30 May 2014

Next Friday

To all my dear friends in the press gallery, and in the traditional media more broadly:

Monday 9 June will be a public holiday in all states and territories in Australia, except Western Australia apparently. I'm sure many of you will have plans for that day and the long weekend more broadly. Insofar as it matters I hope you have a nice time.

On the Friday before the long weekend - next Friday, 6 June - it is very likely that the government will make announcements that have to be made, but which reflect badly on them in various ways. Regardless, those announcements will still cover issues that will affect us, whether this is a general matter of our tax money being spent or more specific and direct impacts.

This is admittedly something of a conundrum for you people. On one hand you want to report what goes on, but on the other hand you've got plans for the long weekend; and by the time you get back that news will, under long-established politico-media conventions, not be reported.

If the issue is important enough it will manifest itself later on, at which point it may be covered (or not). Given your urge to use hype to arrest declining ratings and sales, perhaps you will treat these later developments as unexpected. In much the same way, you did when a policy-lazy Coalition brought down a policy-lazy budget which worked for nobody (not even for them), and you pretended to be surprised to cover up your failure to have examined their policy-lazy positions before it all fell apart.

The smarter and/or more experienced ones among you will be able to foresee the coming dump next Friday. You might have seen it before, many times, from all who've held office. The trouble is that you will react only with sneers, tempered by an inside-Canberra understanding of why they do it that way - hey, they're just ordinary Joes/Jos doing their jobs, "taking out the trash".

It doesn't have to be like that. You know the government is playing you for mugs (and that given how attentive the Coalition were to you in opposition, this surprises you). You could end this practise once and for all next Friday if you wanted to, and in the process help out a few old mates.

Remember the last time your employer shed a few staff (or the time before), how you keened and rent your garments, and how some Very Fine Journalists took a walk in the snow so that you didn't have to? Remember how you vowed to help them if you could - but that when they actually rang you were scared of catching Redundancy Germs and had to go because, well, 24 hour news cycle? Now's your chance.

Traditional news organisations should do something untraditional. Rather than just cop the sneaky dump, it should have teams of analysts (including, but not only, those with journalistic skills) that go through those announcements with fine-toothed combs. They could then stuff those Bumper Long Weekend Editions with detailed stories on matters deemed too sensitive to release in the normal course of events.

This proposal would have a number of effects, all of them good.

Those who've sat on the information and hoped they would catch the mighty Australian media napping will be in for a nasty surprise. That which they had hoped to bury would not only be brought to light, but lit harshly and unflatteringly, with few other stories to distract coverage. The pre-holiday dump would vanish as a tactic.

Some of your old muckers could pick up a bit of short-term work, which isn't the same as full-time employment but it beats the hell out of nothing. It could give them opportunities to work with accountants, IT people and others whose jobs involve different kinds of investigative skills, which may open opportunities that may not otherwise be open (or, even worse, which they may not perceive). Those people are used to short-term work and will be good for tips on handling it.

You could come back to work refreshed, with a suite of follow-up stories ready for you to work on, with the part-timers already on their ways out the door until the next public holiday, posing no threat to your own positions.

Most importantly, we need to know what's going on in our government, for better and worse, and you going away on holidays en masse works against that. Merely writing the tactic off as "predictable" isn't good enough, and if you were proper journalists you'd recognise that. Didn't you feel played when the government released information while you were all in the budget lockup? Punked again, and it won't be the last time.

Nobody is calling on you to miss your long weekend, so there'll be none of your straw-man nonsense thank you very much. You overestimate how compelling, or even how useful your cynicism is; your ratings/circulation and the fading financial and political heft of your employer reflects this more accurately than hollow newsroom banter.

We need a public discourse that is neither cynical nor credulous. You can be part of it, or not, but as Margaret Simons and John Birmingham point out in their different ways, you just won't own it.

In the last parliament you were too cynical toward the previous government, and too credulous toward the opposition. Now you're attempting to shift from being credulous to cynical about this government - a hard transition made harder because the current opposition doesn't offer much to be credulous about (nor cynical, given that Gillard and Rudd and McTernan have all gone). There are alternatives, but let's be honest: all the political forces beyond the majors frighten you.

Don't be cynical, or credulous. Just tell us what's going on. If you can't, then get someone who can (without necessarily putting your own positions further at risk). Your employers could burnish their fading reputations by hiring people to do exactly this. Then again (and more likely) they could save a few bucks that will soon be frittered away elsewhere and accept that people will go around them to get their news. We decide whether or not a government will be re-elected, or if a news outlet will survive - not you.

Next Friday. It's coming. Are you packed up ready to go? Are you going to just hang around and see what happens? Either way, enjoy it while it lasts.

26 May 2014

Budgetary assumptions

It never used to be that bad
But neither was it great
Somewhere in the middle then
Content and much too safe
Oh tell me please
Why it takes so long
To realise when there's something wrong

- Crowded House Now we're getting somewhere
The past fortnight or so has seen a fundamental failure of judgment on the part of the politico-media complex. The government, and the press gallery that facilitated it, assumed that the country would sullenly accept the budget-crisis assumption, with only protesting students and bellyaching pensioners offering token resistance before the inevitable capitulation. What happened since the Budget was delivered has taken the entire political class by surprise.

The government thought it had made the case that the budget was in terrible shape, having insisted in opposition that the whole economy was a disaster. The sheer force of the reaction to the budget meant that the case had yet to be made, and having to make the basic case while also selling the details built upon that assumption, any selling job would be doomed. Where the sellers don't even operate on the same assumptions as their market, the seller is doomed and so is the product (in this case, the budget).

Any government always has to trust its Treasurer and Prime Minister to handle not only the economics, but also the politics of the Budget. Tony Abbott has led the Liberal Party to the last two elections, each of which saw the Liberal vote increase dramatically. This government is made up largely of people who wouldn't even be in Canberra without Tony Abbott, and who bought into the whole Labor-bad-Liberal-good message as the ticket to the ride into office. They have no right to be surprised at how badly the selling job was done. Now that it seems clear that Tony and Joe aren't that great at either the politics or the economics, points made by disgruntled smart-alecs like me but safely ignored by the supposedly savvy until now.

Rather than rethink the pretences and flawed assumptions that made this government possible, traditional-media pinheads like this or that can only resort to leadership speculation, as though the incompetence of this government were a new and unexpected development that could not have been foreseen by long-serving and experienced observers. Had they done their homework on policy to the extent that they did on worthless polls, this government may not have made it into office until it had lifted its game.

In this environment, all Bill Shorten had to do was deliver a competent speech that fingered the government, and that's basically what he did. Here is a man playing a long game. Before the election there was a lot of talk about how Abbott was running a marathon rather than a sprint, but contrast his behaviour in opposition with that of Shorten now (or even his behaviour in government now) and know that assertion was always rubbish. Conventional wisdom in the press gallery, shared by pretty much everyone - but rubbish all the same.

Labor's winter of discontent under Rudd and Gillard has not become glorious summer under Shorten. He has not yet begun to address the party's structural difficulties. His party's membership has not taken much initiative, but nor has it rallied to a call that Shorten has barely begun to make. Only when the windows of Jamie Clements' office crash outwards and he hurtles to the pavement Imre NagyJan Masaryk-style - then will I start to be convinced the ALP is serious about internal reform.

Shorten has started to take a strong stance on Medicare but should also be starting to develop clear positions on fracking and the Barrier Reef, on education and yes on the revenue side of the budget - and to do so in a consultative way that contrasts with Abbott's preference for springing surprise announcements as his way of controlling the agenda.

Again, the conventional wisdom is that Shorten can't win the next election and that Abbott can't lose it. We've seen how inept the smarties have been with a mere budget, and at questioning an aspiring government in its fitness for office; they should simply not be heard on what may or may not happen at the 2016 election.

Because the ALP and the Liberals are as hollow as one another, filling their aching voids with spivs and their lolly, each looks set to shrink without disappearing entirely in the foreseeable future. Though there is much focus on Clive Palmer, he does not have what it take to become a third party on par with the other two, overtaking the Greens. He is not credible as the long-lost saviour of moderate liberalism and nor is he the convincing champion of the blue-collar conservative who was never comfortable among the stuck-up white-collar professionals who run the Liberals. He has gotten as far as he has through free advertising: puff-pieces on the ABC and condemnation by the Murdoch press serve the same end.

While Palmer will be a force; the real action in politics is with local independents like Cathy McGowan or Tony Windsor, and it will be necessary for a future government to deal with each one by one, issue by issue.

To those writing Shorten off, I ask you: does Shorten have the negotiation skill to outflank Abbott, like Julia Gillard did in 2010? If so, you can't dismiss Shorten's prospects of becoming Prime Minister, nor lazily assume Abbott will pull something out of his hat. Let's take the backgrounds of personalities of the individual leaders away and the principle still holds: in a hung parliament dominated by independents (imagine one-third each of Labor, Liberal, and independents), would you back Hockey/Turnbull/Morrison or would you back Plibersek/Albanese/Bowen? Labor are historically superior at negotiating minority government, and given the protracted and systemic failure of each major party, minority government will be the only government on offer.

This is the case in other democracies, and it was the case before liberals and conservatives fused to form the two-party system in 1909. This country will be governed by a post-election beauty parade among what now seem to be minor parties.

Journalists accustomed to major-party government, which includes "message discipline" and gotcha games at its absence, will not be able to cope even if their employers remain solvent and retain them in their current roles. Only journalists who can understand what is at stake with each deal will be valuable sources of political information; the stenographers and gotcha-vultures of today's press gallery will hang around and embarrass themselves, or even fade away rather than adapt. They hated Labor and Labor hated them back; they found the Coalition hated them every bit as much, knowing the day would come when their shortcomings came to light and powerless to manage the framing of that.

Liberals were always wrong to believe Abbott could do anything but win the election. As a party of government they had a duty to build an agenda for government, but they shirked it and outsourced it to the BCA and IPA. For a political party to shirk that responsibility is to lose everything, and to realise the sheer vacuity of the money in its 'war chest', or of the number of seats in their majority (for what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, etc.).

Labor was wrong to cower before a budget surplus and 'economic responsibility', and to avoid fighting its own corner. This was a party that slunk into defeat, resurrecting a leader it did not believe in and not fully convinced of "the greatest moral issue of our time" (the environment? Education? NDIS?), while not completely unconvincing on any of those issues.

As to the emerging political forces that are neither Liberal nor Labor, they arise from a susurration that cannot be heard in noisy debates and sometimes you have to go listen to hear them. This is hard and can be hit-and-miss; but it is more profitable than watching those who glossed over Abbott's policy laziness realise now that it is the only game in town.

Given that all media organisations are facing tight budget, they must sooner or later start to look at the considerable bloat encrusting the press gallery and wonder what those people actually do. Anyone could do what the press gallery were doing last year (and the year before, and the year before that): quote what Labor says (boo!) then quote what the Coalition said (yay, and give them the final word).

The assumptions that the press gallery worked under, the idea of what it is to be politically savvy and to report on what's going on - all those have been invalidated, and shown to be invalidated, over the past fortnight. There is no hope that the press gallery will grow a collective brain and start, y;know, engaging in journalism. The press gallery have observed this government closely over many years, and they have no idea what's going on and can't describe the sheer depth of their failure.

The pantomime that the Abbott government has suddenly lost its gloss is getting boring: it never had any, but it played the press gallery like so many trout. The idea that governments come and go but the press gallery stick around is another dead idea that's not helping traditional media in the vital task of getting over themselves. When the time comes to toss this government, the press gallery will have to go too. There is no way around it, no way of turning such journalistic dross into journalistic gold.

A government in trouble might just be tempted to bring these privileges to an end, and in doing so show up the one big lie holding that institution in place: that democracy might continue regardless, that the press gallery is not necessary and definitely not sufficient as a check upon despotism.

We are living in an information age. Traditional media are information providers, and they should be up there with our biggest and fastest-growing companies. As befits a tragedy it is both sad and silly that they can't get over themselves enough both to ensure their corporate futures and to act as bulwarks of democracy.

25 May 2014

Us and them

I came in like a wrecking ball
I never hit so hard in love
All I wanted was to break your walls
All you ever did was wreck me
Yeah, you, you wreck me

- Miley Cyrus Wrecking Ball
It might never have occurred to you to put Miley Cyrus and Jonathan Holmes in the same sentence, but think again. Holmes seems to think that the Australian public and its government are locked in some mutually destructive and co-dependent relationship like that described above, with the media looking on benignly and simply reporting what they see. Holmes' piece, and his work for Fairfax generally, will only improve once he recognises that the current political situation is due to the failure of effective reporting on Australian politics, and that mere reportage is not the solution but part of the problem.
Tony Abbott told us before the election that he could return the budget to surplus without raising taxes, or cutting spending on health and education, or reducing pension entitlements. He told us he could do it by cutting waste.

It was self-evident nonsense. Blind Freddy could see, by last September, that either he would have to back off his pledge to balance the budget in a few years’ time, or he would have to break most of the other undertakings. But for months before the election, Abbott avoided interviewers who would challenge him to square the circle.
It was self-evident nonsense. Yet, if you go to the actual media at the time, you'll see that journalists didn't call them on it. They regarded anything and everything that Abbott's opponents said to be nonsense, while the very fact that he stood in opposition to that government gave his words a credibility that they would otherwise have lacked.
Unsurprisingly, he preferred the soft-soap flattery he could confidently expect from our brigade of shameless commercial radio hucksters.
Every day Abbott did a stunt for the traditional media - print, radio and TV, commercial to varying degrees - which they all lapped up. See Tony gut fish! See Tony kiss squirming children! Do we wonder why no Opposition Leader in history got such uncritical coverage as Abbott? No - we just report, or in the case of Gillard and Rudd we just sneer. The press gallery, and other journalists covering politics, were so desperate to be rid of the Gillard-Rudd government that they lent Abbott their credibility. Abbott has let them down. He has let us all down really, even those of us who didn't vote for him.
The Coalition would deliver painless solutions, he told their listeners. There is nothing wrong with Australia that a mere change of government would not fix. And the voters of Australia - or a convincing majority of them - apparently chose to believe him.
When you're not involved in complex matters from day to day, you defer to experts. Media organisations represent their political journalists as being totally across all matters political - here's Joe Hockey addressing our reporter by name, there's Penny Wong giving our reporter an exclusive interview.

The experts in politics assured us that Tony Abbott would curb his behaviour and would run the economy better than a returned Labor government - and if you don't believe me, here's an insignificant Labor apparatchik transformed by the power of media into a "senior Labor source" dumping on the government on much the same fact-free basis as Abbott. Can't get any more balanced than that.

As I said in response to Lyndal Curtis' execrable piece the traditional media were too credulous about the Coalition, too cynical about Labor, when it was their job to give us the information we needed to rise above both cynicism and credulity. This is what Holmes misses too: he sees only the electorate that made the Abbott bed in which we now lie, without recognising the role of his colleagues in the traditional, press-gallery-stuffing media in assuring voters that this was the better choice.
Bill Shorten now tells us the Prime Minister’s broken promises are a betrayal of Australia’s egalitarian ethos. Well, so they are. But no hint from Shorten about how Labor would fix the gap between revenue and spending. No acknowledgement, even, that there’s a gap to fix.
A clear breach of the What's Sauce For The Goose Is Sauce For The Gander Act, no doubt attracting the usual penalties. It is notable that Abbott was rarely, if ever questioned on that matter, and that journalists never sought to trade the asking of questions for Abbott's desire to transmit only visuals and set-piece lines. When you add to this Abbott's admission to Kerry O'Brien that his statements could not be relied upon, Holmes longing for an old-fashioned grilling is somewhat quaint. As Tim Dunlop said, post-truth political leadership is a real issue for journalists and news organisations, but which Holmes is happy to sheet home to consumers and citizens.

There is another ethical issue to be worked through by journalists - including Holmes - as to why Opposition Leaders since Abbott should be subject to different expectations than Abbott had been. Again, Holmes shirks responsibility for his 'profession' and fingers the ill-informed and -advised voter. More in sorrow than in anger of course, a condescension that adds insult to injury.
The lesson is simple: the Australian electorate will punish the tellers of hard truths, and reward the snake-oil salesmen, the good-news spruikers, the soft-soapers.
Sure they will, because that's what the experts said. I was a Young Liberal branch President in 1993. The media - all of them, no diversity to speak of - made Hewson look pretty silly in that final week. People defer to experts, and so it is in politics: against all evidence, political reporters have currency with a significant number of voters, and for some reason they tend to go all one way or all another. This time they went all Abbott. And it's the voters' fault that they believed the press gallery?

Had the Rudd government been re-elected it would have been a repudiation of almost the entire Australian media. I am not talking about editorials; almost nobody reads them and, despite their name, they are not representative of the organ in which they are published. I am talking about actual political reporters in and out of the press gallery, who quoted Abbott po-faced, dismissing any idea that good old Tony would let things get as bad as they had under slovenly Gillard and careless Rudd.
For evidence, look no further than the reaction to the budget on Australian talkback radio. As media monitoring company iSentia told The Age’s Michael Gordon ...
You have got to be kidding me: talkback radio as the authentic voice of the people. Even the people who sell ads on talkback radio stations don't believe that. Talkback radio must have been a force majeur in the 1970s, when Jonathan Holmes was starting in journalism and he hasn't questioned it since.

Who has time to sit around waiting on hold for Radio Peanut, and how representative are they of the Australian populace? Why, pray tell, is talkback radio rated so highly by journalists yet Twitter and other social media is so lightly dismissed? Yet more instances of fundamental questions that Holmes and others need to ask themselves, but which they'd rather shirk and shunt.

Here is Jonathan Holmes seeking to demonstrate the triumph of his reporting style, when all he's really doing is admitting its failure:
... Clive Palmer who told us last May that we needed “good programs like the NDIS”, but that “this should not be an excuse to put taxes up”.

It is the Clive Palmer who told us in June that, if elected, a Palmer United Party government would magically find $80 billion more for health and hospitals, and $20 billion extra for schools.

It is the Clive Palmer who told us during the election campaign that a 15 per cent across-the-board income tax cut would generate more government revenue in GST takings than it cost in reduced income tax. (Fairfax’s Peter Martin, writing for the fact-checking website PolitiFact, found that Palmer’s claims were “False”. Most economists treated them as fantasy.)

It is the Clive Palmer who tells us today that there is no budget emergency, no debt crisis, that such talk is “just more bullshit being fed to the Australian public”.
Firstly, Clive Palmer should be referred to by male pronouns rather than the gender-neutral, regardless of the esteem in which Holmes holds him.

Secondly, and more importantly, Holmes has rattled off some out-of-context quotes there without bothering to interrogate them. The essence of that last quote from Palmer is supported by almost every economist outside the Liberal Party.

Holmes may sheet responsibility for political choices home to voters, but the role of journalists in helping us evaluate statements and actions cannot be underestimated. Every Australian parliament was built with a press gallery pre-installed, under the assumption that the press gallery had an important role to play in the political process.

When they shirk and shunt their role, circulation/ratings go down and so too do the job prospects of journalists. Holmes sees the declining job prospects of journalists. Holmes sees crappy output like a lazy list of quotes. Holmes fails to make the link. Whose problem is this - the public's, for their philistine lack of appreciation of Very Fine Journalism, as Holmes would have it? Or is the problem closer to home than Holmes (or Lyndal Curtis, or Katharine Murphy, or a host of others) dares admit?
During the campaign last year, I wrote about the people who determine Australian elections - disengaged floating voters who, in democracies where participation in elections is voluntary, probably would not bother to vote at all.
Here's a suggestion: why not write for them, or even to or with them, Jonathan?
But apparently, many of us can’t, or won’t [spot a fake a mile away]. Not if the fake is telling us what we want to hear.
But if the fake is radiating sunny charm, and the truth-teller is being sneered at by a trusted interlocutor, what other outcome do you expect? Is the political numbers man who sneers at the public any worse/better than the journalist who takes the same attitude? And if the journalist, as Shakespeare wrote, "doth mock/The meat it feeds on" in terms of its/his/her attitude toward the public, why does he/she/it have a job at all? What value are they adding to public discourse, or anything else?
Not if he or she assures us that we don’t need to do anything about global warming ...
But journalists pretend that global warming is a matter of opinion and debate. You're not an Australian journalist unless you believe that global warming denialists are as legitimate - if not more so! - than those certain the world is warming. And you blame the public - and politicians - for being confused?
... that debts can be eliminated by cutting waste, and deficits wished away by cutting taxes ...
Why not convene a panel with someone from the IPA and someone else to argue exactly that - it'll make great television.
Australians, the polls say, have decided the budget is unfair. They are right about that. They’re right, too, to complain about Abbott’s broken promises. Themes hammered all week by Shorten.
And by people other than Shorten, too, if you can imagine such things. There's more to politics than Abbott and Shorten, and Palmer, and it's such a pity that it takes a blog to point this out. It's such a pity, too, that Jonathan Holmes will dismiss what is said on a blog - but if I said the same thing on talkback radio, shut up and listen!
But surely it would have paid Shorten to admit the government is right about one thing: revenue is not keeping up with spending; either taxes need to be lifted or expenditure cut, or both.
Did he not admit that in this Budget in reply speech, and other interviews? I think so but I wouldn't know, I'm not a journalist.
Wouldn’t we reward Shorten for frankness, for honesty, for telling it like it is, and what he plans to do about it?

No, we wouldn’t.
Depends who you mean by "we", really. Holmes refers to Australians sometimes in the third person, sometimes in the first; this isn't the sort of error that new journalists make, it is the sort of fundamental communication error that is drummed out of schoolchildren. He gives more credence to Michael Gordon than most people (even most sensible people) do. He identifies as a journalist only at the end of his piece, having clearly tired of the days when he might winnow (or even distinguish) good journalism from bad.

Holmes' piece includes a quote from Shakespeare: Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene II. In it, Cassius is trying to talk Brutus into killing Caesar. Cassius is dismissing the first-century BCE equivalents of iSentia and polls, and trying to convince Brutus to do what you can with what you have. Holmes is a journalist: he should do better journalism, and convince those at The Age to do likewise, rather than moan about some general miasma gripping the populace that can only be divined by iSentia but, clearly, never understood. If you're going to use a quote, make sure it works for your argument rather than against it.

Journalists are trying to work out a way of sharing that disappointment without admitting their own role, like a murderer returning to the murder scene after others have arrived and then feigning shock. This is designed to avoid blame and maintain a position of trust that they no longer warrant.

22 May 2014

Looking for a second chance

Working on newspapers, you're writing to a certain length, often very brief pieces. You tend to look for easy forms of humor - women can't drive, things like that. That's about the level of a lot of newspaper humor. It becomes a form of laziness.

- Tom Wolfe
Before last year's election Tony Abbott not only had the gall to not only make promises for this term of parliament but the next, or what he called "our second term". He assumed he would win government because the press gallery waved him through, and also polls. He assumed his government would get a second term because every government since Scullin has, and because there has traditionally been a residual loyalty to political parties that has limited the size of swings against them.

It was an article of faith at this blog that Abbott was so hopelessly contradictory that he'd never get into office at all, and never mind the polls. Having been mugged by reality it should surprise no-one that I'm death-riding Abbott but it is only fair that this blog continues to treat polls outside the last week of an election campaign as a waste of time. I wanted to believe this article by Waleed Aly but he has come to (almost) the right conclusion in the wrong way.
For now the popular focus is on whether or not Abbott can recover; whether this will be the fortnight that ultimately relegates him to a single term.
Now the popular focus is on how we got ourselves done over by this dickhead whom the media said wouldn't be this bad. Now the popular focus is on how we reverse the doing-over; there are opportunities here for Labor and for Clive Palmer, but not Bob Katter nor Malcolm Turnbull nor even Christine Milne. Whether Tony Abbott lives or dies is of no importance but to the press gallery, whose assurances gave Abbott's the weight they would have otherwise lacked.
But in truth there are bigger questions here, and the Coalition faces a conundrum far tougher than merely figuring out how to win the next election. And it’s a conundrum created well before last Tuesday.
Promising. Given Aly's well-received and earnest disquisition on the nature of conservatism you'd think he would go into the reasons why Abbott's government is starting to implode. He kind of does, but not really.
The reason the government broke so many promises in this budget is simple: the promises they made from Opposition were wildly contradictory ... A platform like that was always going to have its day of reckoning.
Quite so. It's a real pity that the press gallery, and other journalists covering public affairs, didn't pick up on this. To do so might have returned a government that was policy-capable but personally and factionally riven, and where it and the press gallery were daily reinforced in their mutual disdain. Aly too could have explored this before last September, but he didn't.
The tragedy is that Abbott didn’t need to do it.
Oh but he did. The only alternative was some sort of drawn-out examination of what it means to be conservative (or even liberal) in 21st century Australia, which would not necessarily have seen Tony Abbott as leader. He staked everything on shutting down debate and publicity-seeking stunts, and damn it if it didn't work.
He is the Prime Minister today because Labor had descended into an unelectable mess.
This is to confuse cause and effect.

Labor did introduce policies that were not only popular but well-considered. They did what conventional wisdom would hope from a political party in government, consulting with stakeholders, making decisions and then selling, selling, selling. Abbott did not engage with those policies as policies, he rejected even the most basic premises necessary for a public debate. What Abbott did was throw policy babies out with Labor bathwater, pooh-poohing them on the basis of fiscal cost and Labor credibility.

Labor couldn't win a game where the rules of consultation and evidence-based policy counted for nothing, or only ever counted against them, which explains why they didn't. This is what Bruce Hawker never understood, looking for a new form of words when the old ones counted for nothing.

In this, Abbott was assisted by journalists who were (and are) ill-equipped to deal with policy issues. Their experience of policy was (and is) long, earnest and dull tomes written by public servants. They have no training or interest in policy issues, and do not engage with stakeholders except to extract "grabs" (quotations), which they do not examine but which acts as filler for their output.

What press gallery journalists understand is "message discipline" (where politicians use the same phrases and positions in interviews, press releases, parliamentary statements, and other forms of political communication) and its absence (e.g. the backgrounding that undermined Julia Gillard in favour of Kevin Rudd, or outbursts by Coalition 'mavericks' like Senator Ian Macdonald or Dennis Jensen). Waleed Aly thinks that Abbott is departing from some high point of principle in order to wallow in contradictory and self-defeating policy; the fact is that contradictory and self-defeating policy is all there ever was, or is, to this government.
Abbott had the freedom not to promise a set of contradictions. He had the freedom to keep his options open and perhaps even to tell us some budgetary truth.
Rubbish. The Coalition took a decade to develop a consistent response to Hawke and Keating, and that included being stuck with Medicare. In terms of "budgetary truth", Ross Gittins shows why neither Hockey nor Abbott could go there.

What you are seeing in the Abbott government is the sort of thing that happens to all jerry-rigged constructs; it looked fine so long as experienced people didn't look too closely, but was bound to collapse on the poor buggers who trusted (and who wanted to trust) the experts.
He told us budgetary fantasy as though he hadn’t given a moment’s thought to what would happen after the election.
He hadn't. What he managed to do was convince members of the Coalition that he and his team would be clever enough to work it out once they got into government. He also convinced many members of the press gallery of this ability, who have all seen more than a few budgets and governments come and go, yet chose not to scrutinise Abbott's jerry-rigged construct too closely. They can only cover up their wilful blindness by pretending the government's stumbles were not obvious before the election, or (as Aly does) that it's all down to unfortunate choices on Abbott's part.

For new readers of this blog: I knew Abbott was bullshit and said so at the time. This is why I call bullshit on the press gallery and political commentators now, and why anyone who objects to such effrontery can and should piss off.
The result is that he brought the Coalition to government with a mandate for almost nothing. Repealing the carbon and mining taxes, sure. Stopping the boats by whatever militant means he could conceive, yes. Paid parental leave, arguably.
Aly is right here ...
But what else? Nothing on education, nothing on middle class welfare and especially nothing on industrial relations. In short, nothing that might help repair a budget in “crisis”, real or imagined.
... but wrong here:
  • Abbott and Pyne promised to match Labor on education, which is one of those pre-election facts that excuse-makers for the Australian media need to and do overlook.
  • In terms of middle-class welfare, there was a whole campaign by Abbott and the Murdoch press to persuade us that people on over $150k were doing it tough.
  • On industrial relations - there was plenty on "productivity", and given the disdain for ICT and education as means to boost this, "industrial relations reform" is pretty much the only scope for action left. You'll note that Labor people who attempted to question Coalition policy in this area at the time were simply accused of "scaremongering", and that such accusations kyboshed further investigation by the traditional media.
You've gotta do what you can, I suppose.
But with this budget, the government was behaving as though it had the most monstrous of mandates.
Waleed Aly has been lectured, and delivered lectures, on politics at uni. He knows that a government with 90 of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives has a mandate all right, and that governments do things that may have escaped attention before the election. This is why you don't elect a government with "message discipline"; they're hiding something, and because the press gallery generally lacks investigative skills it can't tell us what they might be. Aly's earlier definition of what this government's mandate is/isn't was less than adequate, and is out of line with the government's own definition.

Abbott got where he is by being bold, yet here his boldness put him at a disadvantage rather than the advantage to which he is accustomed. Aly can't explain why this situation is different if he sticks to his line that Abbott had options, that he could have done better. Abbott's jerry-rigged, hang-the-consequences approach to the budget are the same as his approach to everything else in public life (heads up: they'll be his same approach to next year's budget).
The reason the government’s reckoning has been so brutal is not merely that the public clearly thinks the budget zeroes in mercilessly on the most vulnerable. It is that it seemed to come from nowhere, without the government even bothering to convince us of the virtues of this approach first.
There are four core conservative beliefs which are coming to the fore in the way that Abbott and Hockey sell this budget. It is a shame that Waleed Aly, of all people, skates past them and treats them as somehow puzzling.

First, that people somehow know they have overindulged themselves, and accept that the day of reckoning must come. The Coalition believe that all their scaremongering about Labor debt and irresponsibility, every day for years and years, has made this case. They are surprised that it hasn't been made, and that the debate can move on. This failure gives rise to deep questions about the utility of "message discipline", and of the operating models for the press gallery and the Australian media more broadly.

Second, that people somehow accept the authority of Big Daddy to come in and set things right. If you dismiss the credibility of the previous government it follows that the credibility of its opposition must be higher than is healthy for any group of politicians; the Coalition basked in the credibility radiating from the press gallery and came to believe it, and can't quite believe it's gone. Abbott still tries his folksy homilies and winky refusal to get caught up in other people's dramas, but though Aly notes it doesn't work he can't really explain why. This failure gives rise to deep questions about abuse of trust, not only for politicians but also for the co-dependent media.

Third, conservatives can't tell the difference between a fad and a fundamental shift. They assure themselves that all will be well when they don't really understand what's going on. The idea of the "dole bludger" is a 1970s idea, arising from times of full employment which are long since past. Chances are you know someone who's unemployed and/or who's likely to become so, and they are probably not out surfing or smoking dope. As far as Kevin Andrews is concerned, people wouldn't know about dole bludgers unless Alan Jones and Neil Mitchell told them (see authority, above). In the 1970s nobody was taking money from dole bludgers to give to Lang Hancock, no matter how much he bellyached; today his daughter plays a lesser public role, but the flow of money has been successfully reversed.

Fourth, Waleed Aly has written extensively about multiculturalism and different voices defining what it is to be Australian.

It's traditional for the Finance Minister to do the media rounds in selling the Budget - certainly Penny Wong, Nick Minchin and Peter Walsh were lifters-not-leaners in this regard. Yet, though he was active in pre-budget media, less has been heard from Senator Matthias Cormann than one might expect. Nobody, apart from Abbott and Hockey, is more across the Budget, yet Cormann is relegated to wonky interviews out of prime time where he appears in the media at all. Always be suspicious when a media tart goes to ground. Why is the Finance Minister so conspicuously absent in the wake of the Budget?

Cormann has used his leaden Belgian accent to denounce opponents as "economic girly-men" in the manner of Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Canberra Times cartoonist David Pope draws Cormann with a red light where his right eye should be, like the eponymous character from Terminator. A tough-guy persona is usually no disadvantage in politics and it works for Cormann among WA Liberals. However, a Budget is all about the values and priorities for Australia; Australians resent foreigners messing in such debates, and even the Royals tiptoe gingerly around them. Cormann is Australian, by law and in spirit, but not in the accent of his speech. The government is not using Cormann to full effect because they feel his accent would detract from the message they are trying to get across.

Joe Hockey, a man who just wants to be loved, is obviously gutted by the hatred for a work that has gone out under his name. By contrast Abbott cares too little: suck it up bitches, I'm king of the castle. They need someone who knows this budget inside out, who's not a softie but who's not completely insensitive. They need someone like Labor's John Faulkner. Maybe Kelly O'Dwyer or Little Jimmy Briggs might step up in future years, but none are ready now. What they've got is Cormann.

They're not using him because that relentless, carefully cultivated Terminator persona is the exact opposite of what this government needs right now. Again, what looked like a strength is now a weakness for this government, and again Waleed Aly (nor any other commentator, to be fair) isn't explaining why.
The political calculation here is obvious. This was the tough, axe-wielding budget you get out of the way early in your first term, banking you will have plenty of time to win people back.
Again, there comes a point where the oft-used gambit fails, and we are clearly at the point where the axe-wielding budget has joined the ranks of dead tactics.

The other thing about this is that it assumes a political environment where there are only two dimensions to go, where a swing away from the Coalition can only be a swing toward Labor, and that support swinging back is as easy and natural as it was in swinging away. With the rise of independents, Clive Palmer and others, a decline in support for the government is less a swing than a shattering of something brittle and irreplaceable. Abbott is by nature an oppositional figure, an iconoclast; how will such a man win back support for an incumbent government? Culture-war wittering simply isn't working, but it's all Abbott has.
So it’s not that the Coalition cannot be re-elected in 2016. It’s that now it can only be re-elected via a parade of sweeteners. Precisely what these could be is unclear. For John Howard it took the form of family benefits and tax cuts. Abbott has already trashed the former, and might find the latter difficult in the short term if he really cares at all about the budget. Whatever Abbott finds, it will go against the course he has charted so far.
He's trashed his credibility. Admit it, he's buggered. Let us have no more jibber-jabber of second terms, 2016 and all that.

Abbott's a tough guy or he's nothing. The Senate looks set to maul the budget, ripping out the savings while leaving the costs in place, leaving the government looking dithery. Abbott won't look dithery. Cormann won't look dithery. It will be Hockey who looks dithery, especially in the face of unexpected events like a Chinese downturn or comatose consumer confidence.

This is what John Howard's budgets were like in the 1970s. Howard could only salvage his reputation by broadly supporting the reforms of the Labor government which saw him replaced as Treasurer, but because he made harsh reforms bipartisan Labor went easy on Howard until his silly comments on race meant they couldn't save him. Hockey is not the next Prime Minister, but does that mean he's finished?
... Abbott might already have brought his government’s reform phase to an end. What industrial relations policy, for instance, could he possibly risk taking to the next election? How well placed is he to hold a mature debate on raising GST revenue? ... Abbott simply has no political capital to spend on these things.
Abbott doesn't do drawn-out consultation. Abbott does high-intensity, short-term, pig-in-a-poke stuff. State governments will lose $80b starting in five weeks unless GST is jacked up fast; 'mature debate' my arse. It was silly to pretend he would be different just because other politicians are.
Labor need only rail against Medicare co-payments and petrol prices, now.
Everyone and no-one is in favour of lower petrol prices, but Labor are pretty reliable when it comes to a public health system. They should have implemented it in the late 1940s (and Menzies would have left it in place if they had), but twice since then they came out of opposition and built a national public health system. Chances are they will do so again if they have to.

Labor should frame the $7 co-payment as a red-tape imposition on small business. This would mess with Liberal heads and only their rusted-on supporters would laugh at it. GPs are not renowned for Labor sympathies but a focus on their corner of the medical profession is long overdue from a policy perspective, and would give that party a grass-roots focus it currently lacks.
Abbott’s conduct in Opposition meant he came into government with little mandate. His conduct in government ensures next time around, he won’t be able to seek one.
The Liberal Party as an organisation should have thought of that. The whole idea of modifying the leader's stances is not to bring him down a peg for its own sake, but to give a government longevity through flexibility. This is the job for which people like Brian Loughnane get paid. The prospect of contributing to this once enticed hundreds of thousands of Australians to join the party. This is the sort of thing that Hockey and Malcolm Turnbull could once have been relied upon to do as a matter of course, but those guns are silent. This leaves Cory Bernardi and Frydenberg puddling up the shallow end of the political gene pool, but it's taken many choices over many years to lead the Liberals to this bereft, infertile place.

The press gallery won't wave Abbott through, but given that they can't distinguish policy gold from policy mud they will only focus on personality and stale ideas (blaming you and me and the pollies for the low standard of debate, never themselves). The residual loyalty that has limited the size of swings has almost gone; as with floods and bushfires, extreme political events are becoming more regular (but still shockingly unexpected, apparently).

For the Liberal Party, Abbott has done his job; like one of those creatures that lives only to reproduce, having won his election and with no real policy commitment Abbott may now be discarded. They had a challenge to develop post-Abbott (or meta-Abbott) flexibility - but the win was enough, so stuff them as they try to reap the whirlwind.

This doesn't inversely mean that Shorten is assured of becoming PM, but his negotiation skills are streets ahead of Abbott's. Shorten is better suited to the current and anticipated political environment than Abbott. It is becoming clearer why the Federal ALP caucus voted against their membership to install Shorten. As hung parliaments become the norm (and the decline of the major parties leads to no other conclusion), the accumulated knowledge of those journalists and pundits who know only huge majorities will quickly become redundant.

Waleed Aly should see the predicament the Coalition is in and call it, rather than letting the headline do it for him. It is not true that Abbott had other courses to take the nation or his party in other than the one he took. The traditional media have no right to be surprised by the intellectual and moral poverty of this government, having observed it up close and being complicit in its current predicament. That said, I have no doubt the surprise is genuine, but to be honest it induces contempt rather than sympathy.

This sort of thinking arises from a discredited media insisting that the public give it more credit than it is due, and a government which is doing likewise. Aly's pulled punches and unconvincing excuses are symptomatic of too much time in the declining media - no good can come from that.

18 May 2014

Judged on performance

We have a government that doesn't consult with us, which doesn't evolve ideas over time and which regards public input as some sort of failure on their part, to be vigorously resisted. They want to be a longterm government but are behaving like a short-term one; their lack of confidence in their own longevity is soundly based.

We have a media that, for all its close observation of politics generally and the Coalition in particular, can't make head nor tail of what they see in front of them. People they've known for years have become strangers once in office. It isn't only the rookies who are making these errors - the most senior members of the press gallery have no real clue about what's going on in our national politics.

Michael Gordon strikes a pose between Abbott and Shorten. He seems to believe Shorten is under an obligation to spell out detailed policies, a stricture Gordon never imposed upon Abbott in that role (keeping in mind there was a much more realistic prospect of an early election in the last parliament than there is now). Gordon is pessimistic about this parliament:
The result is a war that will be waged on the floor of the existing Senate until the new senators take their seats on July 1, and then become mired in negotiation and brinkmanship with an eclectic crossbench – a war likely to continue the brutality and divisiveness that has defined Australian politics in the past six years.
Negotiation and brinkmanship sounds like standard politics to me. Why not to Gordon, who's been reporting on federal politics for decades? Why this crap about war - at a time when actual armed conflict is literally tearing apart real people and countries, isn't it more than a bit silly to portray a bit of banter between, say, Christine Milne and Eric Abetz as 'war'? Was Australian politics before 2008 really some sort of sylvan glade in which it seemed always afternoon? Gordon is attempting the very sort of empty hype and bullshit which was once thought to 'sell newspapers', but which we now realise (too late!) does the opposite.
While some have given credibility to veiled threats of a double dissolution election ...
Well Michael, Abbott and other Coalition figures seemed pretty definite about it before the election. You're old enough to remember Hawke bringing on the 1984 election. You might have the credibility you seem to assume if you had called Abbott out at the time. This is what I mean about the press gallery losing credibility, and it has nothing to do with partisanship (yours or mine).

Does the national political editor of The Age have anything to say about the vacuous way politics is practiced these days? Reader, he's as bad as the worst of them:
Those [Coalition] strategists flirting with the idea [of a double dissolution election] could do worse than review the calls to talkback radio on Friday.
Talkback radio sentiment is a 1970s metric, skewed toward the very same individuals who were ringing, say, John Laws in the 1970s, but who have now moved into a different demographic. It isn't particularly representative and iSentia - and by extension, Michael Gordon and The Age - does a lousy job of pretending to turn talkback crap into demographic gold.
The early budget battles will be over plans to introduce, without specific mandate, the $7 Medicare co-payment, the return of petrol excise indexation, other measures that will increase the cost of living and a new regime for the young out of work that will save $1.2 billion over four years.
This isn't "without specific mandate", it's directly contrary to any interpretation of 'mandate'. Abbott specifically promised not to increase costs of living, and here he is increasing the cost of living. There is a considerable body of evidence that the "new regime for the young out of work" will cost the economy a hell of a lot more than $1.2 billion, and Gordon should have tapped into that (or at least acknowledged it).
If the Coalition’s central narrative is to address what Abbott calls Labor’s "debt and deficit disaster", the subtext ...
Oh, bugger the subtext. This government will not be judged on its subtext. It is making life harder for people who are already doing it tough.
Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews says exemptions will cover the vulnerable, but does not shy from the punitive aspect:
Andrews is not entitled to be taken at his word, as Gordon does. He's stuffed up bigger challenges than this. What exemptions, how to define 'vulnerable' and 'punitive'? If Michael Gordon was a real journalist these weasel words (from a confirmed weasel) would be ringing alarm bells.
The broader debate, and the one that will frame the 2016 election, concerns the Coalition’s plans for pensioners and the intention to, in Shorten’s words, outsource the burden of its savings task to the states by refusing to continue Labor’s spending on schools and hospitals beyond the forward estimates of Labor’s last budget.
What an awful sentence that is. Never mind outsourcing sub arrangements, that is the sort of sentence I write for free late into the evening of a long day. Seriously, someone of Gordon's experience has no excuse for that. Let's see if it means anything.

It isn't clear why pensions is a 'broader debate' than youth unemployment, or why it's strangely decoupled from debates about education and even health. It isn't clear why the 'savings task' takes precedence over education tasks and health tasks, or why Gordon has failed to unpack that assumption on the part of the government.
It’s hardly a broken promise because nothing will happen before the next election.
It is. Nobody currently relying on the pension was told that the pension indexing arrangements would be reduced in this manner; financial plans have to be adjusted in light of that announcement on top of the normal caprices of the market. Abbott assured pensioners of stability and no journalist called him on it.
On hospital and school funding, the charge is that the Coalition has ripped $80 billion out of funding to the states and given them only one option to recoup the money: support a broader and heavier GST.
How high does the GST have to be raised before it recoups $80 billion? Has that funding really only been withdrawn from "the states", or from all of us who live beyond the ACT? Again, Gordon pays no mind to that.
With reviews of taxation and federal-state relations in train, the Coalition’s plans for future funding in these areas will be clear to voters before they next go to the polls ...
We're talking this year's budget, not 2016. $80 billion has been ripped out of this year's budget for education and health. Victoria (where most readers of The Age live) will go to the polls by the end of this calendar year, and who do you expect them to vote for: the party which takes it up to Abbott or . Even if you did have some arrangement in place two years from now that restored (or even increased) that amount, the disruptions will be far greater than Canberra shinybums (Gordon included) can possibly imagine.

The fact that he hasn't really thought about it is bad enough. If you discount the idea that Gordon is biased in favour of this government, then quite why he feels obliged to assure us that the government has it all in hand (despite evidence so far) is a mystery.
If Shorten opposes broadening or increasing the GST (or both), his challenge will be to spell out another way to fund better schools, hospitals and the National Disability Insurance Scheme he helped bring into being.
If Gordon held Shorten to the same standards that he held the previous opposition leader, then Shorten would simply frustrate the government and offer nothing positive and Gordon would hail him as a political genius. Just like Paula Matthewson has.

No organisation anywhere in the world would accept a sudden $80b shortfall with equanimity. Education and health are matters that affect real people everywhere around the country. It is not merely a matter for federal-state intergovernmental relations, still less some Canberra insider game.
The Budget revealed cuts to health and education funding for the states and territories commencing in four years' time (which is conveniently after the next federal election).
Not everybody plans their lives around federal elections: both my children will be in primary school in 2017, and you can't just turn education systems on and off at the click of some fingers in far-off Canberra. This isn't "amateur theatrics", it's as real as it gets.

You want to know what are the real unbreakable laws of modern politics? Here's one:
Everybody who talks about how something is not what it is but it's actually a pie, see, and then goes on about carving up that pie while also growing it, and then invokes some mad Lewis Carroll imagery of slicing an expanding pie, implying that pies exist for their own sake rather than to be eaten - everyone who does this looks like an idiot. Most people who do it are, in fact, idiots.

There are no exceptions to this rule. It certainly is not invalidated by federal-state memoranda of understanding nor any other legal instrument, and indeed many of those reinforce it.
Truly, nobody who gives a moment's thought to the words they use tosses their credibility into that particular bin.

Matthewson is wrong to claim that the real political game (insofar as it somehow supersedes that of education and health) is one of reorienting the states' tax bases. Chris Pyne says the states have plenty of tax options - as usual, he's wrong and doesn't even care what the truth of the matter is.

The real political game, as it was under Howard, is to force the Coalition out of office at the state level so that the Coalition is not conflicted or diverted politically between federal and state governments. For the Manichean Abbott, the federal-state blame game can be clarified by abandoning state government (and its pernicious moderating influences) to Labor.
  • If the Liberals had wanted Steven Marshall to become Premier of SA late last year, they would have kept Tony Abbott well away from there. Marshall isn't where Abbott was in 2010 - he is the punchline in a vast joke he cannot yet understand, but which might crush him once he does;
  • Over the next six-and-a-bit months you can expect a number of "harsh but necessary" decisions from Canberra targeted at Victoria that will embarrass, if not devastate, Denis Napthine's re-election campaign. Neither he, nor the national political editor of The Age, will have any idea until after they are announced. True, Napthine has his own problems - but the feds will be quick with "state issues" and press gallery potplants will not challenge them on that either;
  • Next up is NSW. O'Farrell was the only politician in Australia who consistently put the wind up Abbott, and it will the the making of Baird if he does so with Abbott. A great deal of money that could be used to shore up nervous federal backbenchers is staying in donors' pockets thanks to ICAC, or being spent on the NSW campaign. Now do you see why Abbott wants state Coalition govts gone?
  • Half the seats that are needed to tip this government out are in Queensland, and do you think Abbott wants to be hostage to that stumblebum Newman?
  • Look, Matthias runs the show in WA, and who even cares about NT or Tasmania; and last but not least
  • Mark Textor will reprise his role of a decade ago with the state parties, where he took their money and gave dud advice to ensure Howard's supremacy went unchallenged. Paula Matthewson and the rest of the press gallery will continue to regard him as a genius.
Mind you, if there is such a thing as "faux hysterics" it follows there must be such a thing as "true hysterics" - and if anyone can make the distinction Matthewson is the very person. The wide boys and girls of the press gallery have no excuse for misreporting as they do, they have seen this movie before. Particularly Peter "single source" Hartcher:
As Joe Hockey set about deciding how to cut welfare payments, he asked for a comprehensive list of all entitlement programs. He couldn’t find one.
The guy had been shadow treasurer for four years. What the hell had he been doing? Had Hockey and his plucky staff not reverse-engineered such a list, and if not why not?
The federal government today collects revenues equivalent to 23 per cent of Australia’s GDP. It spends the equivalent of 26 per cent. The simple reality is that the annual shortfall is 3 per cent of GDP.

If that is allowed to persist, there is only one possible outcome. Corrective action was needed.
The previous government was well aware of that and was not, as Hartcher implies, blithely ignoring it. The previous government delivered six deficit budgets and was widely held to have failed. The incumbents project that this budget and the next five will be in deficit, but that's OK.

Over the coming term of government there will be a return of the El Nino weather patterns to eastern Australia. Receipts from agricultural exports will go down and it is eminently foreseeable that taxpayer cash will be shovelled at improvident yokels, to an extent that makes a mockery of those budget forecasts. Yet, just as the press gallery rose as one to assert that Chris Pyne didn't call someone *else* a cunt, so too will they make excuses and accept government assumptions of ongoing deficits and 'unforeseen events'.
The lesson of history is that the only time that a government will impose real discipline is in its first budget.
Is there 'real discipline' in this budget - not particularly - a bit of trimming, cost-shifting to the states, and class warfare, but that's about it.
These were the declared values, but there were also the grudges and frustrations. The deputy prime minister and leader of the National Party, Warren Truss, said this about age pensioners in a post-budget speech to Brisbane’s Conservative Club: “Increasingly the lifestyle - and the savings for superannuation - are being seen as the opportunity to enjoy a few cruises and the luxuries of life for a few years until it runs out and then people wish to fall back on the aged pension.”

The minister for social services, Kevin Andrews, told a press conference on Monday: “The days of easy welfare for young people is over. We want a fair system, but we don’t think it’s fair that young people can just sit on the couch at home and pick up a welfare cheque.”
Grudges and frustrations my arse - these are people who scorn those they govern. These are the sorts of statements that slip out in the final term of a long-serving government, not the first (unless they are the same?).
And some of the frustration in the Coalition was frustration with their former leader and Liberal hero John Howard. A government strategist told me: “It’s horseshit that a family earning $170,000 with three kids still gets government support.”
Really? Remember when The Daily Telegraph thought anyone earning over $150,000 was doing it tough? Hartcher must have missed that, too. I bet his "government strategist" didn't.
We have now learned, very starkly, that even some of the Liberals who know Abbott closely were quite wrong about his values.

His former cabinet colleague, Peter Costello, wrote a column in this newspaper in 2011 to issue a warning to the Liberals: Abbott didn’t share the core beliefs of the party mainstream, the party of Howard and Costello.

He pointed out that Abbott had “worked closely with the DLP in his student days”, a reference to the old Democratic Labor Party of BA Santamaria.

“The DLP was good on defence and the Cold War but it was not up to much on economic issues,” Costello wrote. He said that the senator recently elected under the resurrected banner of the DLP, John Madigan, should be left to “run the case for protection and regulation”.

“That is not the future for the Coalition. Its leaders are there to promote and implement Liberal policies like freedom in the workplace, open trade, lower tax, and careful spending of taxpayers' money.”
The evidence now before us is exactly the opposite. The Abbott-Hockey government is revealed to be a more ideologically conservative outfit than Howard-Costello.
Rather than relying on Costello's columns from three years ago, it is fair to assume that the political and international editor of The Sydney Morning Herald would be in a position to observe and interrogate the Coalition about their approach to government.
The budget conducts a frontal attack on three Howard legacies. One is the family payment system. It will remain as a support, but the government proposes to strip out elements that it considers to be “middle-class welfare.”
Peter, it doesn't; I say this as a recipient of Family Tax Benefit B.
Second is the Howard urge to centralise power in the federal government at the expense of the States. Abbott and Hockey are proposing the exact opposite, to devolve power to the States.
With the pretty important exceptions of health and education, I reckon this holds - and the political skills of both the federal ministers for health and education aren't much chop. Never mind the blithe statements Peter, look into this.
Third is the Howard boondoggle known as the ethanol production subsidy. It’s gone.
Not for long. Do you know how many seats Katter and/or Palmer stand to gain in Queensland if this is mishandled?
The Abbott-Hockey government is also more pro-market and pro-deregulation ... [Howard] never proposed a co-payment to visit a doctor.
This is a non-sequitur. Small businesses are being levied with additional paperwork and compliance.
Abbott’s plan would begin to repair the budget; it would also make Australia a more unequal society. The cuts to welfare are permanent. The 2 per cent tax levy on the rich is temporary.
The first sentence is true, the rest assumes some sort of link between what this government says and what it does. Honestly, there's no helping some people.
Bill Shorten’s budget response is also revealing. He is modelling himself as opposition leader not on Labor leaders Bob Hawke or Kevin Rudd but on Tony Abbott. His budget reply was all snarls, no solutions.
Bob Hawke was opposition leader only for the duration of the 1983 election campaign; he never delivered a reply to any budget John Howard delivered nor even fronted Question Time in that role. Kevin Rudd also offered few concrete solutions, frustrating the then Coalition government no end. Peter Hartcher has no excuse for not knowing this, especially as he's got the ouija board out with Don Chipp.
And Clive Palmer party [sic]? He’s talking mumbo jumbo and shaping as a classic populist opportunist. He’s committed to blocking the Medicare copayment, but he remains a wildcard. Some of Abbott’s most dramatic proposals for Medicare, universities, welfare and health and education depend on him. We have not yet seen how he will conduct his party in Senate negotiations.
Here's an idea: why not make like a journalist and ask Palmer questions. Stop treating him like he doesn't matter and acknowledge that he's part of the landscape now. Find out how he's reacted to similar situations in the past. How different would political history have been if Abbott's performance as opposition leader had been similarly written off by supposedly serious political analysts:
And [Tony Abbott] party? He’s talking mumbo jumbo and shaping as a classic populist opportunist ... he remains a wildcard. Some of [Gillard]’s most dramatic proposals for Medicare, universities, welfare and health and education depend on him. We have not yet seen how he will conduct his party in Senate negotiations.
Anyway, back to it:
And, like Shorten and the Greens, Palmer remains in blithe denial that there is any need to start addressing Australia’s deficit.
Start? When did it ever stop? Will we ever break out of the fetish that the budget deficit is the most important facet of the economy?

After all that it almost seems redundant to give Lyndal Curtis' facile and ignorant piece a going-over. It is of a piece with Katharine Murphy's out-of-office message.
If nothing else is clear from the past few years in federal politics, this is: election promises are often not worth the paper they are printed on.

Maybe it is time to ask for less.
If I had read that on a mobile device I would have thrown it across the room. Neither the quality of major party candidate offerings, nor the limitations of journalists, should cause citizens to ask less of their government. Yes, government is hard and I'm sure that attending press conferences and coffee at Aussie's can be a bit arduous at times, but this is an article by someone with no perspective of what her job is really about.
So many governments have broken promises over the years that we take them with a grain of salt when they are made.

But factoring in a lack of trust as a given does not serve the democracy well. It leads to distrust of politicians and disengagement from the electorate.
Neither credulity nor cynicism are appropriate for people seeking to send representatives to govern them. What people need is information. The idea that the press gallery should observe parliament and parliamentarians so closely, and yet be unable to report on what's going on, means that the press gallery has failed.
So is it just the politicians' problem, or are we all - the media and public alike - to blame for what we ask of politicians particularly during election campaigns?
The assumption that the media is the public, the public the media - is both total nonsense, and totally necessary for press gallery journalists to persist in doing what they do.

Let's be clear about what Lyndal Curtis does - first, politicians make a statement, then give a bit of background. Curtis crafts some questions that will elicit the key lines in the statement, and a bit of background. If there is a response from another party, she will forewarn the interview subject so that they can develop some lines. Then, the interview takes place in which the lines are trotted out in her presence, for a press gallery journalist has succeeded when this occurs.

Challenging questions are batted away and allowed to stay batted. Then, the day's work is pretty much over, but you can pretend that "the 24 hour news cycle" is really a thing if there's a meal allowance in it for you.
Elections have become a game of "rule in, rule out" proposals or changes across the budget.
Why? Who says? Having recognised this, how do you snap out of it?
They are asked for certainty in a world which is fundamentally uncertain. Even governments campaigning for re-election - who are in a better position to know what they will face after the poll - cannot predict every twist and turn of an economy open to global forces.

The urge for specific promises and the fear of a scare campaign moves politicians ever more into the realm of tight messaging and denies the opportunities for a real debate about what is needed or what may be needed.

The media (and I include myself in that) has to bear a large part of the blame.
Who is better placed to change the way interviews are conducted than Lyndal Curtis? Nobody.

So what is she going to do about it? Nothing.

Journalists have sent links to Curtis' piece around Twitter, describing it as "thoughtful" (this is code for 'nothing will change as a result of this'. If it was going to change anything, it would have been described as 'controversial'). It will fade away and be reprised in some other form by somebody else, on and on as the traditional media declines, as mulch for the inevitable pieces 'if only we had listened and acted'.
Years of describing any internal party debates as "dissent" or "splits" mean politicians are more reluctant to have a debate, especially in the open.
Journalists describe debates in that way when they can't and won't understand the issues that need to be debated. Malcolm Turnbull's positions on climate change and the republic are well elucidated and nuanced: but if you're a moron, and the editor who hired you is one as well, LIB SPLIT will do. More recently, the decision to purchase the F-35 fighter is written off as a split, here and elsewhere, because journalists can't be bothered getting across the issues and editor's won't engage those who can. If you won't engage with the public you can pretend it doesn't exist, and doesn't matter I suppose. You can even rope the public into the media's stupidity and laziness:
We should encourage and champion debate. Instead, what the media and to some extent the public does - and what politicians' offices have done for some time - stifles debate.
... debate is discouraged for fear of what the reaction might be.
Measured, considered and detailed responses are a potential outcome from a debate. It is not the debate itself but the outcome that is key as far as government is concerned. John Howard was always "happy to have the debate" after he had made his mind up, not before, and Abbott is the same in that regard. It is the mark of a muppet journalist who seeks to pretend a debate is underway when the fix is already in.
We should ask politicians to tell us what the problems are, to spell out their values in how they would approach them - such as whether they believe in the primacy of public services or whether they believe the private sector should play a greater role.

We should ask if there are specific commitments, tell the public the conditions under which they would be delivered.
Particularly if the "we" includes those of you whose job it is to question politicians, Lyndal, rather than just rattle through a list of questions designed to elicit lines from the press release/conference. You should, but you won't.
We should encourage politicians to engage in some old-fashion policy reform.

It is what Labor did with the National Disability Insurance Scheme - pointing out the problems, getting a report on the options for solutions, then discussing it with the sector and through them the public.

It took an electorate, fearful of increases in cost of living, to the point where it happily accepted an extra tax through an increase in the Medicare levy.
This is one of the more lucid moments in Curtis' piece. But then she scrambles to strike that Michael Gordon pose, the view from nowhere:
Treasurer Joe Hockey too has engaged, singlehandedly, in some old-fashioned policy reform.

He began by describing the problem with what he called the "age of entitlement".

He spoke in broad terms about people doing things for themselves that they could afford without the need of government support.
Yes, but he didn't engage with anyone about this, except the IPA. He just throws ideas out there: it's who he is, it's what he does, and no his thought bubbles are in no way equivalent to the NDIS. Hockey did this as President of the NSW Young Liberals in the early '90s, putting ideas out there and retreating once it got too detailed. He did it in opposition, and journalists thought he was a deeper thinker than he is. He still has Lyndal Curtis bluffed, which invalidates her piece somewhat and shows those moments of lucidity as accidental, sporadic and unreliable - as they are for Katharine Murphy.
But maybe we should also ask them to make fewer promises and judge them on results.
How is that going to get us the information we need to make an informed decision? At least she didn't recommend combing through talkback radio.

Before the last election journalists like Curtis had the whole cynicism/credulity problem something dreadful. Anything the Gillard/Rudd government did was assumed to be bogus, but anything Tony Abbott said - you could take it to the bank. I include Lyndal Curtis in that. And Peter Hartcher. And Paula Matthewson. And Michael Gordon. All of them, directly or indirectly, have admitted that they haven't the faintest clue about Australian politics, despite seeing it up close for many years. God forbid that we should start judging journalists on results.

It isn't like I have gone after some junior woodchucks for spelling mistakes. These people, with the possible exception of Matthewson, are senior journalists. Every journalism school in the country wants its graduates to turn out like these characters, and more's the pity.

If we are to understand how we are governed, and to make informed decisions, we must have better information than press gallery and other political journalists provide us with. This is more important than any other consideration - job tenure or brand positioning or even simple pity at their self-delusion.

You were probably wasting your time reading any articles on the budget other than those by:

08 May 2014

Consistent and clear

Katharine Murphy has tumbled to the Peter van Onselen scam of writing basically the same article every three months or so when you have nothing useful to say.

In van Onselen's case, he trots out a shopping list of his backgrounders and posits them as ministers over incumbents who wouldn't give him the time of day. In Murphy's case, she runs a piece assuring us that she's able to see through spin while also confessing that she's more than a bit of a sucker for it, and hopes you are too.

She did it here and at Fairfax, and now she does it there. It's sad schtick and an indictment on editors and others who fall for it. Murphy practically begs to be sacked and nobody ever does it.
The government wants you, the voters, to blame Labor for the new taxes and the nasties it intends to impose on you in next week’s budget. Not them – the people who told you solemnly, hand on heart, before the last election that there would be N-O new taxes – then proceeded to impose them anyway.

This is to be Labor’s fault. Trust me, says the finance minister, I’m breaking my promises not because I’m awful, but because those guys are awful.

Now, before you roll your eyes, let me assure you I’m rolling mine too. As spin and pantomime and rank political cynicism goes, this one is off the charts.
No it isn't. It's entirely consistent with what Abbott was like before the election.

Murphy didn't roll her eyes when Abbott said that the Gillard government was "a bad government". She didn't roll her eyes when Abbott promised to take responsibility. She faithfully reported it and didn't question the assumption that any government could do better than Gillard and/or Rudd simply because Abbott said so. She went to press conferences where "people [told her] solemnly, hand on heart, before the last election that there would be N-O new taxes", and didn't have any basis to challenge such statements. She didn't go digging into policy or into Abbott's record and consider what they meant, whether the Coalition really could be trusted when they said (for example) that funding for pensions and schools and public broadcasting wouldn't be cut.
But the past few years in federal politics have taught me a rather grim lesson: maximum audacity often wins. I’ve seen the Coalition over the past three years carry off more outrageous transactions than the current one, and largely get away with them.
What she's confessing here is the failure of her judgment, and that of her colleagues. Experienced journalists should have been awake to this and called it out. The Coalition gets away with this because the press gallery - Murphy especially - is lazy and stupid.
Whether they get away with it this time depends on the following factors.

It depends on their storytelling capacity. Tony Abbott’s ability to tell a political story with aggressive simplicity was one of the hallmarks of his success as opposition leader. Whether you liked what he was selling or not, the message was consistent and clear.
Journalists are meant to have that capacity and draw together facts to tell a story of how we are governed. If politicians have such storytelling capacity, and you leave the storytelling to them, journalists are redundant. It's sad that Murphy's first consideration of Abbott's words were whether or not she liked them. Abbott's message was only "consistent and clear" because nobody called him on it.

The idea that the budget isn't in crisis was bullshit two years ago, it was bullshit last year, it's bullshit now and it will be bullshit next year, and every time Katharine Murphy professes to roll her eyes about another professional failure on her part. That message was "consistent and clear" because Katharine Murphy had no basis for assessing the budget other than what the then opposition said about it.
He seems to have comprehensively lost this art in the transition to government.
The Coalition's message hasn't changed. There is, however, plenty of objective evidence about the budget and the economic assumptions behind it, as there is every year. Murphy and other press gallery journalists have decided to take heed of that to a greater extent than was the case with, say, evidence relating to last year's budget or the budget before.
And he cannot deliver the simple world that existed in opposition, because the simple world does not exist.
It didn't exist for the previous government either, but they were not accorded this level of understanding. Note that Murphy makes no reference to the current opposition or its leader; it seemed to have been impossible to write about the previous government on its own terms without slipping in a reference to Abbott, holding the government's coat and snickering.
There was always going to be a reckoning, and we are seeing it now.
There is no good reason why that reckoning had to come after the election, rather than before; this is entirely due to the failure of judgment - and the laziness and stupidity - referred to earlier. All of it was foreseeable. All of it was preventable.
As a consequence of the Abbott storytelling black hole, there is no coherence in the Coalition’s messaging, no hope horizon to point to.
It's every bit as coherent as it ever was; it has failed to hold up under the pressures of government, and this was foreseeable. Press gallery journalists should have called Abbott on that while he was in opposition, as they did with Latham, to avoid making his problems the country's.

To borrow from Tim Dunlop, this coherence thing is just Murphy's way of saying she can't handle complexity. Given that her job involves getting to grips with complexity and explaining it simply, she is clearly and consistently in the wrong job.
Let me put this more directly. We can’t know whether this budget is a turkey until we see it. Right now, it looks like a turkey, but I’m reserving final judgment until I see the sum of the parts.
You saw the Coalition's policies and non-policies. You saw Matthias Cormann and Joe Hockey defend the indefensible and assert the absurd. You didn't call them on it, and now here you are assuming that the sum might be more than the parts? To do otherwise would be to admit that this government was always going to do a worse job than its predecessor, and should therefore never have been accorded the credibility necessary to get it elected.
To turn the corner the Coalition has to have a reason to govern, and to articulate its reason for governing.
It needed that before the election. The Coalition said it wouldn't cut cut cut, and if you believed them (as Murphy and others did) the rationale for electing them disappeared. If you didn't believe them, as people like Tony Shepherd and I didn't, then their rationale for government was clear enough. The question here is the quality of perception and the strength to call it.
Thus far, the reason for governing has been manufactured culture war, manufactured border emergencies, flirtations with the notion of itself as small government, appointing mates and fellow travellers to boards, and various revenge fantasies against Labor.
And you expected, what? This time last year, it was obvious the Coalition would be like that. This time last year, nobody in the press gallery investigated or even considered the eminently foreseeable current predicament as a possibility, and sneered at those of us who did.
That combination has landed the new government waist deep in quicksand. I gather if you find yourself in quicksand, the best prospects of survival stem from not moving. Stop thrashing around. Develop some first principles. Start thinking. Start visualising the way back.
You do that before you get into government, not afterward. Standing still (or "slowing down", Textor style, in the way that telcos shape internet access for those who've exceeded their download allowance) is not an option. "Thrashing about" might be indistinguishable from purposeful activity if you have learned nothing from Kevin Rudd, despite years of observing him up close.

The nature of this government was foreseeable before it took office. Yes it was. Asking them pointed questions was and is not the act of a partisan, but failing to do so was gutless on the part of the press gallery and injurious to the public good.

That quicksand metaphor applies to Murphy, the press gallery and perhaps to journalism more broadly. Stop thrashing about, get some principles and act on them. If the exhibited behaviour of the press gallery really does reflect its principles, then not only is it done for but this is no bad thing.
The budget presents risk, certainly, but also an opportunity for the Coalition to finally grow up, settle down, focus, desist from the student politics – and develop the courage of their own convictions.
The "student politics" is the essence of this government and the sum total of its convictions. To argue otherwise is to be deceived, to be unable to understand a government that has been closely followed but little scrutinised. It is a journalist's way of admitting they have been played for mugs and dupes, and that intelligent readers are right to shun them. Too much rolling of eyes, not enough focusing and reporting what they see.
We are all watching. I wonder whether they will take it.
We are watching the press gallery to a much lesser extent. I do not wonder whether or not they will take more crap from this government; they've done it before, they'll do it again. To add insult to injury they will try this I'm-with-you pretence in the hope their audience won't continue deserting them in disgust at their inability to challenge power-seekers as to whether they are up to the demands of office.

03 May 2014

Magical Thinking 2: venting and hyperventilating

And there you have it: the politico-media complex is as one on this. You can either agree with the government (on the 'budget emergency', and the need to make the cuts identified by the 'Commission of Audit') or you are 'hyperventilating'. There is no third option.

Faster-than-normal breathing is part of the body's reaction to stress: whether you're going to "fight or [take] flight", you're going to need additional oxygen. Hyperventilation occurs when people experience stress but neither fight nor flee (we could go on about the science of balancing gases in the bloodstream, but who even cares about science in Abbott's Australia?). It is the helpless inaction of critics that is being mocked by the use of this word - for example, young girls in the presence of pop idols who can neither have their idols nor go and do something more productive. When political-class operatives talk about 'hyperventilating' this is what they mean: they mock the inability of critics to either make the changes they would wish to make, or (as they do) to quietly accept the government's prerogatives and play their little part in fulfilling its objectives.

Maybe the choices aren't so black-and-white, and maybe you can criticise the government without 'hyperventilating'. Maybe this is what Bill Shorten is doing, who knows?

Previous governments would float ideas through various mechanisms - royal commissions, backbench committees and so on - and then gauge the extent to which they can push through the outrage or drop it altogether. With Howard, an idea would float, generate outrage and then he'd back away from it, causing this grey rhetorical fog to descend followed by some muddled compromise. With Rudd, an idea would float and whatever its merits, he'd move onto something else. Our three correspondents above, bless 'em all, assume this government is a continuation of its predecessors despite having closely observed evidence that it is not.

Abbott does not have the moderating impulses that Howard or Rudd had. This is a matter of public record over many years, not some sudden surprise. He lacks the comforting grey fog with which Howard and other long-term leaders could smother public debate and marginalise the sharper edges. Whether we're talking about the Commission of Audit proposals, or any other predicament before government, only Liberal loyalists who say: don't worry, Tony Abbott is across it (the very prospect frightens everyone else).

The Commission of Audit report is not just another competing agenda in the intellectual foment of a capable government; it stands like a lemonade stand in a desert, ramshackle and badly stocked, not the most attractive option but what else is there? Stop hyperventilating and suck it down.

Even if the Budget does not implement all of the proposals of the Commission of Audit, no comfort should or will be taken from that. No comfort can be taken from denials of how this or that will ever see the light of day, because this government will just lie doggo on such proposals and slip them in just before the next long weekend. There is no 'relaxed and comfortable' under this government. The only people impressed by this kind of pantomime are the political-class operatives for whom it is performed, including journalists so jaded they no longer capable of actually describing what is going on.

Tim Dunlop believes it is necessary to record one's dissent; and it is, however insufficient it may appear. As Dunlop has also noted, because the traditional media has framed itself out of being able to report on matters such as demonstrations of dissent, then the mechanisms by which dissent is made and registered are broken. We are now in a position where, when the effects of dissent to this government's policies become felt, the grounds for the dissent will be disconnected from the effect.

Lacking authentic political bases in their own right, modern political class operatives rely on polls and pollsters to warn them about sources of dissent. One of the better ones was Peter Brent. When the Coalition were ahead in the polls he was happy to identify why and brooked no nonsense that merely being clueless and inept was some sort of barrier to winning and staying in office. With this piece, Labor are ahead in the polls so he's dropped the stats and relied on bull-headed assertions and thunderous warnings which are the house style for News muppets.
WITH so many broken election promises in the pipeline, and a prime minister never much loved in the electorate, you might think the Abbott government is in a spot of political bother.

It depends what one means by “bother”.
Doesn't it always? Do I look bovvered?
They have a secure majority on the floor of the House and there is no poll due for two-and-a-half years.
Though they were outside her own party, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott were more loyal to Gillard than many - eventually, most - of her own party. Gillard had a majority like Menzies did in 1961. Look at the polls six months into Gillard's term and then look at Brent's commentary on them, compare them to his more recent work at the same electoral point.
And, in the end, politically, that election result will be all that matters, all that’s remembered.
Honestly? Of everything that happened in Australian politics over 2007-13, only people like Peter Brent remember what the membership numbers were in the House of Representatives at the three elections. The memorable bits didn't happen on election night. Leave the assertions to bloggers Peter, or that Kenny van Onselen fellow a few desks over.
Those words should be on the wall of Labor headquarters. Not because they’re true, but because so many people believe them.
But when Labor people assert untruths, or try to operate on the basis of untruths, News outlets call them liars. I'm no strategist, but I have noticed that every piece of advice to the ALP coming out of News tends to be bullshit. Maybe the next Peter Brent could do some analysis on that.
And Labor’s debt and deficits albatross will see the Abbott government re-elected in 2016, pretty much regardless of what they do.
Hardly. While Howard was re-elected in 1998, and while he banged on about the fiscal position left him in, Howard had a bigger margin and more credibility than Abbott has today.
Shorten’s tactic is to avoid, deflect, get back on message: broken promises, “skewed priorities” and a government out of touch with people’s concerns.

Shorten comes from the party machine. He is rehearsed. He keeps it simple.
Substitute 'Abbott' for 'Shorten' and, again, go back to about six months after he became Leader of the Opposition.

The following four paragraphs are the ones that really show that Brent makes a more convincing pollster than political analyst:
Treasury spokesman Chris Bowen has more of a go, but like the rest of his party is trapped in the Keynesian narrative of Labor’s decision to go into deficit rescuing the country from recession.

That’s a shocking political message, because it implies they had a choice about going into the red.

The only politician on either side who has publicly stated (or conceded) that had the Coalition been in government during the GFC they too would have presided over debt and deficits, is the treasurer, Joe Hockey. I believe he’s only done it once (in opposition).

Most Australians, including it seems most political journalists, would be surprised to learn this. But it never seems to occur to anyone in the ALP to make this argument.
The job of political journalists is to tell Australians what is going on inside their government and their parliament. Over the previous three to six years, political journalists simply ignored political messaging that did not fit their pre-existing prejudices frames. Labor, having been punished for trying to push such messages, seem to have given up kicking against media prejudice framing - and Brent is stumped as to why Labor won't keep making arguments that lead them to defeat.

In the tweets at the top of this page, Brent's colleague David Crowe purports to quote someone, but it isn't clear who - this is a real worry when you consider that for Crowe, as with most in the press gallery, stenography is the most significant part of his journalistic skill.
Last week the Saturday Paper took us inside Labor’s “war room”, where the party brains trust divulged some of their strategy for returning to government at the earliest opportunity.

Oh dear.

Some of their thinking was sound, but the core plan seems to be catching Abbott out on broken promises, cultivating voter anger that the Coalition government is proving to be different to that which was promised before the election.

Maybe the brains trust is too young to remember, but every party that moves from opposition into government breaks promises.
No, read the article Peter: Labor is claiming that the government is fundamentally different from what it promised before the election, way beyond this or that broken promise.

Besides, after the last election, when Shorten's immediate predecessor as Opposition Leader was banging on about broken promises, political analysts were much less blithe.
And always the leader and the party have been almost unrecognisable in office compared with the versions in opposition.
Different, yes, and the better ones grow in office - but "unrecognisable"? Really?
Short-term disgruntlement is the sort of thing that shows up in focus groups and makes opposition party strategists satisfied with their work. But elections aren’t won in focus groups, especially ones held months and years before election day.
Oh, aren't they? The whole mythology of Mark Textor is that they are.
The Abbott government will go to the 2016 election saying what they’re saying today, that Labor left a horrible mess and they had to fix it.
The Howard government went to the 2007 election saying what they said in 1996, that Labor left a horrible mess and they had to fix it, and all of a sudden there was no point in voting for a powerless government. Like Drag0nista, Brent confuses stating what Coalition strategy is with the ultimate victory of that strategy.

Speaking of Drag0nista:
Palmer tells people what they want to hear, with seemingly little thought given to the possibility that conflicting promises will be exposed or indeed whether they can be achieved at all.
It would be rude to call this 'hyperventilation', wouldn't it.

Small parties disappear when they lose faith with their voters. Getting stuck into big parties is how they get noticed. Don Chipp even referred to members of big parties as 'bastards'. His party, the Democrats, lost faith with its voters decades later when it tried to accommodate the then government; commentators at the time applauded then-leader Meg Lees for being 'responsible'.

Not content with death-riding the Greens, Drag0nista has now set her cap at Palmer. She is convinced that wherever little parties take on big parties the smart money is on Goliath. As with Brent's piece, there is the assumption that Abbott and the Coalition are safe so long as other parties can be shown to be flawed too, and thus Abbott should continue receiving the benefit of the doubt no matter what he does.

Big parties are becoming small parties. In the aftermath of the NSW ICAC hearings, it is likely that the officials of what have traditionally been the parties of government who emerge from the rubble will be the sorts of people with very little of the big-time political experience that you need to operate at the highest levels of politics. The same goes for the Queensland LNP - all the old men who made that work are transitioning from hopefuls to has-beens, and a future based upon Jarrod Bleijie and Wyatt Roy is less promising as some might hope. The future of the Victorian Libs is also far from assured beyond Christmas.

This scourge of the majors may uncover some impressive leaders who might not otherwise have made it, like Adenauer and Erhard in postwar Germany, but then again they might Yelstin themselves into irrelevance. It's hard to tell from this angle. What is clear, however, is that blithe assurances of the same old same-old are bullshit, and that so-called experienced observers only assert their own irrelevance by cleaving to conventional wisdom.

It can't be denied that political fundamentals are changing in response to political-class tactics that once seemed smart, even inevitable. Those who are long-time observers of politics do us a disservice when they assert that the old patterns are sound, and they'd know what they are, when the men and methods that comprise them are so clearly unsustainable.