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.

7 comments:

  1. Andrew, you seem to imply Ley is done and dusted and old Arfur Seenodonors will be her replacement. Is Turnbull that stupid?
    Old Arfur is an object of intense ridicule in voterland.
    Most expect a whitewash and Ley back in the chair free once again to play wide and loose with her ''travel expenses''.

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  2. It looks as though she was targeted as a Turnbull proxy by the Abbott/Murdoch forces. The Herald Sun is bullshit for brownshirts not journalism.

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  3. derrida derider12/1/17 12:41 pm

    You stuffed up Andrew. That happens to us all sometimes, but most of us when we do that pull our heads in for a while rather than doubling down.

    Persse is correct of course - Ley is collateral damage in the strategic bombing campaign against Turnbull.

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    1. It would be a sad day when a commentator felt compelled to enter purdah for some unstated period for having had the moral courage to admit an error of recognition.

      Happy New Year, Andrew, I am so looking forward to reading your opinion pieces this coming year.

      Kambah Mick

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  4. I think Keane is one of the sharper political commentators, if you ignore his slavish devotion to neo liberalism and inability to see how this is at odds with his regular appeal to ethical behaviour and egalitarian values.

    Where Ley is concerned however, it has been hilarious watching him grapple with the tension between her unethical behaviour and his devotion to her as someone he had an association with when he was young. There was initial silence, and then he reverted to the kind of pick and stick mentality that would do the right wing of the labor party proud, whining and barking about the way she was being treated. She used to be a punk for god sake! When Bernard gets bothered, it usually manifests in abuse. He is one of the most high profile trolls on twitter, notorious with some people. Usually people who deserve it, though often not. The poor guy clearly has anger management issues.

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  5. I will, carefully, speak from some second-hand experience of Ley. I have never had a face-to-face discussion with her but I work with plenty of people who have. Maybe views are affected by how terrible her predecessor (Dutton) was, but people did have a generally positive view of Ley as intelligent, understanding of the issues, and at least making an effort to consult and not blaming her for the dumpster fire that was the Coalition health policy situation she inherited.

    Remember that during the election campaign, she claimed to be trying to end the Medicare indexation freeze but that she was being blocked (a potential conflict in the Coalition that the press gallery tried very hard to ignore because it didn't fit their narratives).

    Her loss from Cabinet when they still have people like Dutton in it definitely represents a net loss of talent Turnbull can ill-afford.

    Speaking of Dutton, take a look at his Wikipedia page sometime and ask yourself if it reads like it has been edited by his staff with a full helping of "it was all Labor's fault" sauce. It's pretty blatant. Someone ought to report on that.

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  6. Bernard has chronic grumpiness, admitted this to me on Twitter years ago

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