21 March 2017

Laws of gravity

The press gallery seems agreed that there were no implications for the Federal Government in the recent WA election, at which Labor won an overwhelming majority. I disagree.

In Warner Bros’ much-loved Road Runner cartoons, there is a trope where Wile E. Coyote runs off a cliff and, for a little while, continues moving forward. He stops. He looks down, and suddenly realises that he’s no longer supported. Only then does he begin plunging toward the floor of the canyon. Senator Cormann is similarly paused, seemingly in defiance of known laws of political gravity.

At the grassroots level, the WA Liberals used to be a constellation of local fiefdoms, loosely aligned. Matthias Cormann blew into town and began uniting conservatives with no talent beyond loyalty to him. Part of this loyalty involved preselecting second-rate candidates to state parliament – the sorts of people who looked up to Troy Buswell.

Colin Barnett was a hard-working, clever man who might have made it to the top of any organisation; the organisation he joined was the WA State Parliamentary Liberal Party. Barnett watched in horror as capable local-hero MPs were replaced by mouth-breathing Cormann loyalists. Barnett could only drag such dead weights so far, and Cormann didn’t want to go into state parliament.
From far Canberra, as the tide began turning against Barnett, Cormann had watched his conservative followers ebb away from the Liberal Party and toward One Nation (the same thing is happening to the LNP in Queensland, for much the same reasons). Despite being beyond the pettiness of state politics, and pragmatically recognising Barnett was past it, no politician will sit by and suffer the loss of his power base. Cormann had an incentive to help Barnett, and Barnett had no choice but to accept it.

As Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate, Cormann deals with Hanson regularly. He is used to organising right-wing dummies. By contrast, Queensland’s George Brandis disdains them, after a lifetime fighting and outmanoeuvering them within the LNP (you'd give the job of reforming s18C of the Racial Discrimination Act to Brandis only if you wanted it to fail). Cormann doesn’t patronise Hanson like Brandis does. Hanson’s newfound supporter base in WA were people Cormann knew; despite wanting to extend her influence nationally, Hanson didn’t know or trust them. Cormann cut a deal with Hanson as though it was all upside: keeping conservatives in the Liberal fold through preferences, and currying favour with Hanson’s team (including a new WA Senator to replace Rod Culleton).

You show me a press gallery journalist who insists that WA is a conservative state, and I’ll show you one way too close to WA Liberal MPs. The Liberal Party in WA is more conservative than in other states: moderates usually stay outside the Liberal Party, contesting state elections as independents. Moderate independents help the Liberals win tight elections. When Barnett won government he reached out to long-serving Independent MP Liz Constable as his Education Minister, which surprised no long-time observers of WA politics but which appalled Cormannites working their way through the party.

There is a long history of independents like Constable (and protest groups like Liberals for Forests) aligning with Liberals in WA. The state tends to vote Labor during economic downturns, and who believes Liberal policies will soon pull WA back into the boomtimes? As the McGowan government begins to fade, history suggests moderate independents will come back into WA politics in ways that work against the Labor government. The WA Liberals-One Nation deal assumed those people didn’t exist, or would doggedly stay with the Liberals like the mouth-breathing Cormannites did.

Federal politics in Cormann’s turf: he can’t promise much to his followers, nor threaten them much should they waver. In last year’s federal election Labor ran Anne Aly in Cowan against Liberal MP Luke Simpkins; the Liberals ran a Hanson-like scare campaign against Aly’s Muslim faith, trying to turn her expertise in terrorism against her. For federal Liberal MPs who held on in 2016, like Ken Wyatt, Steve Irons, Ian Goodenough, Melissa Price, or Michael Keenan, nothing has happened to boost their anticipated vote at the next election. There is no sign Aly or other marginal Labor MPs in WA need fear a Liberal resurgence.

Cormann’s people had their go in WA politics, and those who missed out won’t get another go for a while. Many of them have left the Liberal Party, and the failure of WA One Nation left them all looking and feeling stupid. The Cowan experience should have shown that One Nation-style tactics are more trouble than they’re worth.

Charismatic churches have organised and motivated conservatives within the WA Liberals in ways Cormann can’t match, let alone beat.

Cormann himself is in his fourth year as Finance Minister, presiding over ballooning debt in a stagnating economy. It isn’t much of a policy legacy to build upon, and less grounds for pride. That long Perth-Canberra commute wears down even the most committed politicians, creating a sense of entitlement to public junkets which exposure breeds resentment.

I’m not betting Cormann will chuck it in, but all the signs seem there. He had a good run for a long time. A powerbroker whose power fades is broke indeed: Cormann will be keen to avoid that humiliation, a desire strong enough to negate pleas to stay. Having seen Stephen Conroy and other ex-powerbrokers go out on top, he can leave long-term public service to party scions like Christian Porter or Michaelia Cash.

Though his record as Finance Minister is poor, his departure would devastate the political class. It would make tangible the departure of this government, the death of myths like Moderate Malcolm or Liberal Economic Management. The press gallery, for all their close connections and fingers-on-the-pulse, will be taken completely by surprise. How they love his stone-wall interview style. No federal impact from the WA election? Pfft.

Like Wile E. Coyote, Matthias Cormann is not going forward, or down, at this stage. He is preparing for the budget in May. He still has to get legislation through the Senate, dealing with the humiliated Hansonites, as well as the isolated Bernardi, Leyonhjelm, and Hinch. His Mitteleuropa burr has given him the gravitas of Kissinger in 1970s Washington, a quality Christopher Pyne never had and which Turnbull and Morrison are losing fast. He would once have been in the thick of leadership manoeuvres: but whatever happens to Abbott, Dutton, and Turnbull, his own position is safe. That might be a good point to depart.

11 February 2017

King of the castle

Smiling as the shit comes down
You can tell a man from what he has to say
Everything gets turned around
And I will risk my neck again, again

- Crowded House Four seasons in one day
In theory, Parliament is the forum for the great debates on where the nation is headed. In practice, debates on where the nation is headed are had behind closed doors; what is put on show is bad drama badly acted, in Australia's best-subsidised and best-equipped theatre, where it is reviewed by the Australian media's last contingent of professional paid drama critics.

Legislation and policy lags public debate by its very nature, where deliberations about good ideas, measurements of political forces alive in the community beyond Canberra, and how new initiatives fit with wider strategies like the budget or the PR imperatives of the incumbent government. It's complex and best described by people far from Canberra who focus on one aspect of it. I am so being fair and broadly accurate when I say those who cover politics up close, day after year after parliamentary term, do an important job very, very badly.

Press gallery journalists know nothing about policy and governance - some of the more conscientious ones will do a quick Google search on the topic at hand, as though they don't realise we all have Google. What value is there in consuming traditional media once you've had to do your own googling? What time is there? Does anyone wonder why traditional media is going out of business? Have they really chosen the best journalists available to cover federal politics?

But let's not have your standard rant about the press gallery, and what buffoons they mostly are. Instead, let's go to source materials and work outward from there.

This brings us to Wednesday's wide-ranging debate in parliament, ostensibly a motion on Centrelink payments. The motion itself is on pages 59-60 of this transcript; Shorten's much-vaunted speech is at pp. 60-61, with Turnbull's response at 61-63.

Shorten's speech was not the wonkish affair some on social media have pretended, as though Turnbull had mugged him on the way home from the library. It begins with the epithet "Mr Harbourside Mansion"; Shorten is trying to make the case Turnbull is out of touch, but he hasn't made the case adequately or directly and starting the speech with that phrase was arse-about - you build up to a notion like that, so the killer phrase becomes embedded and unshakeable rather than just another cliche. Just a personal attack, the sort of political news that washes off most people. It practically invited Turnbull to turn it around on Shorten which he (kind of - see below) did. Other gobbets like "this slippery fellow", the mock sympathy for Abbott, being baited by an unworthy interjector in Christian Porter, ensure that no journalist would claim this speech gives Shorten that most elusive quality of politics: Looking Prime Ministerial.

That speech, taken with his earlier one at the National Press Club, has this value: Shorten is clearly calibrating, testing, and recalibrating his message. What we learned on Wednesday is that he is getting under Turnbull's skin.

When Turnbull became Prime Minister in September 2015 he was miles ahead of Shorten in popularity, trustworthiness, and that vague but potent gallery-appointed quality of Looking Prime Ministerial. Turnbull assumed he could crush Shorten in an early election in July 2016, but didn't. It's 2017, and Shorten is still there, plugging away. He hasn't been consumed by some personal failing nor by the roiling tumult of the Labor Party. Abbott and Dutton might be irritants to Turnbull, but Shorten is a mockery.

Turnbull too started off on the wrong foot with the "sycophant" thing, which carries the tinny resonance of Pyne. Turnbull has supped with a few billionaires in his time and it would seem that's the sort of thing one has to do in order to become Prime Minister; it did not work as an opening salvo. It is unclear why Dick Pratt or other billionaires might cultivate someone who wages some sort of class war against them.

The repeated references to "sucking", the almost racist designation of "manual labour", is the only time Turnbull could be said to have failed to uphold the decorum of the Prime Ministership. Well, apart from his petulant speech in the early hours of the morning after the election - and it is unclear why anyone would regard that speech as a disaster while hailing Turnbull's 8 February effort as a triumph.
Some of the lowest paid workers in Australia, cleaners working at Cleanevent — he sold out their penalty rates. And what did they get? They got nothing. But what did the union get? Cash, money, payments.
Kathy Jackson apparently did something similar at the HSU and was lionised by Pyne and Abbott. Strange that the Heydon Royal Commission was unable to make the sort of case against Shorten that is underway against Jackson. It's funny how things turn out, really.

Energy policies are a cost of living expense, but far from the only one. This government lost that battle when the carbon price was axed with no benefit flowing through to households. Turnbull talking about Viridian or Portland Aluminium doesn't even address household power. Turnbull bagging the AWU - well, a Liberal leader would, and besides have you seen how few private-sector employees are even members of unions?

That final paragraph is how Turnbull should have begun a carefully targeted attack: the idea that Shorten is inconsistent and can't be trusted. It might be rich for Turnbull to make such a case but it didn't stop John Howard. The difference is, though, that Turnbull is not testing and recalibrating like Shorten. Turnbull has been confirmed, with backbenchers and press gallery falling over themselves to congratulate him, and we can expect to see more of this as a result.

Turnbull isn't really worried about the social climbing thing, he's aspirational himself. It does indicate a deeper vulnerability. Shorten is not aiming for wealth or for some echelon of social status, he is aiming to hold a single office: Prime Minister, the office currently occupied by Turnbull. It's a zero sum game: Shorten can only become Prime Minister if he displaces Turnbull, or whoever else might occupy the office. It might be useful for Labor publicly to denounce Turnbull as a snob, but far more useful tactically to know Shorten earnestly calibrating, testing, and recalibrating puts the wind up Turnbull.

This is why Latika Bourke's comparison of Shorten-Turnbull with Julia Gillard's 2012 misogyny speech against Abbott was particularly silly. Abbott wasn't trying to become a woman. People can become women without displacing Gillard from womanhood; gender is not a unique state, there are billions of them. In 2012 Abbott was trying to displace and replace Gillard as Prime Minister, and he was happy to use anything he could throw at her - the death of her father, various other niggles arising from Abbott's demonstrated belief that femininity is inimical to leadership. Gillard's response showed that she knew misogyny when she saw it, thought it had no legitimate role in politics, and called Abbott on it.

By contrast, you may or may not agree with Shorten's idea that Turnbull is out of touch, but the topic is within the bounds of legitimate debate in a way that anything-goes misogyny isn't. It's one thing that Bourke's judgment is so bad, but her assumption that her experience counts for more than it does is genuinely funny.

Turnbull's insecurity was on show the following day when he upbraided Adam Bandt, the sole Green MP:
As [UK PM] Theresa May said in the House of Commons, the honourable member [Bandt] is part of a protest movement. I am the leader of a nation.
This is the parliamentary equivalent of the schoolyard taunt, "I'm the king of the castle and you're the dirty rascal". May directed her remarks to the Leader of the Opposition rather than a minor party outlier. A Prime Minister should be above this. Malcolm Turnbull palpably isn't.

Turnbull's invective was surprising to the press gallery who had long been seduced by his charm. And yet, it only takes a quick review of all those profiles on him before he entered parliament to see that he really does snarl like this when he's cornered. He was snarly and superior in public when he was losing the republic referendum, blowing what seemed like a historic inevitability on his own shortcomings. It's stupid for any journalist to take someone on face value, particularly a politician; it belies the very idea of journalistic experience not to measure the man before you against the one known well by others.

What also belies the better ideas of journalism - relied upon by the press gallery for its 'fourth estate' malarkey, and the access privileges that go along with it - is the near unanimity of the theatre reviews giving the contest to Turnbull. It's one thing for some to give it to Shorten, others to Turnbull, and yet others to neither; this is what intelligent, reasonable and diverse people of goodwill and good sense would do. It would be what happened if the press gallery was as intelligent and diverse as its fans insist it is. This is what the debate on Twitter was like: broader than the press gallery and often equal or better in acuity.

Almost all of the press gallery used this event to give themselves license to write the sorts of uncritical, gushing, adverb-heavy praise they gave Turnbull in September 2015. Two exceptions were important:
  • Michelle Grattan applied her experience to place less importance on those speeches than, well, every other journalist. She talked about the government's "cost of living" message while overlooking two things: the welfare cuts that disadvantage low-income earners, and the games over electricity where cost of living (and supply reliability to South Australians) are collateral damage.
  • Katharine Murphy's theatre review recognised Turnbull came from a position of weakness rather than strength. Alone in the press gallery, Murphy recently seems to have taken to heart social media jeering at the press gallery herd and realises there's no future in passing on the same received wisdom from all outlets: mind you, this is the point where new year's resolutions tend to fall away, so we'll see if she can sustain this.
Both Grattan and Murphy do quick comparisons with Question Time players of yesteryear, but they seem to have drawn the wrong lessons. Let's look at previous governments in decline and compare them with the performance of this one:
  • 2013: Gillard and Rudd laid into Abbott, who grinned and winked at the press gallery.
  • 2007: Costello and Howard laid into Rudd, who calmly sat there taking notes.
  • 1995: Keating laid into Howard, who sat there calmly or laughed that odd mirthless laugh of his.
  • 1982: Fraser laid into Hayden and Hawke; the latter at one point fled the chamber in tears. If Shorten did that today he'd be finished.
Far from being a sign of strength, a Prime Minister laying into an Opposition Leader indicates that the government is on its way out. A secure government ignores the Leader of the Opposition. An insecure government treats that office and its holder as a mortal threat, with the focus and severity one would hope a government might bring against economic disadvantage or racist violence.

Malcolm Turnbull never wanted to be Prime Minister. Being PM involves leading an unruly party through tough and uncertain times. He wanted to be President, and only went for the Prime Ministership once that wasn't an option. Being President involves cutting ribbons, making polite and occasionally droll remarks that don't involve references to sucking or protesting, traveling around, and giving obligation-free advice to politicians. Turnbull has opted for a lesser role than he hoped, maybe even a role that is beneath him. You can see why what he offers us is less than we might have hoped, and why his policy offerings in every portfolio - and now, his parliamentary behaviour - are beneath us.

12 January 2017

Credit where it's due

Annika Smethurst from the Herald-Sun did the investigative journalism that led to Sussan Ley standing aside as Health Minister. I was wrong to declare on Twitter that there was no press gallery involvement in this, when Ms Smethurst is based there. I had read/heard plenty of different stories on this matter by non-gallery journalists, and though I read/hear/see more political news than pretty much anyone who doesn't get paid to do so, I was wrong to extrapolate my experience across the gamut of Australian media coverage.

I'd link to her articles, but I don't have access.

At a moment like this, there is nothing else to do but don the ashes and sackcloth and defer to a press gallery journalist who - literally and figuratively - wrote the book on what it is to be stupid:

I'm not kidding you, Bernard, you're kidding yourself. You blocked me, remember, to spare yourself the obloquy of my ill-informed tweets. It's like you've gone out of your way to be offended.

I do like his signoff, even if it's somewhat above his station. When Julia Gillard was Prime Minister, most of her tweets were prepared by her staff. Tweets composed by Gillard herself were suffixed with her initials, JG. Keane almost certainly has no staff and writes his tweets himself; it appears he has signed off the tweet above with the description his (unnamed) press gallery colleagues (probably) give him. It emphasises just how much this issue really is all about Bernard Keane.

Now is not the time to be so uncharitable as to ask how Smethurst decided to target Ley, who appears to be a Nellie No-Mates if we are to believe the sub-Massola and his secret sources. Hardly surprising she spends so much time on the Gold Coast. No wonder the Prime Minister, neither fish nor fowl in the modern Liberal Party himself, moved less than decisively against her.

Before entering Cabinet, Ley was widely regarded as one of the smarter members of the Coalition. She seemed to lead a full, non-political-class life before joining the Liberal Party and losing preselection for the Victorian seat of Indi, to Sophie Mirabella. When Tim Fischer retired after representing the region for a generation in state and federal parliament, the Nationals could not find a more compelling candidate than the Liberals' Ley, who won Fischer's seat of Farrer (across the river from Indi).

As Health Minister she has not developed, and nor has the government developed for her, an overarching strategy: her record is pretty much all cut this, cut that, and cut again. Ley's breadth of life experience, independence of outlook, diligence and brains do not to have been brought to bear on the nation's health system or other functions of executive government - but as you know from the above dear reader, and not being a press gallery journalist I can admit this - I may be wrong about this, too.

It's like there's a difference between how Sussan Ley is - was - perceived inside Canberra, and how she's perceived outside.

The difference is starker still with Ley's replacement, Arthur Sinodinos. Inside Canberra, Sinodinos trades on his reputation as Howard's chief of staff. He fobbed off ideas he deemed unworthy of Howard's consideration, and translated those that were into outcomes through his understanding of the public service. He was critical of Abbott's inability to engage the public sector in failing to realise his agenda, and failing to consult Sinodinos. When Turnbull brought Sinodinos back from oblivion and talked up his Canberra skills, the press gallery agreed as one that the return of Sinodinos was a Very Good Thing.

Outside Canberra, Sinodinos has no political experience at all. Unlike Howard or Ley or most other politicians, he doesn't have experience in engaging with people about issues and asking for their vote. He became NSW President of the Liberal Party by fobbing off factional warriors similar to the way he operated in Howard's office; had a few of the smarter ones from either side chose to do so, they could have united to finish his political career. He was parachuted into the Senate by the NSW Liberals after Helen Coonan retired.

His use of the Alan Bond/Christopher Skase defence of "I don't recall" and its variants before ICAC doesn't enhance one's wider reputation for cleverness, but rather diminishes one's credibility and trustworthiness. He fell in with Eddie Obeid over Australian Water Holdings with a naivete that makes Oliver Twist look like Machiavelli. I hope he learned from that experience, otherwise the sharp operators in the health sector will do him spectacularly.

As Health Minister, Sinodinos will address journalists without Howard's sense of performing for a wider audience, because he's never had to court that wider audience to get where he is. He won't be able to craft some overarching vision for the Health portfolio, because this government is running out of time: in media terms 2017 will be a repeat of 2012, where each Newspoll is a clanging chime of doom, and where the press gallery uses recent/upcoming Newspolls as their excuse to cut their already scant coverage of policy.

The government will look for A Great Story To Sell when it comes to health, but all they'll find are niggardly cuts and fobbing-off of journalists - not a solid place from which to start the 2018 election campaign. Backbenchers and candidates won't want him campaigning for them (unless for fundraisers with already rusted-on Liberals and industry stakeholders) because his Canberra magic simply does not and will not translate.

Keep in mind how small is this government's majority in the House of Representatives. Here is Ley's electorate. If she resigned to spend more time on the Gold Coast:
  • Who would blame her?
  • Which press gallery veteran would disgrace themselves with shock/horror at such a foreseeable outcome?
  • Who would the Liberals/Nationals run in that seat, were there a byelection?
  • Even if Barnaby Joyce demanded the Liberals run dead, would the Coalition win?
  • Is there an independent like Cathy McGowan or Tony Windsor, or an insurgency like the Shooters Fishers and Farmers, who'd win a strong local following?
  • Would Sarina Russo still invite her to parties?
That would be the stuff of real finger-on-the-pulse journalism, where national politics meets the local, and would not require a cent of additional expenditure by traditional media - and it is utterly absent here. Albury has strong local media; the press gallery aren't reaching out to them because they can't.

That difference, where someone is a legend in Canberra but a nobody beyond it, is the point where the press gallery fails. The reverse is also true with someone like Pauline Hanson, and the press gallery is no less a failure there too. The reasons for that failure are multi-faceted, not the least of which is that it's everyone's problem and no-one's. This failure isn't just seen in incongruity; we see it in the disappointment when supposedly well-informed people vote on the basis of press gallery information (e.g. Malcolm Turnbull is a moderate liberal with exciting ideas and strong convictions; Tony Abbott is the best Opposition Leader ever and is more Prime Ministerial by the day; Kevin Rudd is a policy wonk; etc.) which turns out to be false, and that falsity has real consequences for the nation. Disappointment is compounded when the press gallery fail to appreciate the consequences of misinforming their audience, both on their employers' ratings and on perceptions of the political system more broadly.

The systemic failure of the press gallery, where sub-Massola bullshit is the norm and Smethurst-like investigations the exception, means any acts of journalism come as a surprise when they arise from such an unexpected quarter. It means Bernard Keane's personal brand, where he's in the press gallery but not of it when it suits him, is doomed.

I'm open to surprises from the press gallery, and again I should do a better job of calling out the good stuff and seeking to build on it - but approaching 11 years on this blog it is fair to expect navigating Australian political journalism in 2017 to be like a trip across the Hay plain in Ley's electorate - monotone, featureless, boring, way too much of it, and not something you'd miss if you never saw it again.