the book that is yet to be written about Pell and this chapter in the Church's history in this country.

Second, Marr has a keen eye in disputes of this kind for who cops it in the neck, and what resources they have to deflect or deal with the damage wrought upon them. A cursory understanding of Melbourne's suburbs would have shown that the weirdo priests Marr focuses on seemed to have been sent to low-socio-economic areas, like Sunshine and Doveton. Was this a random distribution? Both the Prime Minister and the federal Opposition Leader were once Catholic schoolboys, and it is interesting that neither tell the harrowing tales that befell their co-denominationalists elsewhere. Marr could have looked into this phenomenon to a greater degree than he did to draw the sorts of conclusions he hints at but does not quite put away.

Third, Marr makes much of Pell's political connections, yet the only evidence we see of it is when Premier Jeff Kennett fronts him with an ultimatum. This exception does not prove the rule that Pell is well-connected politically, and nor does it explain why these connections survive such widespread and deep injury to any constituency.

Fourth, you can't insist that sex is central to the story but that Pell seems like a sexless man. The Church has established and express procedures for defrocking priests who engage in conventional, consensual heterosexual relationships. It turns a blind eye to homosexuality and has fudged its response to the sexual abuse of children. This different treatment of sexual behaviour by its clergy is the inverse of its teaching for the rest of us (including those of us who aren't Catholic). The furtive explorations of his own sexuality that Marr described in the High Price of Heaven would be subject to the dichotomy of being both frowned upon and condoned in some way under the dualism that seems to operate within the Church.

The fastest way to diminish the kind of authority Pell and his supporters would seek to project is not by a frontal assault, but to say one thing and do the opposite.

All these are intertwined and few journalists pull them all off consistently well - Marr is one such, and his omissions are telling if understandable.

In the following edition of Quarterly Essay are a number of responses to Marr's essay by prominent Australians, the least of which was by Cardinal Pell himself. A three-sentence dismissal that could have been levelled at any critic, however well-intentioned or carefully considered, Pell's statement was nothing more than an ursine ad hominem swipe. It seemed both typical of the man and his refusal to engage with not only the political and legal, but also the moral questions surrounding child abuse within the various Church bailiwicks under his control. Marr was more than generous in describing Pell's response as "witty".

It was telling, and little considered by Marr or his interlocutors, how committed Pell was to the ascent of Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI, and how ambivalent he seemed about his erstwhile champion when that papacy ended.

Geraldine Doogue was disappointing in trotting out the canard that it might be desirable, or even possible, to extricate the Catholic Church from Australian public and community life. By describing the Church as a single organisation engaged in a range of good works, she gives it the very corporate existence that the lawyers deny it has when the writs fly in seeking damages. Neither Marr nor Doogue consider this, nor the human-shield element, which is a pity - although Marr quite rightly says that those who do good works should not be regarded as providing cover, or balance, for the evil-doers.

Doogue's reference to Pell as 'closet atheist' (using an anonymous source - so it's not just the press gallery who do that) was interesting. It follows a phenomenon within the Church of England in the UK, where church leaders profess their scepticism about the virgin birth and other tenets of the faith. If so, this arrogant man cannot bear an authority greater than himself, invoking the Church's own patchy history in dealing with governments.

Doogue should have considered how different her own experience of faith might have been had she been accosted by a cleric as a child. All Catholics, all people of faith whose institutions are under examination by the Clelland Royal Commission, cannot fail to do this: there but for the grace of God, etc.

Michael Cooney and Robbie Swan were interesting from the perspective of Pell as a backroom operator, and how such a public man stumbles when the spotlight is upon him. Ironically, Swan's invocation of Chrissie Foster highlighted what should have been the Christian message in this matter: namely that the victim's rights trump all others until the wrongdoers have made restitution in full. Barney Zwartz carries off the neat balancing act of praising Pell for introducing 'The Melbourne Response' and condemning him for not monitoring and updating it as need presented itself over time; he also refutes Swan's biological determinism about sex. Frank Bongiorno described the sophisticated tolerance for matters sexual among Catholic schoolboys that seems mysterious to those with a less nuanced view of Catholic education, and as befits a boy genius who vaulted from Year 5 in 1980 straight to Year 7 in 1981.

Paul Collins articulated the cry of the powerless moderate against the controlling boofhead, and the hope for the Church that lies against Pell's example rather than with it; that in the triumph of the Santamaria style atop the Church (and beyond it, in government) is also its demise, with communism already dispatched and secularism barely dented, or even defined. This is the point Amanda Lohrey makes, that the Dark Ages never go away and that 'secularism' is an essential element for people to operate in the world, and particularly in a multicultural nation.

Rather crankily, Marr rails against restrictions on time and space, he insists on his sexual explanation while accepting that it explains little, but still insists he has delivered a comprehensive judgment. His insistence against some sort of moral balance sheet for the Church is important, like that a generation ago with the rejection of Geoffrey Blainey's Three Cheers/Black Armband ledger for the nation.

Marr didn't quite do justice to the Victorian parliamentary inquiry, which was about institutions other than the Catholics. He wasn't fair on the great mass of Catholics doing important work for little or no recognition. He didn't shine the journalistic spotlight on those who facilitate Pell, on those best placed to get him to change his ways. Still, David Marr has produced an important work that links grass-roots failings with the leadership of a large, ancient and complex organisation, and that is no mean feat.

08 January 2014

Cory Bernardi's enduring values

... There were children crying and colors flying
All around the chosen ones
All in a dream, all in a dream
The loading had begun
They were flying Mother Nature's silver seed
To a new home in the sun

- Neil Young After the gold rush
There was a time when a substantial proportion of the population was a member of a political party, when local branches actually were a representative sample of the community in a way that focus groups attempt but never quite succeed at recapturing. In such an environment, Cory Bernardi would have been an impossible candidate for office at the branch level, let alone state or federal. The creatures that live and thrive in a free-flowing river are different to those in a series of stagnant, shallow ponds.

Inspired by the Tea Party and its Christianist forebears in US politics, Cory Bernardi is on a death-or-glory mission to do one of two things:
  • drag the hollowed-out Liberal Party to the far right and bend it to his will, or
  • (more likely) create such friction that he leaves with a name, a follower-base and a war-chest that will survive his ultimately being cast out of a major party, like Brian Harradine and Don Chipp did.
He has been creeping toward this for a while, like a squirrel gathering nuts for when conditions get colder. Within the Liberal Party there is a self-flagellating element happy to encourage a rightward drift, and who confuse obstinacy with conviction, but it is self-defeating. Abbott got where he is today both by courting those people and doing nothing substantial for them. Expecting Abbott or other Liberals to condemn Bernardi is a waste of time and effort.

The Tea Party is not only notable for its ability to draw out idiots. It is notable for its ability to act as cover for large donors seeking to push legislation to advance their interests. This is what Hanson, Katter, and populists other than Palmer lacked: the ability to rabble-rouse and stay in the game.

Idiots tend not to have money and can't keep you going if you stumble; there is no positive narrative for simply doing what you're told by wealthy people. The Tea Party makes up for that, and the fact that it hasn't run out of puff yet inspires Bernardi. The fact that the Tea Party helped lose the Republicans the last two Presidential elections is neither here nor there - Bernardi has never been about advancing the Liberals over Labor. He is ambivalent about who's in government so long as he retains his own bully pulpit by whatever means.

Matthias Cormann visited the US and flirted with the Tea Party, but chose to get with the strength and is now in Cabinet. Over the next year or two Cormann will face a perfect storm politically - architect of unpopular cuts in Canberra, and in his home base in WA he will face the implosion of the Barnett government. Alex Hawke could have fulfilled the role that Bernardi is playing now, having been the heir to David Clarke's Christianist rabble, but by turning his back on Clarke he is playing a longer game even though Abbott doesn't trust him (Abbott's elevation of the equally distrusted Steve Ciobo offers hope to someone like Hawke). Bernardi has the field to himself, and there are political advantages and disadvantages in that.

Bernardi is a clever man who can rouse a rabble but who cannot persuade other equally clever people who take different views to himself. The reason why his travel entitlements claim is so extraordinarily high is because he has to travel far and wide to reach those who constitute his base, and who will sustain him once the Liberals grow weary of him. Let's hope he's not travelling on public expenses to promote a book whose proceeds will not go toward Liberal funds, or even Bernardi's pocket, but toward more rabble-rousing.

This profile usefully captures the embarrassment most Liberals feel toward Bernardi, but so long as he's inside the tent and bringing fringe preferences, he'll be tolerated. The bemusement that comes from Bernardi baiting easily-riled opponents of the government will evaporate once it becomes clear he is shaping perceptions by swinging voters, who were never fully convinced by this government anyway and whose support is desperately needed for it to stay in office.

Conservatives claim that centrist Liberals have a role in securing preferences from centrist parties but that they have an equally important role in securing preferences from Christianists, gunlosers, and racist anti-migrant groups. The election result put the lie to that, and conservatives bellyached that their people lost their places at the top table as a result of being passengers rather than drivers of victory. Less than a quarter of the swing away from Labor last September went to the Coalition - do you even know what Ricky Muir, Clive Palmer or Wayne Dropulich think about abortion?

Right now most conservatives are willing to place their faith on Abbott. The sheer absence of any actual achievements for conservatives will be noted by even the dumber ones at some point, and the hollowness of rhetoric from Maurice Newman and Bernardi. Conservatives were shafted when Abbott was handing out ministerial roles because they contributed nothing to the election result for the Coalition.

When Bernardi says he wants an "exchange of ideas", he means that he wants his opponents to exchange their ideas for his, no questions asked. In an exchange of ideas you take the chance that your own position may have to change in order to secure a result - this is the 'liberal' aspect of 'liberal democracy', and it's what clowns like this don't understand - if give-and-take only ever represents capitulation and loss, you're doing it wrong. His book contains no honest research, unlike other pro-family groups genuinely wrestling with issues like marital breakdown.

It's one thing to say, as Lenore Taylor and Andrew Porter have, that Bernardi is redefining the parameters of debate and making it easier for Abbott to look reasonably centrist when he adopts a right-wing position. This is what Abbott was thinking when he appointed Bernardi as his personal parliamentary secretary when in opposition, a gaambit that failed (here's what I wrote at the time). There are three reasons why this doesn't apply to what is happening now.

Firstly, abortion - Bernardi's chosen gambit - is an open question for very few Australians. Popular opinion has been pretty much fixed since the 1970s: it should be publicly available as and when required. Those who feel otherwise are few and not increasing as a proportion of the population, no matter how fervent they may or may not be or whether their number is adequate to support the Bernardis of this world. Bernardi also overreached when he went after blended families and workplace law reforms - not just because he's offensive, but because he obviously doesn't know what he's talking about.

The most powerful advocates against publicly available abortions are the churches. The churches do not have the power they once had, not only because of an increasingly secular and multicultural Australia but also because of their own failings (about which more in a later post), not the least of which are the sordid cover-ups and evasions arising from clerical and institutional child abuse. Bernardi cannot hope to fill the vacuum of authority in public debate left by incompetent archbishops. He can, however, fill the political vacuum left by Harradine and the Victorian DLP, one which Nile and Katter and Hanson grasp at but can never fully exploit.

Bernardi, a major-party incumbent, can be an ambassador from the Liberal Party to the fringe or the reverse. He is well positioned either way (or to put it slightly differently, he's all right Jack). This is why the SA Liberals were such mugs to hoist him atop their Senate ticket. The quality candidates within that outfit are not taking their chances in the big pond of national politics by taking on Bernardi, instead taking the surer shot on state politics ahead of this year's state election.

Secondly, Abbott's inner circle could not shut Bernardi up if they tried. They have given him no ministerial responsibilities to encourage him to be quiet, or at least to keep him busy. Bernardi is not a distraction from other issues with this government, like, for example, Morrison's increasingly weird humiliations of and petty self-defeating behaviour in the face of asylum-seekers. Modern media has more than enough bandwidth for more than one story at a time: old-timey news organisations, nostalgists who disdain social media, and press secretaries who aren't very good at their jobs, miss this important point.

Thirdly, and most importantly, Bernardi's intervention comes at the wrong time for Abbott. If Abbott was firing on all pistons and fulfilling all his major promises, popular or no, he would be in a strong position to bat away Bernardi's ravings as unrepresentative of the government. We would have a clear idea of who Abbott was and what he's about, and Bernardi would be seen clearly as inconsistent with that. As it stands, people are still wondering what this government is really up to and Bernardi is providing input to that opinion-forming process. The screaming from the attic cannot be unheard and inevitably spoils one's impressions of Mr Rochester and his parlour.

Again, SA Liberals putting him ahead of all other Senate candidates make it hard for the government to distance him from them. Contrast him with SA Labor's number one candidate: the party initially elected Don Farrell, who shared a lot of Bernardi's views. Farrell was replaced by Penny Wong, a politician capable both of principled stands and the give-and-take necessary to persuade those who are not party loyalists.

Abbott will eventually have to destroy Bernardi as he did Hanson. The difference is that Bernardi is smarter than Hanson and more inextricably part of the party organisation than Hanson was. Bernardi is a former state president of the SA Liberals, and though his old mentor Nick Minchin does not back him as strongly as he once did he has an established base within the party that Abbott can't reach. By contrast, Hanson was a member of the Queensland Liberals for less than two years, and was defenceless both from being expelled and from the flies who descended on her when her political career continued regardless. This necessity will not come at a time of Abbott's choosing.

Bernardi is playing a double game with the Liberals and the sooner they wake up to this, the better off they'll be. The fact that he gets away with this is a sign of weakness, not strength and confidence, on the Liberals' part. He imposes himself upon and defines them and not the other way around. When the Abbott government passes into history Bernardi, more than any other backbencher and even most ministers, will have played a role in its downfall. His career may well continue after Abbott has gone, just as Brian Harradine outlasted the Labor split and Whitlam. This is what Bernardi means when he talks about enduring values.

05 January 2014

On a different plane

I love myself better than you
I know it's wrong so what should I do?
I'm on a plain
I can't complain
I'm on a plain

- Nirvana On a plain
The Federal Government is proposing to purchase a new aeroplane to transport the Prime Minister, his staff, and a gaggle of handpicked press gallery journalists around the world.

The way that news.com.au reported it was interesting. The government is a victim of its own mixed messaging: if there really is a budget crisis, that is the very sort of expenditure item that can and should be deferred. The media is in a similar bind:
The bigger RAAF planes would also be fitted with the latest in global communications systems ensuring the Prime Minister is never out of touch with his cabinet colleagues and key officials.

At present the nation's leader is incommunicado whenever he travels on a VIP jet.
There is no reason why modern communications facilities must be installed on a larger jet. It would be a security risk having those facilities on an aircraft carrying a critical mass of personnel outside the government and the RAAF. As a justification for a new and larger aircraft, this is a non-sequitur.

Oh - and Abbott is the leader of the government, not the nation, as he himself made clear in the lead-up to the 1999 referendum.
The aircraft also lack modern day in-flight communications, such as those fitted to the US President's jumbo jet Air Force One, allowing leaders to stay in touch in transit.
The US President is the commander-in-chief of the largest military force the world has ever known; the Prime Minister of Australia isn't. The structure of the US military-foreign policy axis is such that the US President can never be incommunicado. There has never been a negative outcome from having the Australian Prime Minister incommunicado for a few hours, and it is hard to imagine any such development.
The BBJs were leased by the Howard government after then secretary of prime minister and cabinet, Max "The Axe" Moore-Wilton, convinced the government to force the media to make their own way to overseas events.

In 2007 media companies threatened to ignore official overseas visits altogether in the wake of the deaths of five Australians, including journalist Morgan Mellish, when the Garuda Airlines plane carrying reporters and officials crashed in Indonesia during an official visit by then ministers Alexander Downer and Phillip Ruddock.

"Our current position and that of Fairfax is that our editors and bureau chiefs will not send correspondents on commercial aircraft in countries where air safety is an issue, if there is no room for them on official aircraft," then News Limited chief John Hartigan said at the time.
Yeah, right.

First, nobody voted for Moore-Wilton; just because he advised something it didn't oblige the government to take that advice.

Second, as you'd expect, Hartigan's statement was empty. Neither Mellish nor Banham worked for him. Media organisations threatening not to cover meetings overseas is completely negated by government media tactics like this (thanks @NKW2). Journos shrieked that Abbott was avoiding their hard-hitting questions (thanks @Leroy_Lynch): this overlooks the fact that they don't do hard-hitting questions when it comes to Abbott, and that where they do his non-answers are not followed up.

Politicians dodge press gallery questions as a matter of course. Those questions are only ever followed up if the journos think the issue will spell the end of the career of the politician being asked; again, there is no fourth-estate public interest thing going on there.

A big new plane combining journos and the PM would not make for better reporting. They have no perspective and ask inane questions in Canberra, and neither altitude nor distance improves matters. Recall Abbott's dire Convoy of Maximum Offence around the Asia-Pacific soon after getting elected, and the insistence by the hand-picked camp followers that this disaster was in fact a triumph. Journos may hanker for relaxed off-the-record chats with the PM, but there is no fourth-estate justification for that as they don't make it into public reports.

Imagine you're a press gallery journalist sent on an overseas assignment with the PM. Imagine that for whatever reason, Peta is in a snit about you and/or your employer, and is playing no-speakies with you - or if something like this or this or that happens. Do you tell your employer not to pay the nominated fare? If so, what happens?

Should the Royal Australian Air Force really have to cover the costs of victualling this ferociously entitled bunch (the press gallery, not just the government) or should passengers be charged extra? Do not even get me started on how the press gallery selects its members and whom it excludes.
The Boeing 777 and Airbus A-330 each cost about $250 million and both can carry in excess of 200 passengers in VIP configuration.
Journalists are quick to tell you that the government charges fares on VIP aircraft, and that those fares are higher than commercial airline fares. Of course they are: commercial airlines fly set routes regularly to drive down the unit costs. Anyway, those fares confuses the issue of capital expenditure (the cost of acquiring something) with operational expenditure (the cost of running something once you've acquired it).

That's a quarter of a billion dollars, folks, at a time when the Australian dollar is depreciating at a rate of knots against the currencies of aircraft manufacturers, and at a time when it could it be better spent on - well, lots of things really. Do we have a budget crisis or not? Insert your own public-sector spending preferences for that amount here - how many mental health treatments for returning Afghanistan veterans, how many before-and-after-school childcare places, how many drunken clowns bailed out of pokey in Denpasar, etc.

The idea that press gallery journos are cool with the idea of One Big Plane, and have a reasonable fear that without it what happened to Morgan Mellish and Cynthia Banham might happen to them, is pretty silly. The idea that they are willing to trade off criticism of the government for the promise of a ride in such a plane is monstrous; not quite justification for shooting it down fully-laden, but getting there. There is no good reason why you couldn't have a commed-up smaller jet for the PM and staff, with a separate chartered jet for journalists also equipped with communication equipment, and for interaction to occur between the two in the air. Hell, why not send images straight back to Canberra, where all the facilities are already in situ?

There are dodgy parts of the world, to be sure, and if you ask an old foreign correspondent they will probably regale you with hair-raising tales of roughing it on Aëro-Dõdgi while being shelled, etc etc. You can bet, however, that the Australian Prime Minister won't be going to those places - too many potential asylum seekers for a start. A big damn aeroplane of the type being considered simply cannot land at airports other than with the most sophisticated equipment, which tend to be airports well covered by reputable commercial flights.

Foreign correspondents must laugh at their pampered colleagues in the press gallery, spoon-fed drops every day and demanding only the best travel should they be wrenched from their comfortable cocoons in Canberra. Imagine hard-bitten foreign corros refusing to go on any aircraft that doesn't comply with CASA standards or serve G+Ts on takeoff - then wonder no longer why the Australian media is cutting back its foreign bureaux.

At a time when even fewer people are concerned about politics than ever before, this one story reveals plenty about not only politics, but also the media:
Both Mr Howard and his successor Kevin Rudd pledged to take action but nothing has happened in the six years since the tragedy.
Of all the public policy issues left unresolved by the Howard and Rudd governments, this is not a priority for anyone outside the press gallery. The fact that the 'tragedy' does not apparently include the hundreds of other dead and injured fellow-passengers of Mellish and Banham is galling too. The opposition have been silent too, too silent. The prospect that the press gallery might trade off creature comforts in the air for a "truce" on the ground (and not limited to the aircraft), and hang the expense that they will never bear, is deeply revolting. It further reveals the redundancy of this sump of journalism, and only makes brighter the prospects for reporting on government once it is abolished.