20 April 2016

Mummies and daddies

It's long been a cliche of US politics that Republicans are the daddy party while Democrats are the mommy party: Republicans believe (ostensibly) in punishment for wrongdoing and rewards for doing the right thing, while Democrats just want to make sure everyone's healthy and doing well at school. Australian politics seems to be moving along similar lines, with the major parties selecting candidates that reinforce those images in their very bodies.

We all want security in an uncertain world. Members of the Coalition believe the security they can offer Australians in government is with a sound economy, stable and dynamic at the same time, to ensure today's jobs and growth going forward. Increasingly, police and military and others involved in security are challenging the domination of businessmen. Government as security provider is a paternalistic view of government and its role. It resonated in 2013 amidst media narratives of Labor chaos, and their ridiculous overestimation of Tony Abbott's ability to provide stable and secure leadership.

The NSW Coalition has three women in the winnable positions on its Senate ticket: sitting Senators Concetta Fierravanti-Wells and Fiona Nash, then Hollie Hughes. The Victorian Liberals had planned to do the same, the common wisdom elevating Jane Hume from number two on their ticket and choosing another female Liberal to fill that place, with Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie making up the three winnable spots (assuming a half-Senate election with six Senators to be elected). Senator Michael Ronaldson brought forward his retirement and spoiled that plan, with IPA office boy James Paterson taking Ronaldson's position atop the Liberal Senate ticket.

Since then every Liberal preselection has been won by a man. Departing female Liberal MPs Sharman Stone and Bronwyn Bishop have not been replaced by women, but by men. Apparently men are more credible in talking about the economy than women; we shall see how well that goes for them.

The Victorian Liberals used to produce formidable matriarchs like Dame Ivy Wedgwood, who never won (or sought) preselection but made sure women's issues achieved a prominence they would not otherwise have received from an all-male parliamentary party. Today, Louise Asher and Mary Wooldridge may already be past the peak of their influence. Inga Peulich, like Bronwyn Bishop in NSW, has no interest in advancing women candidates. Every other Liberal woman is flat out securing her own spot rather than building a base to help others. The opinionated Janet Albrechtsen is happy to be a consort rather than test the reach, validity, and influence of her theories.

Much was made of Georgina Downer running for Liberal preselection in Goldstein, and losing.

The Victorian Liberals used to be big on scions and breeding as a consideration for candidates; even Robert Menzies relied early in his career on being the son of an MLC. Downer's political inheritance was both a blessing and a curse. The IPA domination of the party's ways of looking at government and itself meant the prospect of a fourth-generation politician was to be resisted. The political DNA from her great-grandfather (a former Premier of South Australia), her grandfather (former Changi internee and Immigration Minister), and her father (former Party leader and Foreign Minister) seemed less important than the XX-chromosome.

When it became clear Downer was losing the Goldstein preselection to Tim Wilson, she allowed her supporters to play the homophobia card. I have no idea whether she descended to this herself and it's not one of the things that matter. At the risk of getting all intersectional here, it was important that Downer did not win on the basis of homophobia and hopefully she's learnt a hard lesson well; if she hasn't, stuff her. Sir Alec's granddaughter ought never have stooped to that.

Discuss: it's more important to have fewer homophobes in Parliament than more women - and as this is Australian politics, no it isn't big enough for both.

Labor have pretty much given up on the job security thing, happy for unions to wage the odd battle here or there for entitlements but accepting that the war for permanent, secure employment for all is pretty much a thing of the past. Look at that typical male worker profiled in the Harvester judgment in 1907, detailed down to his three kids and allowance for tobacco; he is as remote from workers today as those who built the Pyramids. Providing state-sponsored health and education seems to be their way of offering security in an insecure world. You could call it a maternalistic approach.

Not every Labor candidate endorsed for the current election are women, but many of them are; more than have been endorsed in the past. Health and education have been increasingly important The framing of this is interesting, and of course the Daily Telegraph is too dopey to question it. Note that:
  • it isn't the party leader, Bill Shorten, who is demanding more women candidates and being vindicated;
  • it isn't the party's deputy leader, Tanya Plibersek - a woman and from Labor's Left - who is calling for more women candidates and succeeding;
  • it isn't prominent Labor women like Penny Wong or Anastacia Palaszczuk who get the credit for years of activism to this end;
  • it isn't the party's rank-and-file, often invoked but rarely consulted, who rose as one to insist more women be given a go; but instead
  • the State Secretary gets the credit for delivering a full complement of viable, appealing female candidates.
The position of NSW Secretary of the ALP has been imbued with mystical powers of control over Australian politics, impressions cultivated by those who held the office like Graham Richardson and Mark Arbib, and burnished by no-hopers like Eric Roozendaal or Jamie Clements. The current occupant, Kalia Murnane, is using the legendary powers of her office to promote Labor women, and by doing so reinforce her own position. This manoeuvring meant that a woman Labor State Deputy Leader from the Left was replaced by a man from the Right, but hey:
Declaring the line-up as “unprecedented”, Labor’s new female boss Kaila Murnain said the party had more than met its 40 per cent quota.

“Many of these women are in winnable seats, which will mean our representation of women in parliament is set to increase,” she said.
Is it unprecedented, or just "unprecedented"? This is easily checkable and would have demonstrated a brain engaged with this subject matter, rather than just more transcription journalism. How many of those women are in winnable seats? Have women been put into safe Coalition seats for the sake of the quota? It isn't clear from that article and there is no list on the NSW Labor website at time of writing. Let's do the maths:
  • There are 21 women identified in that article;
  • There are seven women Labor MHRs from NSW, including Plibersek. Of those, all but Jill Hall will definitely nominate again, or have been preselected;
  • There are two women NSW Labor Senators, both likely to renominate;
  • According to the article, "Of the nine most winnable seats, five will be contested by female candidates"; this leaves us with
  • Eight Labor candidates (seven if Hall is re-endorsed in the face of the Conroy-Fitzgibbon stoush over Hunter) who are pretty much making up the numbers in safe Coalition seats.
Again, note the frequency in that article with which Murnane is referred to as "Labor boss". You might wheel in Shorten to lay on some verbal tinsel, but the point of this article is to underline Murnane's power and the purposes for which she is using it:
Mr Shorten said it was a major achievement for Labor to have so many women standing.

“We are streets ahead of the Liberal Party when it comes to increasing the number of women in parliament,” he said.
Labor is beating the Liberals in a fight they have abandoned. You may as well say Labor is streets ahead in selecting trade unionists.

Health and education are two sectors of the workforce definitely likely to grow into the foreseeable future; two areas of the workforce with high percentages of women at all levels of responsibility, two areas where (HSU shenanigans notwithstanding) union membership remains strong. Old-school Labor powerbrokers like Doug Cameron (from the Manufacturing Workers' Union) and other horny-handed sons of toil from male-dominated industries are less likely to retain their historic grip over Labor's future.

The concern here is that political coverage and debate degenerates even further where there is no common ground: he says more money for defence, she says more money for healthcare, no evaluation and off to the pub. With major parties cleaving in this way, the political emphasis turns to those outside the majors who will have to be able to discuss defence and healthcare, and allocate resources to both. It means the ballot every three or four years becomes a blunter instrument than it is already. It means the real stories lie far from the announceables.

At the very time Australian politics is becoming more interesting, the press gallery is gearing up for two months of cliche-milling, gathering mindlessly into formation like Orwell's cavalry horses. They will be unable to break out of he-said-she-said coverage, which will guarantee they miss the real stories: the information we need to make sound decisions over the government of the country, creating the value that might make traditional media's future more sound than it appears.

* Note: when I describe parties' offerings above, I am describing my understanding of those offerings, rather than propagandising for/against those parties. Label-slapping responses and tweets will have to be good to get published, let alone warrant a response.

05 April 2016

Some sort of difference

Yesterday gave several great examples of why the press gallery's insistence on a narrative - and cramming everything that may happen into it - produces such terrible journalism.

Kevin Andrews is not going to be Prime Minister. He's not even the next Liberal Opposition Leader. The framing of this is just such bullshit. It's designed to feed into a narrative that Turnbull is so "beleaguered" that a low-flier like Kevin Andrews might seriously fancy his chances.

Let's do instead what press gallery journalists can't, despite their much-vaunted experience and all that oak-vatted savvy from which they draw so deeply. Let's piece together real things that actually happened and see if they indicate a pattern.

When Turnbull was Opposition Leader in 2009, Kevin Andrews challenged him and did better than expected. This brought on the later challenge by Abbott and Hockey which succeeded in knocking Turnbull off.

He was no closer to becoming PM then than he is now. Andrews is trying to make out that he has a future, that he's a player, and that he deserves yet another term in Parliament.

Kevin Andrews has been in Parliament since 1991. His one big success came in the late 1990s when he built bridges between Coalition conservatives and Labor conservatives (led by the young Tony Burke) to vote down Northern Territory legislation allowing for euthanasia.

That vote put the lie to the idea - still dearly beloved by the press gallery - that anything on which Labor and the Coalition agree must be "centre ground", reasonable and moderate and all good things about Australian politics.

Since then he's been a dud:
  • He was the Immigration Minister who made a scapegoat of Dr Haneef, and didn't even get that right;
  • He was the Workplace Relations Minister who could neither sell WorkChoices nor dismantle it;
  • He was the Social Security Minister who couldn't curb his nanny-state impulses for the sake of the Budget; and
  • As Defence Minister he was nothing more than a seat-warmer. He failed to understand that warships are blunt instruments in combatting militant Islam, yet had the gall to insist (unchallenged, but for social-media sniggers) that his removal from the portfolio represented a threat to national security.
Some Liberal preselections have been held, while others will be decided within the next few weeks. Menzies is the safest Liberal seat in the greater Melbourne area. Other Liberals holding safe seats there (Josh Frydenberg, Kelly O'Dwyer) may argue they deserve a little longer yet, while Tim Wilson is yet to get his feet under the desk.

Ambitious Victorian Liberals must look upon Andrews and conclude reasonably that he's had a fair go. To give a now-obscure example, Conrad Xanthos is ten years less inexperienced than he was the last time he posed a preselection threat to Andrews.

When Andrews proclaims himself a real chance of keeping the Prime Minister on his toes, he is trying to frighten off would-be challengers. The chestnut hair dye, the grey air of calm reassurance sliced with the occasional lightning-flash of defiance, all reveal a determination that many (including experienced observers) have underestimated for too long. Mere months ago, the then Prime Minister allowed speculation Andrews might give way to said PM's chief-of-staff; with a snarl he put paid to that.

We've all seen what happened to Dennis Jensen - a spring chicken compared to Andrews. Nobody wants to go out like that. Jensen also believed his talents shouldn't have been wasted on the backbenches, but so what?

Andrews says he has more to offer. Not even the vast journalistic resources of the Manningham Leader (nor those of any other traditional media outlet, really) are sufficient to explore what that might be.

Conservative men like Andrews constantly complain that they are on the defensive, that they are underdog defenders of mainstream values, even when they occupy positions of power and implement policies not supported by anything like a majority of Australians.

Andrews was in word and deed the "Captain Catholic" Abbott only ever talked about. The greatest churchman of their generation, George Pell, is depleted of moral authority when his titular authority should be absolute. Abbott came and went with nothing to show conservatives what might be done with political power. Apart from maybe Burke or Bowen (and even they have disavowed Church tenets like heterosexual reproduction-only marriage), no other Australian politician can show conservatives what might be possible. Andrews is doing his yeoman best but it just isn't good enough.

Andrews' generation of conservatives have cried 'wolf' for so long and are being ignored. We all know what happens next in that story: even Kevin Andrews.

The prospect of same-sex marriage has been so long delayed it is a failure of democracy. That prospect looms before Christianists like Andrews, and terrifies them. It has such momentum that we face the diminution (but not quite the disappearance) of the moral suasion against homosexuality that has existed since the late nineteenth century. What is now called homophobia used to be an unspoken given; now the case against homosexual equality must be articulated publicly by its proponents, and from none of them is it convincing.

People like Andrews can't quite believe that battle against women in equal paid employment, or against legalised (and publicly funded!) abortion, are well and truly lost. Traditional dominion of men over their households has been weakened by increasing measures against domestic terrorism and funding women's refuges. Kevin Andrews' whole political career has been in fighting those sorts of measures without being seen to be hostile toward hardworking people. He still thinks he can be effective in some small way somewhere, against all evidence to the contrary.

Perpetuating those battles is the "sort of difference" Andrews is hoping to make. He wants to be the dog in the manger a little longer: a fluffy dog panting smilingly and wagging his tail, but stopping others from using it to their ends regardless. Note how he expresses his wish in the soft humble words that had worked so well to deflect hostility, as he went about the quiet busywork that made the lives of those he opposed slightly more difficult.

Latter-day braggarts like Cory Bernardi or Ted Cruz show conservatives today need to cast off the sheep's clothing to cut through. Andrews can't do that: he is ovine in his soul. Nor can he keep up the penny-ante obstructions in an age of disclosure and selfies. The Liberals of Menzies may keep him on, or they may not; had they opted for a bright young thing after 2007, as other safe Liberal electorates did, their future might be better assured. Of all the ambitious young conservatives out there in Melbourne, very few are putting themselves forward "in the Kevin Andrews tradition".

By contrast, Phillip Ruddock goes into retirement knowing his legacy is secure. Ruddock developed and promulgated an Australian conservatism that didn't rely so heavily on The Crown, The Anglosphere, And All Things English. He hands over to Julian Leeser and Concetta Fierravanti-Wells while Andrews has no political heir. You can't be The Champion of Families in a job that is actively hostile to family life, and someone like Andrews won't join with the lefty feminists who would make Parliament more family-friendly. What if he had to hand over to some sodomite like that Goldstein fellow? This is another reason why Andrews wants a little more time: nobody wants his life's work carted away in a skip.

This is why Gray Connolly is wrong to insist that conservatism somehow springs whole and pure from grubby encounters with reality. All political movements need exemplars. Those who would carry the torch forward need the ability to stand on the shoulders of giants while being able to see what the giants themselves could not. Conservatives rightly sneer at marxists who think their movement(s) has/have survived successive debacles: Budapest, the Hundred Flowers, building hipster apartments from the rubble of the Berlin Wall. We have seen Australian conservatives distance themselves from Menzies, from Fraser, from Askin and the Courts, from Kennett and Hamer, and now Abbott and even Turnbull - and a fat lot of good it does them.

Experienced press gallery journalists should have laughed at Andrews' feeble rearguard action. A political analyst who can't distinguish weakness from strength simply sucks at their job, regardless of any imperative to excrete 600 words/20 seconds of blather on command. Nobody will buy a single copy of a newspaper on the basis of Kevin Andrews keening for another go around: to quibble with that would diminish what little value there may be in experienced political journalism.

There are many stories to be told from Canberra. Media advisors and their own herd instincts ensure the press gallery will miss almost all of them. The piping roar of a frightened, toothless old lion from a non-marginal seat in the 'burbs should not have been relayed so far. It should not have been infused with any importance it never had.