03 March 2015

Julie Bishop is not running for Prime Minister,

No, she isn't.

In 2007 the press gallery nominated her as a 'dark horse'. Later that year she supposedly could have left federal politics and become Premier of WA. In 2008 she was a 'compromise candidate' between the terminal Brendan Nelson and the bumptious Malcolm Turnbull. By 2009 her cheer squad in the press gallery were becoming embarrassing: they still insisted that somehow she would rise above the Turnbull-Abbott-Hockey scrum and clinch the top job (Abbott did that because you can only win a race if you are actually in the running).

Now Phil Coorey is flogging a dead horse on the assumption that this time, no really, Julie Bishop is actually going to give up all that travel and busywork, give up the relatively private life of the senior-but-not-Prime Minister, and become leader of the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party. Bullshit.

Abbott is dead; even Liberals who have known no other leader know this. They doubt Turnbull will be an effective Liberal Prime Minister and can lead them to victory in 2016. Bishop looks like a compromise candidate (yet again). Bullshit. Coorey's sources are bullshit, his judgment is bullshit, his article is bullshit - but don't take my word for it:
With the matter on hold indefinitely due to a rebound in the polls for the Coalition and an uptick in Tony Abbott's fortunes, senior Liberals believe lead contender Malcolm Turnbull stands to lose over time due to an increasingly vitriolic campaign being waged against him by the Liberal Party's arch-conservative base.

MPs report being flooded with emails from what they believe is an orchestrated campaign involving the Christian right and other similar groups, attacking Mr Turnbull over his position on issues such as gay marriage.
Rather than just reporting all that without examining it, as Coorey has, let's do the work he gets paid to do. The Christian right has no real base in this country, less so since they blew so much of their treasure and credibility over their don't-question-just-submit defence of child molesters. Nobody is going to lose their seat over support for same-sex marriage to someone who doesn't support it; if you're going to be obsessed about polls, look at levels of support for same-sex marriage rather than against. Take almost any Christianist position and its capacity to shift votes becomes clear.

MPs' offices get spammed by different groups from time to time over different issues. If Coorey knows anything about politics, he should know that. Consider the last parliament, where the then government was on a knife-edge in a way this government isn't; they held an actual vote on same-sex marriage, and you can bet the Christian right were over-egging their numbers then, too. Coorey should be comparing now with then and seeing if the assertion stacks up.
Ms Bishop decided last week that if the leadership was spilled, she would run for the top job rather than be part of any ticket, sources said.

This decision was made after she was approached by colleagues eager for her to form a ticket with Mr Turnbull in a bid to force the issue "sooner rather than later".

"Julie said: 'I won't be on your ticket. If it comes to a spill, I will run'," a source said.
You can take my utter, utter contempt for anon-source journalism for granted. Yes, Coorey is protecting his source for the sake of maintaining relationships in Canberra that lead to ... um, what exactly? There's nothing it those relationships for his readers, still less when the data retention laws come in (about which Coorey is pretty sanguine - it's not like he does any investigative journalism anyway).

The worst thing about that anonymous quote, however, is that Coorey is being played. So are his more credulous readers, and the clowns at AFR who deemed this good enough for their dwindling readership. Here's why that story is bullshit.

If poor old Phillip Ruddock was such a threat to Abbott's leadership that he had to be pole-axed, you can imagine how the Downfall-style Abbott bunker would regard a serious charge from Bishop. There would be a flurry of half-baked articles in the traditional media about how Australia's foreign policy has no real narrative, how it's a long way from the "Jakarta-centred" policy Abbott promised, and how nobody in Washington, Beijing, or the Lowy Institute can make head nor tail of what Bishop is about. He would demand that the party room chose her or him, and it would choose him because it did so just last month.

If Bishop had any real clout in the Liberal Party she would never have stood for the more egregiously sexist attacks on Gillard: she would've had Mal Brough's guts for garters over that "big red box" caper for a start. If she was PM material she would have responded to Gillard's misogyny speech more effectively than anyone on that side of politics did. She would not moderated the attacks on Gillian Triggs - that attack was so ferocious because Abbott's whole life has been about being a spokesperson with a consistent message, and Triggs spoke out of turn. That's why criticism of Triggs focused on timing and lazy assumptions about her work under the previous government, assuming that everyone in government is bound by the media cycle and not daring to question her command of facts. There would be more women, and more Western Australians, in the ministry than there are. Danielle Blain should now be Federal President of the Liberal Party, not the fatuous and complacent Alston.

That's what real power looks like: taken, not received with a simper. A senior political reporter must understand power, its exercise and its absence - not just passing on tittle-tattle, like Coorey is here.
Conservative commentators once critical of Mr Abbott but now keen to save him have begun piling on the communications minister, accusing him of undermining Mr Abbott and even leaking information to which he is not privy, such as secrets from Cabinet's National Security Committee.
Is that accusation even sensible? How can you leak a document to which you don't have access? Hang on - perhaps the Foreign Minister is a member of the National Security Committee, and therefore be able and even motivated to ... not that I'm making accusations. I'm not in a position to know - but a chief political reporter is.
Neither Mr Turnbull nor Ms Bishop agreed to representations from the backbench to force the issue this week, by either resigning or challenging Mr Abbott.

Mr Turnbull has emphatically rejected suggestions circulating internally that he sought to recruit Ms Bishop to run as his deputy.

There is little appetite elsewhere in cabinet to pursue the issue as a result of both the polls and the fact that it was agreed after the last spill attempt three weeks ago to give Mr Abbott a fair go.
Those three pars are where Coorey's story dies.

The Liberal Party is not going to elect Julie Bishop as its leader. It simply does not do unmarried, childless, lady lawyers from Adelaide. The idea is to drag things out for Turnbull and give time to Morrison, as I've said before.
The steam went out of the issue on Monday following the publication of the latest monthly Fairfax/Ipsos poll, which found the Coalition had closed the gap on Labor by 6 percentage points and now trailed on a two-party preferred basis by 51 per cent to 49 percent.
That's just bad writing. That poll showed the Coalition trailing 49-51; had the polls been 51-49 they wouldn't have been trailing at all. Which do you think was bullshit - the 49-51 poll, the 43-57 poll, or both? Sadly, Coorey is so compromised and so bereft of information sources not available within Parliament that he cannot call bullshit on polls. He has been a slave to polls as the prism through which all policy and policy must be viewed.
...MPs believe a combination of the two polls has killed of any further move against Mr Abbott until at least after the March 28 NSW state election and most likely well beyond the May budget.

MPs who want to see Mr Turnbull succeed believe that the longer the issue drags on, the more damaged he is likely to be by the campaign against him ...

Social Services Minister Scott Morrison stood to become either Treasurer or deputy leader had there been a change three weeks ago and remains integral to the outcome of a future move. "He's in a sweet place at the moment," said one MP, given Mr Morrison stands to advance regardless of who replaces Mr Abbott.
And once you see Morrison as the beneficiary of any delay, the real story becomes clearer to everybody but Coorey. Bishop has been deputy to both Turnbull and Abbott. She doesn't have to choose between two versions of the past. Her whole career has been about shaking off inconvenient events and moving relentlessly forward. As Prime Minister, you can't do that - you have to be consistent and not just flit hither and yon as moment-to-moment tactics require. That quote from Bishop about dying asbestos victims that so appals people is just another example of situational ethics.

If Bishop became Liberal leader, public debate would go like this: Labor would bring up her record and that of this government, while Bishop will roll her eyes and complain "Can't we talk about something else?". This is the very reason why she won't, of course.

The mere fact that Julie Bishop is the most viable alternative to the current leader is the reason why the current leader is safe for now. Bishop's offer (assuming Coorey's source is something more than a complete fabrication) is not a promise for the Liberal Party, it is a threat. History shows the prospect of Bishop as leader seems to vanish once an alternative becomes clear. Once Morrison has the numbers people like Coorey will once again stop talking about her as a potential leader. The fact that he has been sucked in again to this non-story does not reflect well on Coorey, nor on those who employ him, nor on the other press gallery sheep who look up to him.

How, then, do you assess the Foreign Minister? Traditional media outlets have outsourced their foreign policy expertise to people like Hugh White or the Lowy Institute, convinced that nobody wants to know about foreign policy and that competence in this area is not worth cultivating amongst journalists. As poster-boy for incompetent foreign-policy journalism, Greg Sheridan blew it with Bishop and never recovered. By contrast, Michael Bachelard showed as Indonesia correspondent what Australian foreign policy looked like from Jakarta's perspective. He couldn't do that job alone.

The press gallery should be stung by its negligence letting Rudd and Abbott through with little critical review of what they would have been like as PM. If Bishop was really a candidate for the Prime Ministership there should be a welter of articles on what she's like in seeking out information, how she handles being told what she doesn't want to hear - and all that other PM-related stuff which those who've seen PMs come and go up close should be fully across.

Instead, the press gallery allows itself to be played by Bishop. She has cultivated the vapid Latika Bourke, discussing policy while jogging so the journalist can't make notes (not that Latika would or could even do policy, anyway) and insisting that the only interviews she will do have to contain as much emoji as possible. It would be fine to accept Bishop corralling the media into the trivial if this were some sort of reprieve from serious policy discussion. If you've spent day after day chewing over, say, the implications of the ASEAN Free Trade Area for Australia, what's a bit of harmless fun? When emojis and handbags are pretty much the sum total of your analysis, if not your understanding, of the Foreign Minister - then it is bullshit, hopelessly inadequate, and a fair description of where the press gallery is at regarding Bishop.

If I was more savvy than I am, I'd love the fact that Bishop is into emojis and would pooh-pooh grumbly worry-wart stuff like the above paragraph. Fuck being savvy, it's no fun pretending clowns and rogues are more compelling than they are. My family and friends are much more fun than watching the Foreign Minister dumb down public debate; all I want from politics and media is information on how we are governed. When precious little such information is available, and when journalists insist on their right to be gamed (and to game their readers) it isn't me as a consumer/citizen who has failed. It isn't the Foreign Minister who has failed, either - she has maintained her powerbase without overreaching. She's seen what happens to lady Prime Ministers and has managed to convince everybody but Phillip Coorey that it isn't for her.

The traditional media has failed its audience and those it covers, and on this issue it's doing so again.

23 February 2015

How to write about the prospect of Malcolm Turnbull becoming Prime Minister

Tony Abbott has been Prime Minister for long enough for the press gallery's initial thrill to wear off. That thrill lies largely in the linkage between their thinking well of Abbott, their giving him favourable coverage, and people voting according to that favourable coverage. Their enchantment with Abbott personally simply cannot survive the reality of his blunders in office, their consequences in the community, and the recognition of these by his backbench.

Bill Shorten is the alternative Prime Minister. To examine Shorten in detail and demand that he release detailed, costed policies - or even go hunting for some sort of moral core to the man - is to admit that the press gallery couldn't be bothered doing this to Opposition Leader Abbott during the last term of Parliament. They shy away from him, for now, to hide their own embarrassment.

The most potent and immediate threat to Abbott's longevity is the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party. If you're going to do a greener-pastures piece on a prospective PM, you have to focus on the most potent and immediate threat within the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party: Malcolm Turnbull.

Why Turnbull is appealing as a potential Prime Minister

We live in a time where much that we have taken for granted, even treasured, no longer holds and will not carry us into any sort of secure future.

Malcolm Turnbull is an intelligent man, widely learned beyond the academy and also nourished by the arts. He has done a number of things with his life, pointing the way for most of us who’ll never have a full-time career in the same organisation. People awake to the various threats and opportunities facing the country believe him to be someone who gets them, someone with whom they can do business.

Toward the end of a long rambly piece, [$] Mike Seccombe quotes Thomas Keneally to good effect on Turnbull:
“Malcolm might be a prince but he’s not the sort of prince that tramples people under the wheels of his carriage.”

More importantly, perhaps, Keneally thinks the public now sees something in Turnbull that makes him forgivable, and therefore loveable again.

“He still holds out the chance of development, and most importantly, for God’s sake, a bit of vision. I think the public can see he is a work-in-progress.

“Whereas Abbott gives a sense of being a work that’s reached the limits of its capacity to change.”
That first paragraph is doubtful, but more on that below.

Turnbull’s scope for growth may enable him to shake off his party-line adherence to stupid Abbott policies, which is necessary to take the Coalition from where it is to where it needs to be.

Keneally is right about Abbott: no scope for growth, only gaffes and failure from hereon in. There is no point in making people fearful when you haven’t got what it takes to make people feel safe. There is no point playing up security when the machinery of policing and the defence forces look clumsy in your hands.

Why Turnbull failed as leader in 2009

Turnbull failed as leader because he wouldn’t listen to advice. He likes to surround themselves with the sorts of bright young things who surrounded him at Goldman Sachs, people who’ll put up with his crap and who will make ill-considered ideas sound plausible and now.

Never mind that crap about tall poppies, or how nobody likes a know-all; politics is for participants. Only journalists treat it like some sort of spectator sport - which is why they are surprised all the time, not least at the decline in public consumption of their stale cliches.

Turnbull learning to appreciate other perspectives is the sort of huge personal challenge that will define him as a man as much as a leader, like Hawke’s victory over alcohol, or Howard’s over the nasty racism and sectarianism of his upbringing.

Can Malcolm Turnbull get over himself?

It’s hard to ask that question if you're besotted with his charm. When someone's charming you, you can't disparage them without disparaging yourself as an object of attention.

You can only realise you’re being gamed and stand up to a facile charmer if you know who you are and what you’re about. Self-awareness and guts are two of the many qualities in short supply in the press gallery.

Hope for a liberal approach

*snort* If he isn’t going to stand up for issues on which he had taken a strong public position over many years (same-sex marriage, climate and carbon pricing, republic), what are your hopes for issues on which he hasn't (asylum seekers, science, etc)?

Let’s have none of your malarkey about idealism. Given the choice between wistful idealism and hard-headed pragmatism I want both, in spades, and a whole lot more besides.

Grech and Utegate?

Both were put-up jobs by Eric Abetz.

Moral of those stories: stop listening to Eric Abetz.

The Coalition has problems getting its legislation through the Senate. Abetz is leader of the government in the Senate. Abetz isn’t working. Abetz should be sacked.

Maybe the Fair Work Act is less than perfect, but if it is Abetz will be unable to correctly identify either problems or solutions. He will make backbenchers unable to show their faces in the communities they represent.

Yeah, never mind Abetz. What about Grech?

Godwin Grech embodies two things, both more significant than he - more significant than Turnbull, if you can imagine.

The first is mental illness. This country need more and better support for people suffering mental illnesses, and their families. The Liberal Party broke Godwin Grech’s mental health; my guess is that James Ashby received far more support from the Liberal Party than Grech ever did.

This government is not serious about doing anything with mental health services except cut them. Returning servicemen, domestic violence victims, none of them will get any more help from this government with or without Turnbull.

Second, Grech was a nobody; but there are millions of Australians who might be classified similarly. The way he treated Grech may well be more indicative of Turnbull’s approach to the little guy than Keneally’s apologia.

Other nobodies

Richard Ackland is right about Turnbull playing to the Liberal Party gallery with his exultation of Phillip Ruddock. I mean, what school did David Hicks go to?

Administrative competence

Given that he doesn’t listen, what makes you think he’d be administratively competent? In terms of pushing paper around Canberra, working through ideas in a calm orderly manner - what makes you think Turnbull is even capable of that?

The Labor Party assumed Kevin Rudd was administratively competent, but they voted him as leader because the press gallery loved him and couldn’t distinguish an administrative shambles from a hole in the ground. Even now, they can barely articulate the chaos in Rudd’s office; the only story the press gallery understand is that Gillard was a bitch.

The Liberal Party knew Tony Abbott was administratively incompetent, but they (like the ALP) overestimated their ability to cover for him. The press gallery hyped Abbott and even pushed for Rudd to return to lead the ALP, because they still can’t distinguish an administrative shambles from a hole in the ground.

Labor have learned their lesson; in October 2013 their only two candidates for leader were two known quantities, machine-men with decades of experience in the party itself. The press gallery thinks Shorten is boring but so what.

The Liberals are looking for their next fix, and Turnbull is dealing. If Tony Abbott can make Katharine Murphy go to sleep for two years imagine what she and her ilk will do under the spell of Turnbull’s juju.

The NBN

Australia could have built a national telephone network in the 1920s but conservatives in power then didn’t feel like it. When the nation was under attack in the early 1940s, US advisers were appalled that the country didn’t have a national telephone network and lobbied Chifley and Menzies until they made it a bipartisan postwar priority.

The National Broadband Network could have been like that, but all Turnbull did was hand it to Telstra at the behest of Murdoch. A statesman would have stood up to the old bastard. Turnbull doesn’t understand upload and assumes internet consumption is as essentially passive as television.

Journalists don’t understand the potential of broadband either - or if they do, they understand it only as a threat to the sorts of fools who employ them. Playing to the gallery is one thing, but when journalists travel and counter faster broadband everywhere but here, Turnbull will be seen to be negligent.

Shirtfronting public broadcasting

Tony Abbott ruled out cuts to the ABC or SBS. Turnbull cut both. Nobody asked whether Turnbull was undermining Abbott.

You know who watches both the ABC and SBS? Urban moderates. A politician who shafts his base for no reason is a clown.

You know who watches the ABC? The very sorts of people Turnbull needs to reach out to - older conservative people, in the suburbs and the bush. Talk about self-defeating behaviour.

Not even his party

Right-wingers in the Liberal Party have spent a generation pushing liberals out of the Liberal Party. Their job is almost done. They have discredited moderate liberalism by having people like Phillip Ruddock and Joe Hockey act as standard-bearers for right-wing ideas.

The last thing they want is to have their agenda completely discredited with a shift too “the sensible centre” and have Malcolm Turnbull foisted on them. In 2008, Malcolm Turnbull looked like a messiah and would have won a leadership plebiscite hands down. That’s why right-wing dickhead John Ruddick wasn’t writing pieces like this back then.

Most people can appreciate nuances in political positions, in the same way that most people can distinguish between red and green. John Ruddick and his pals in the Liberal right genuinely can’t distinguish between a moderate liberal like Malcolm Turnbull, a moderate social democrat like Bill Shorten, a left-wing Labor figure like Kim Carr or the late Tom Uren, and a rancid old communist like Lee Rhiannon. He genuinely sees them as peas in a pod. All of those far-left gradations in which Guy Rundle has lived his life would be lost on the likes of Ruddick. This is his tragedy, and if he had his way the Liberal Party would consist only of people with the same deficiency.

Turnbull is a moderate and a negotiator, which means he reaches out to those with whom he feels he can cut a mutually beneficial deal. Ruddick has nothing in common with people who aren’t rusted-on Liberals, thank you very much, and as with Bronwyn Bishop as Speaker they ride their (real and perceived) opponents when things go their way.

Turnbull is out of step with the Liberal Party, as I’ve said before. He has to wait until it is even more discredited than it has been before he can remake it in his image. He ignored that last time and they rolled him the minute he faltered. They will do the same again.

Turnbull could be the first genuinely dapper PM since Keating

And?

His wife is very impressive

Yes she is. A combination of Jeanette Howard and Peta Credlin, with plenty more besides. And?

You're being very brusque, aren't you?

Yes. If you really want more of Turnbull you'll have to get used to that. And I'm perfectly certain someone like you would, too. By brooking no discussion on this subject I do so in homage to the man himself.

Any specific issues you'd like to explore?

Oh, plenty. Big, important issues, which should be the bread and butter of press gallery journalism but which causes actual practitioners to bleed from the eyes. Tax reform, asylum seekers, cybersecurity, promoting economic growth in a stagnating global economy, Defence capital acquisitions, water flows in the Murray-Darling, a sound foreign policy based on goodwill and shrewdness, closing the gaps between Indigenous Australians and non-Indigenous Australians …

Any testable indications on how Turnbull would make a blind bit of difference to Abbott (or Shorten) in any of those areas? The longer you've been a press gallery journalist - or a Liberal - the fewer plausible excuses you have for talking up an unsuitable leader.

19 February 2015

The challenge is on

The whole idea of being a liberal is because you can't be sure who or what is right, you allow different people with different perspectives and different information to debate civilly and come up with an answer that suits most people. This allows progress while maintaining civil order - non-liberal regimes tend to manage one or the other in fits and starts, but ultimately cannot sustain both.

The problem with this government is that they can't cope with alternative sources of information. They can't cope with the CSIRO, finding out stuff without checking with the PM's office first. They can't cope with the Bureau of Meteorology, whose every forecast resounds like a chime of climate doom. Alternative sources of information are alternative sources of power.

They can't cope with the census. Ancient civilisations like the Egyptians and Romans used a census to keep tabs on those they governed, and to plan for capital works. Matt Wade and Liam Hogan are right to point out how important the census can be for government decision-making - assuming government doesn't just [$] ignore the data and impose its own dopey assumptions.

"Who could object to such knowledge?", splutters Hogan:
Think tanks like the CIS and Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) have this conservative government's ear, and have been whispering into it so long that the Liberal party has taken on their attitude to government and governance; so dry as to be desiccated, with the fundamental premise that anything the government does is likely to be wasteful and illegitimate.
It's more conservative than libertarian. When you give money to the Liberal Party, disclosure means you can't be too blatant about the quid-pro-quo. When you donate to the Central Institute for Public Affairs Studies (offices in both cities) you can twist them as you will, they have no other intrinsic purpose. The hapless William Shrubb will succeed at nothing but being quoted fifty years from now for dismissing some far-reaching and profound shift as a fad, grumbling into his dotage that he was taken out of context.

This government takes the attitude that you'll get a social service as and when we're good and ready to give it to you. The idea that a primary school simply pops up in an area with lots of young families as some sort of civic right goes against everything this government stands for.

There are two sets of number-crunching experts this government never quibbles with. One are economists. They need census data and the sort of data that feeds into the budget in order to advise on when to hold 'em, when to fold 'em etc. The advice economists give in private is different to that they offer for free public consumption. Journalists don't realise this, and play a role in misinforming the public by simply transcribing what they say. The economist suffers no penalty for being wrong, but the journalist loses credibility.

The others are pollsters, who use data on a much more superficial level but, similarly, offer different advice to paying clients in private to what they excrete for public consumption. Economists can make gullible journos feel smart; pollsters make them feel all savvy and insider-y. Next time you read a press gallery piece on the latest findings from HawkerTextor, remember: just because the journalist wants to believe, it doesn't mean you have to get sucked in too.

This government is like those two number-crunching groups. What it does behind closed doors is significant. What it says is often very different, and more often not significant at all. A journalist who simply quotes a politician and thinks they've done their job is a mug who has done nothing of any worth.

This government can't cope with skittish backbenchers getting feedback from randoms in the streets. They barely tolerate the same feedback filtered back to them through focus groups. This government is beset on all sides by alternative sources of information, each of which is a challenge to its authority. Keating tried to orchestrate different sources of noise into a national symphony, but Howard beat him by offering a quiet night at home with the radiogram. Nobody is offering complicated and outlandish these days, but nobody is remotely convincing in offering And All Manner Of Things Will Be Well Amen, either.

The Coalition just wanted to run things. All they wanted was for everyone else to shut up and let them do whatever. Though no government has ever operated in such a critical vacuum, this lot seriously thought scaling such a high clear place would offer only soft gentle breezes and the valley below. Australians are better educated than ever, and just when Murdoch homogenised the press as far as anyone could, social media came along and devalued the whole media-mogul thing. If they can't work without a bit of shoosh, it's their problem and nobody else's.

By arranging the Pyramids at Giza to match the pattern of the constellation of Orion, the governing class of ancient Egypt thought they were building the instrumentation to govern the universe. They thought that, with a bit of tweaking, they were close to ordering the seasons and the rainfall at will. The modern political class is a bit like that, ever so close to controlling all the information and silencing all the dissent so that the incumbent government might govern forever. When journalists come over all savvy and accept their assumptions, they are part of the farce. They confuse its fundamental failures with short-term blips that can be overcome.

We live in an Information Age because to have information these days is to have power - just as in the Bronze Age the rulers bedecked themselves in bronze, and in the Space Age the most powerful nations went into space. Information is diffuse and the powerful are only learning what it means not to have a monopoly over it. The current government cannot bear the fact that information, like other trappings of authority, doesn't simply accrue to them by right.

This government (particularly one with no real policy agenda to speak of) could have reached out and said we're all in this together so let's find a way through - but no. It could have cultivated a party full of Steph Crofts, worthy of a governing elite - but no. They chose command-and-control and sought to stifle other, more knowledgeable and diverse sources of information and the authority that comes with it.

They've chosen to spy on us rather than engage with us, unable even to trust us with a definition of the information they would use against us. They can't accept that the information we share with them must be used for our benefit, and the information they must share with us must also be used for our benefit, too. The government are public servants or they are nothing - and that idea looms as a bigger shirtfront to this Prime Minister than even the President of Russia could muster. It's on, all right. You bet you are. You bet I am.

13 February 2015

Black Friday's reminder

The demise of Phillip Ruddock as Chief Government Whip put paid to the idea that Abbott might learn anything from Monday's vote, and resolve to do better.

When George W. Bush was running for US President, his image as a callow and immature man turned off conservatives who were looking for a bit of dignity to follow Bill Clinton. Republican messaging held that Bush could draw upon the gravitas of his father to guide him through foreign policy and other issues requiring a calm and steady head. People fell for that, and the rest is history.

When Abbott became Prime Minister he dumped Warren Entsch as Chief Whip and replaced him with Ruddock to give both men a veneer of gravitas, for which the entire press gallery fell hard. They wanted to believe in an Abbott government and still do, which is why the subtext of most press gallery reporting is: Stop it Tony, you're embarrassing us!.

Appointing Ruddock as Chief Whip was a mistake. The job of Chief Whip, as Ruddock pointed out on departure, is within the gift of the party leader. The point of the job is its two-way communication between the leader and the backbench. The Chief Whip allays the fears of skittish backbenchers who had no role in contentious decision-making but who cop a public backlash nonetheless. The Chief Whip acts as a sounding board for dissent (especially when the Federal Director of the Liberal Party, the leader and his chief of staff, are as tightly interconnected as they are), and is able to tell whether complaints from the backbench are:
  • Just the murmurings of some whinger who can be safely ignored; or
  • A bit of a concern, but nothing to worry about too much; or
  • Worth a bit of the leader's time to calm the horses and maybe tweak things a bit; or
  • *grabs leader by the lapels and shakes hard* This is serious! Here's who your enemies are and who you need to work on! Cancel that junket to London/ Beijing/ Washington, you'll be finished by the time you get there and their intelligence services will brief their leaders accordingly; or
  • It's over, see ya.
The Whip is the leader's most sturdy defender, or worst enemy. The Whip is a person of great subtlety, understanding of human foibles and how to orchestrate them. The Whip has a big role in talent-spotting; when a leader replaces a frontbencher, that person should know which backbenchers are on the shortlist and who's on the shitlist.

Counting heads is a basic political skill. Everyone in politics got elected to the job. In military dictatorships the leader would have practiced a form of officers-mess politics before leading the troops to the palace, and whisperers in the cloisters run ecclesiastical dictatorships. Whips have to be across everyone in the party room: what motivates them, how do they perceive the leader, is that combination of fast-pace and loneliness in Canberra getting to them? The Whip's job is to keep a running count of the numbers in his head; the leader has other things on his mind, and can be forgiven for brushing off a backbencher's quibble.

Tony Staley, who decided Billy Snedden couldn't beat Whitlam but Malcolm Fraser could, came to that conclusion in the Whip's office. Francis Urquhart, the lead character in the UK House of Cards series, made his bid for power from the Whip's office. When Kevin Rudd challenged Julia Gillard the first time she thrashed him, but Chief Whip Joel Fitzgibbon didn't warn his leader and she sacked him. Fitzgibbon then began briefing gullible journalists against Gillard; anyone who briefed against Gillard got an extra helping of gravitas from the press gallery.

The Whip is not some fusty relic of Empire, like Peter Slipper's eighteenth-century garb as Speaker. Political leaders stay or go depending on the quality of their Whips.

John Howard had been both the victim and the beneficiary of backbench revolts. As Prime Minister he used his Whips assiduously to take soundings of the backbench, and trusted their judgment on how far he could push them. This is another of Howard's political skills that Abbott lacks.

Press gallery journalists of many years' experience should have the subtle understanding that good Whips do - but they don't. Julia Gillard was beset by a small band of whingers, but they made her detractors look bigger than they were. Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott were subject to leader-tossing rage from their backbenchers, yet the press gallery couldn't pick it before it happened. Peter Reith observed:
You only need one or two backbenchers to wander through the press gallery with a titbit of leadership distraction and the issue will rumble on for months.
One can forgive a partisan like Reith for not pointing this out in Gillard's day, but the press gallery cannot enjoy the same indulgence. It's silly for the press gallery (most of whose members remain from that time) to cover up the insubstantial nature of both their constant leadership speculation, and their misrepresentation of Abbott as an alternative Prime Minister.

Ruddock is a man of subtlety. It is possible that he detected backbench dissent well before it started to threaten Abbott directly, well before even the better-connected members of the press gallery woke up to it. It is possible that he warned Abbott, in his courtly and understated way. It is possible that Abbott missed his subtle cues, or that he shouted at Ruddock to be yet another messenger of the lines cooked up in the PM's Office. The Whip failed the leader, not the other way around; the Whip should have known what he was like and responded accordingly.

Phillip Ruddock was 30 years old and a former President of the Young Liberals when he was elected to Parliament in 1973 (when Tony Abbott was in Year 10, and before his factional opponent John Howard won a neighbouring electorate). In 1983 the Fraser government lost office, and with it went his chance of becoming a minister: Howard had been Treasurer. He got onto the front bench under Peacock but was demoted by Howard.

He disagreed with Howard over Asian immigration; while that hardly endeared him to the then leader it enabled him to play a subtle game of courting donations and votes from non-English-speaking migrants to the Liberal Party. At this point, Tony Abbott was wondering whether he should join the Liberals at all.

In 1993 Hewson lost to Keating; Ruddock was now 50, he'd never been a minister, he had no contacts that might provide a comfortable post-political career. Had Tony Abbott not won preselection for Warringah in 1994 he may well have picked off Ruddock in Berowra. By then, Ruddock had learned to stop worrying and love John Howard. Other moderates followed him. Howard is seen as a great leader in the Liberal Party because he wore down his opponents. The right are big on forgiving prodigal sons, including Ruddock and all those ex-Marxist wasters in places like Quadrant.

Phillip Ruddock apparently told Abbott before last Monday's ballot that he should expect 16 to 18 votes against his leadership. The actual figure was 39. That isn't some minor discrepancy. Ruddock stuffed up very, very badly. There were only a dozen votes between Abbott and oblivion: nobody else was running. You'd sack an accountant who stuffed up so badly they almost sent you broke.

People who reviled Ruddock as Immigration Minister and Attorney General now keen for his dismissal as Whip, which is stupid. This blog is irredeemably biased against Abbott but dumping Ruddock is an understandable act of self-preservation.

Last Monday's vote was the last chance for Abbott boosters to prove their boy was capable of change. He looked gutted and contrite; someone with more humility, like Howard, would have used self-deprecating humour to garner sympathy and time. Abbott just floundered for about forty-eight hours and then reverted to his worst qualities.

He had to unify his party and stifle dissent. His Whip had failed, utterly and in public, to do that job. Abbott orchestrated blasts of hatred against Labor, with collateral damage against Professor Triggs' report on refugee children in detention. He had attack wombat Peter Dutton go Labor on some technical point that had to be explained even to people who follow politics closely (as a comedian has failed when their jokes need explaining, so too a politician has failed when their political pointscoring efforts need explaining).

That blast of hatred reminded Libs when they had a common, hapless enemy, and when they feared that rage being turned on them. It only works when the target withers in the face of it; they didn't. It only works when the hatemonger doesn't overreach, as Abbott did with his "holocaust of jobs". The press gallery reported this as a 'gaffe', which is stupid - it's not an aberration, it's how Abbott works. He overreaches, he apologises and withdraws, he overreaches again. Sin and purge, over and over, for years and years. Press gallery experience really is worth nothing.

The junkyard dog is the aspect of Abbott's personality swinging voters hate most, and which Liberals have the hardest time defending. Conservatives can't understand why Abbott doesn't just set aside all the hoo-ha and just govern, but here they are victims of their own mixed messaging. Abbott on his bike is like George W. Bush on his ranch - busy doing something other than imposing regulations or raising taxes on conservatives. If he enjoyed governing he would have put out and defended detailed policies.

The press gallery didn't notice the absence of policies. Only policy wonks who'd never vote for him did, and only they/we worried what a policy-inept government might mean.

Having started the week with a wake-up call, Abbott ends it by reminding people about two things. First, the division within the Liberal Party is real, it runs deep, and will fester. Second, it reminds people - friend or foe - what a vindictive prick he is. Any calm, moderating influence has gone. The junkyard dog is most dangerous when wounded, and will fight off anyone who tries to help. Good government never stood a chance.

11 February 2015

The gap

It was a relief to read a report about Australian politics that actually identifies and even quotes real people with names. However, it slumps back into press gallery sludge by covering important policy issues (matters of life and death, literally) as though they're somehow beside the point. The whole framing of this article is wrong.

Because newspapers don't really have subeditors any more, it falls to me to note the second paragraph in that article should have been the first. The fact that the first, or lede, was as follows is telling:
Bipartisan consensus on Indigenous policy ruptured on Wednesday when several Coalition MPs walked out on a speech by Labor leader Bill Shorten calling on the government to reverse $500 million in budget cuts.
Bipartisan consensus on Indigenous policy created the gaps in health, education and other life outcomes represented in the Close the Gap report. This is not to say that such consensus should be smashed but it is not to overstate the importance of bipartisan agreement.

Many good and worthwhile ideas are held by one of the major political parties, or by neither. Michael Gordon in particular is a serial offender in insisting upon bipartisan consensus where none is warranted or likely. He regularly misrepresents lively, opinionated and well-researched input as the work of a nutty fringe, or of splitters.
Lamenting that there were too many "backward steps" in the report, Mr Abbott said this was not because of any lack of goodwill or effort by successive governments.
That is the story, right there.

Tony Abbott is not, and never was, entitled to be taken at his word. Abbott professes concern but his actions belie them, which diminish our ability to take him at his word. The press gallery has been culpable over the past five years of doing exactly that: taking a politician at his word.

Here it is happening again: Abbott wants to escape any linkage between his government's policies and actual policy outcomes. Superjournos Gordon and Harrison are happy to comply. They are placing their lust for bipartisanship ahead of the closing of disadvantage between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

It is possible that cutting $500m out of particular services to Indigenous people made no material difference. It may even be that the government did Indigenous people a favour by cutting bad policies, and either the gaps are diminished or they cannot be attributed to those cuts in any meaningful way. Gordon and Harrison haven't looked into that, and their article is poorer for it.
[Abbott] pointed to the likely achievement of a new target of closing the gap on school attendance within five years as evidence of progress.

Only two of the original seven targets ñ on Indigenous mortality rates for children under five and year 12 attainment ñ were on track to be met.
This is the nearest this article actually gets to policy analysis. Again, the superjournos let Abbott set his own target and accept his own assessment.
While Mr Shorten said this was an area where "every opposition wants the government to succeed", he said he felt compelled to highlight what cuts to services would mean.

"Right now, a host of vital organisations don't know whether their funding will be continued or withdrawn," he said, prompting the walkout by several government MPs.

"When people fleeing family violence need a safe place to stay, cuts mean that shelters close," Mr Shorten said. "When having a lawyer can determine whether a first-time offender gets a second chance or a prison sentence, these cuts will rob Indigenous Australians of legal aid."
Shorten, like superjournos Gordon and Harrison and everyone really, was not obliged to engage in bipartisan arse-covering like Abbott.

The government MPs who walked out know their funding will be continued. Earlier this week they took a vote on the Prime Minister's continuation in office because they were worried about their continuation after 2016.

Shorten was right not to focus on the organisations, because ongoing funding implies that the problems will be ongoing and not closed. Instead, he gave concrete examples - people fleeing family violence, first-time offenders before the dock - that are so rare but so important when discussing policy. Any fool can ladle on the pleasantries and plenty more fools can simply quote them, but getting down to practical examples is the very stuff that both Parliament and press gallery exist to scrutinise.
Victorian Liberal MP Russell Broadbent was first to show his anger by leaving the chamber and later said he believed the partisan comments belittled an occasion that should have been above point-scoring.

"The people of Australia are calling out for leaders who can rise above the fray," he told Fairfax Media.

Others who walked out included Andrew Nikolic, Russell Broadbent, Angus Taylor, John Cobb, Ken O'Dowd and Melissa Price.
Oh, piss off.

Tony Abbott has been leader of the Liberal Party for almost five years. Everyone, friend and foe, knows what he's like. Nikolic, Taylor, O'Dowd and Price have spent their entire parliamentary careers with Abbott as leader. He doesn't do bipartisanship at big occasions or small and was not entitled to be taken at his word here.

All of those people voted for the cuts. All of them should be held to account. None of them have any right to be surprised that the leader of the alternative government might call them on it.

Apart from O'Dowd and Cobb, all those Liberals met on Monday and insisted that the Prime Minister and his staff listen to them more. As soon as someone said something they didn't want to hear, they fled. Gordon and Harrison were too busy practising goldfish journalism to make that link.

Shorten didn't call them liars or impugn them personally. He didn't even blame them for ongoing Indigenous disadvantage. He gave concrete examples of consequences that follow from their own actions.
Labor's Indigenous senator, Nova Peris, who was observing from the floor of the Parliament, described the walkout as a disgrace. "If we are fair dinkum about this we've got to stop playing political football with Aboriginal people's lives."
That description of Peris makes her sound like a token. She's a Senator from the Northern Territory. It makes it sound as though they can only have one at a time, and understates the period when they (and, indeed, the Senate) had none at all.

Peris has directly rebutted the thrust of Gordon and Harrison, namely that the walkout - not Shorten's comments - is the point of political failure. Those MPs could have had a quiet word with Shorten, in the spirit of bipartisanship; but by walking out they show that they can't bear that a) their actions have consequences and b) that the Leader of the Opposition called them out.
Mr Shorten also backed the calls from Indigenous leaders for new target to close the gap between the incarceration rates of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

"The rate of jailing Indigenous Australians has almost doubled in the last decade. It is time to speak out against this silent emergency," he said.
The reference to "Indigenous leaders" illustrates the importance of something other than bipartisanship in tracking disadvantage in people's lives. Again, Shorten is concrete in his criticism if not in offering a solution ("time to speak out" indeed).
Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion said it was unfortunate that Mr Shorten had used the occasion for "political point-scoring". He described the $500 million figure as "a furphy" and insisted programs that were effective had no reason to fear their funding would be cut.
He would say that, wouldn't he.

No comment about what constitutes effectiveness. He-said-he-said journalism. Not worth writing.

It's neither here nor there that a journalist might get a quote from a government minister. The insider-savvy thing that you have to be in the game to get a direct and timely (and exclusive!) quote like that is bullshit. Can a service be both 'vital' (Shorten) yet not 'effective' (Scullion)? The quote itself is bullshit, fact-free and does not help Indigenous people one jot.

Simple question, indispensable to this article and the issues arising from it: did the government cut $500 million from programs contributing to Close the Gap outcomes, or not? Ability to answer that question should be what separates press gallery professionals from sensationalist blow-ins.
"The only ones who need to be a bit fearful about their future are those who are not delivering a service that is decent and proper," he told Fairfax Media.
There are many people to whom those services are directed who are in the same position. Can Scullion tell who's providing good service and who isn't? Can Gordon or Harrison?
[Scullion] reaffirmed the government's rejection of a target to reduce Indigenous incarceration, but said he was working on a number of initiatives with state and territory governments he believed would reduce incarceration rates.
Vague. Waffle. Never mind the subeditors, Gordon is at editorial level - has he no pride in his work? Is this what The Age confuses with compelling, high-quality content? Both superjournos missed Scullion sliding around whether or not incarceration rates should be included in Close the Gap metrics.

Readers owe no loyalty to such sloppy journalism. Senior media figures who deny this are sleepwalking their companies to disaster. You lose more than six readers by pumping out drivel like that, day after day, and leaving big important issues to go begging.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commission[er] Mick Gooda, who is also co-chair of the Close the Gap campaign, said he was not concerned by the lack on consensus [sic] in the Parliament.
This whole article has been fretting about exactly that. The whole article by Gordon and Harrison would be better for having been informed by such wisdom.
"I think bipartisanship will be pretty safe. I gotta say, within that bipartisanship, we still need tension. We still need oppositions to hold government to account. It doesn't mean we don't have any debate around it, either outside or inside the parliament."
Imagine: debates outside the parliament being as important as those inside. Gordon and Harrison just can't even begin to make that leap.

Gordon and Harrison honour Gooda and good sense by giving him the last word, however unwittingly. The fact that there was a partisan kerfuffle among non-Indigenous people using Indigenous issues is of no consequence. It makes you wonder why Gordon and Harrison even bother with this stuff.

The debate, and what they're debating about, and what issues they're raising in the debate - that's what is interesting, and what's newsworthy. Penny-ante breaches of protocol and he-said-he-said bullshit is the stuff that excites Gordon and Harrison, and most of the rest of the press gallery - but there's no future in it.

Pieces like these, by Virginia Trioli and Jenna Price, arise from stories like the above debacle but fail for the same reason. They nod to Big Issues and a flick to Both Sides for Failing To Address The Real Issues - but give media coverage of said issues a free pass. They get circulated among journalists as Must Read and make exactly no difference to anyone or anything.

People want to help close the gap, but we don't know where to start; any effort seems to be patronising, or counterproductive, or misplaced, or otherwise inadequate. I can stand being called a bleeding heart if I know my actions make a real difference. Concrete policy and a focus on outcomes helps build understanding. It helps us assess whether governments are doing well or badly. A focus on personalities, a pose of 'balance', and 'he-said-he-said' doesn't even help the journalists who write such crap - let alone anyone else.

08 February 2015

What went wrong?

We passed upon the stair, we spoke of was and when
Although I wasn't there, he said I was his friend
Which came as some surprise I spoke into his eyes
I thought you died alone, a long long time ago


- David Bowie The man who sold the world
The press gallery should have foreseen that a government led by Tony Abbott, comprised of jetsam from the fag end of the Howard government, would scarcely be better than the government they replaced. Why did they get this so wrong?

On election nights - federal or state, including those for states I don't live in - you can find me watching the vote count coverage pretty closely. I've tried watching it with non-wonks but it just isn't the same.

My favourite point in election night coverage comes after the result is clear, and usually after winners have promised to govern for all and losers conceded gracefully. The representative of the winning party has usually buggered off to the official knees-up, while the loser-party representative sticks around for some home truths.

The need for message discipline has passed, but the individuals have enough self-composure not to lapse into furniture-tossing rage on camera. They lament the death of hopes of the party faithful. They hope that staffers and defeated MPs, people they have known and worked closely with, will find new jobs. They dread the trudge across the often harsh and barren ground of opposition. You see the flickering of ideas about recriminations and other own post-election plans, but they stop short of admitting them to the gently probing journalist. Stephen Smith played this role at the last federal election, and Mary Wooldridge at the Victorian.

It's a human moment in an often vast and impersonal process: good local members lose office defending decisions they had railed against in private, while smug clowns in safe seats stroll on and learn nothing. Statistical blather and played-strong-done-fine quotes fade to the background.

This is the point the press gallery has come to with the (impending) demise of Tony Abbott as Prime Minister. They really believed that Abbott had changed from the crass brawler who spent 20 years buzzing around the press gallery like a blowfly in a toilet. They believed it, and they insisted that every hairnet-wearing, truck-driving stunt was a great statesman itching to get on with the job.

They ignored Labor claims that Abbott would want to cut health and education and the ABC, because hey look here's a quote where he denies it! Take that, partisans! And that's all the analysis you need to do when you've pumped up a politician and his party, where the popular mood matches that of the press gallery - and just for a moment, the public seems to hang off your every word. Just like the old days.

This piece also delves back into the 'good old days', and it's a real pity it hadn't come out before now. I suspect there'll be a few more of these. We could have stopped him, we should have; and all the press gallery had to do was tell us the truth.


The fantasy was never real

Oh no, not me
I never lost control
You're face to face
With The Man Who Sold The World
David Marr said it best: Abbott could only ever be what he was, the crass brawler. The idea that he transcended it somehow was always rubbish. Everyone who believed otherwise was kidding themselves - and implicitly, those who pretended otherwise in the face of years of experience were engaged in a monstrous act of deception, of themselves and of their audience.

Even Marr could no longer pretend this simple political killing-machine was a more complex character than he appeared. In Political Animal Marr asserted that Abbott "abhor[red] racism". On 19 December, when the Lindt Cafe siege was underway in Sydney's Martin Place, Abbott honourably deflected calls to tie the event into wider themes of militant Islam. But hours after the siege had ended, and as recently as last Monday's National Press Club speech, there he was dogwhistling again: as though speaking in nuanced terms about cross-border Islamic politics is tantamount to violence.

Tony Abbott was never PM material. I thought he was so bad the press gallery would find him out, but they pretty much gave him a free pass. They all look like jerks now, Abbott hasn't vindicated them with some stellar statesmanlike performance. Even Liberals, who also knew what he was like, have stopped covering for him.

That's why he's finished. There's no-one left to cover for him: no phalanx of petty crime lawyers, no ranting Father Emmet Costello, no Packer or Howard; even Credlin, even Rupert Murdoch himself couldn't puff him up any more. The limited talents of Hockey, Dutton, or either Bishop just can't carry him.

Tony Abbott will be 58 years old this November: too old for rowdy-adolescent swaddling, but yet not ready for boards or consultancies or other roles occupied by adults. Do you reckon the next PM will make Abbott the last Australian knight? Me neither.


The fantasy is confusing

I laughed and shook his hand, and made my way back home
I searched for form and land, for years and years I roamed
This blog's pet bunny Mark Kenny had pulled over and popped the bonnet to find steam pouring out of it on Friday. "How did it come to this?", he asked, not helping his quest with silly imagery:
There's an oil and water quality to the competing narratives in Canberra at present. On the one side, we see an executive which claims to be sublimely competent, united, purposeful, and uniquely suited to progressing the national interest.
There is no side; no oil, no water. Just because Abbott declared himself competent, the press gallery was not obliged to take him at his word.

No politician is ever entitled to be taken at their word. And yes, it is possible to stick by that principle without being snide or cynical.
Of course, the seeds of that discontent reach much further back than handing royal titles back to the very palace which hands them out.

Indeed, the malaise at the heart of Abbott's now beleaguered prime ministership is a function of the deliberately created culture of conflict and strategic supremacy his office projected from the start. That supremacy is now its most central embarrassment ... Rather than providing co-ordination and leadership, Abbott's office styled itself from day one as a gratuitous conflict machine. Its operation has been characterised by sidelining MPs, lecturing ministers, vetoing trusted adviser selections and the claim that it was uniquely placed to make sound political judgments.
Firstly, the maturity of explaining the position on titles stands in contrast to Julia Baird's wacky effort, which shows no subtlety to Australian politics and thereby patronises her New York audience. Maybe this is what you need to do to get published in the US's atrophying press, but it's no less sad for that. Give Kenny some credit for that, and see more on Baird further down.

Kenny should have explained the Prime Minister's office in greater detail, given that an earlier version of it had already unmade one occupant (Rudd). Someone with Kenny's experience should have seen the same signs emitting from that office and warned us all - but no, only once the show is over do we get this kind of story - the very sort of thing that explains the link between Canberra shenanigans and how you and I are governed.

Instead, Kenny told us how great Abbott was, how he'd really changed, how he was super-duper in every way over that double-act from before. It doesn't make you a partisan to call out bullshit journalism. It makes you a citizen and a consumer, refusing to put up with the kind of sloppy shit that is Mark Kenny's standard fare.


The fantasy is someone else's fault

I gazed a gazely stare at all the millions here
We must have died alone, a long long time ago
When Laura Tingle is focussed on policy and judging politicians against it, there is no better journalist in the press gallery.

When not focused on policy, she comes out with this sort of thing, pretty much what everyone else says or does, hey it's the narrative what can you do.
For voters, it turned out that they really, really didn't know what he stood for – whether that was budget measures that they weren't expecting, or just how out of touch Abbott turned out to be on issues like knighthoods, changes to the Racial Discrimination Act, or funding for marriage counselling.

Voters had heard the slogans repeatedly endlessly: stop the debt, stop the taxes, stop the boats. But whether there was any underlying philosophy in among the slogans was unclear.
What Tingle is describing there is professional failure, on her part and by the rest of the clowns she calls her press gallery colleagues.

"Spin" is just a consistent message with which you disagree. Scientific research into diseases, treatments and preventative measures is "spin" to anti-vaxxers. Labor policy is "spin to Liberal supporters, and vice versa. Abbott was always spinning. It's just that you chose to believe him on the way up, and not believe him now that he's on the way out. Don't think you're being 'unbiased' or 'playing the game' when you're sometimes taken in by spin and sometimes not. Just describe what's going on.

Tony Abbott is entitled to talk his own book, as are the Coalition. It's the press gallery's job to do the analysis, to measure the big talk against other sources of information. Tingle is wrong to blame Abbott for spinning a web in which the press gallery found itself trapped, from which it is trying to extricate itself with varying degrees of success.

We'll decide what's spin and what isn't. When we threw out the Rudd-Gillard governments we threw out both baby and bathwater, because the press gallery talked up Abbott. The press gallery knew him better than anyone, so if he was the answer to the 'chaos' then the people took the gallery's word. Now with the departure of Abbott, there's much less baby and more bathwater than Tingle - and her press gallery colleagues - had led us to believe. People are angry at that, and the anger is partly but not wholly directed at the politicians.


I was awake to the fantasy all along, but neglected to tell you

Who knows? Not me
We never lost control
You're face to face
With the Man who Sold the World
This is Katharine Murphy's line:
Tony Abbott disappeared for me sometime in the middle of 2013. That’s not a hard deadline, but June is the last time I remember glimpsing the person I had watched and dealt with over years of political reporting.
Oh dear.

When you go back to Murphy's reporting around that time, you should see her expressing some puzzlement about The Real Tony versus The Tony I See Before Me - but, no.

Murphy has been known to keen about the imaginary 24-hour news cycle and yearn to get her teeth into some policy analysis - but like most of the press gallery she didn't go after the prospective Abbott government for its policies or lack thereof, and was quite content to pass off his blandishments as a more serious critique of government than anything she could muster.
Team Abbott could fool themselves that they had actually conquered chaos.
They could, but only with the connivance of people like Katharine Murphy. She's wise after the event of the Abbott government. She would deserve the credit that her readers and current employers give her had she been awake to Abbott at or during this time. It's all a bit late to take Abbott at face value and then decide in retrospect there was a facade that someone should have investigated.
The intoxicating power of that illusion cannot be underestimated in modern politics. Politicians crave control and certainty, because the old orthodoxies and rituals are busted. Disruption is now the only certainty. Modern politicians have become obsessed with fixes, with road maps, with gurus – not realising they are being led by false prophets, and sustained by false comforts.
If only there had been journalists to smoke out the false prophets and comforts.
The take-no-prisoners culture imposed inside the government created the bizarre cult of Peta Credlin, which was both vexed reality and collective mythology. The “witch in the office” began to loom larger than ministers, and project as a proxy for the prime minister rather than a conduit. The prime minister was rendered a sock puppet, and consented to his diminution.

Politics has a high tolerance for bastardry as long as the strategy is working. But the edifice began crumbling very slowly right from the start. The whole enterprise felt strangely vacant and unconvincing.
You should have told us so at the time. You were negligent not to. That "witch in the office" was actually the difference between Abbott being some crass brawler and the apparition of a thoughtful, sensitive man who could have made a very good Prime Minister. She was (no domestic connotations intended) the woman behind the curtain.
Abbott has always been a contrary figure, a complex person, and his stock in trade, aggressive simplicity, could only resonate when it was delivered in broad brushstrokes. The devil was always going to be in the detail.
That is nowhere near good enough as a piece of analysis. It isn't only the devil that's in the detail. Thousands of good people live and work in the detail of government policy - they're not devils, and it's stupid to report their lives and work in that manner. That detail is the stuff of journalism, not drifting from press conference to picfac wondering if a person you've known for years isn't morphing into someone else before your eyes.
Tony Abbott is trapped inside his own feedback loop ... his fortress ... his bunker ...
When someone mixes their metaphors like that, they no longer care whether or not what they are saying makes sense. Murphy could have warned us ahead of time what an Abbott government might have been like, an what we might have done to avoid it - but hey, no point killing yourself for a deadline, eh?


The proper use of anonymous sources




We are entitled to be told how we are governed.

Anonymous-source journalism was a big feature of the last government. It crowded out well-researched policy to which people were happy to put their names. It was sneaky and dishonest and made it look as though government was about something else than governing the country in its own best interests. Baird is great at research and explaining complex ideas, as her thesis-cum-book on women in political media shows.

Julia Baird cannot claim that she's protecting her job in the press gallery by keeping anonymous sources anonymous. She's based in Sydney, and comperes a game show where contestants talk past each other, add nothing to public debate, and win no prizes. She's playing the game but has forgotten, if she ever knew, what it's all about. That last tweet is a killer ("One MP is a Turnbull supporter, the other has a name starting with D; one MP cries in sad movies, the other is a passionate Tigers supporter" - you could go on and on like that, couldn't you). No wonder her articles on this country for foreigners are so wacky!

My local member is Liberal MP John Alexander. In all this hoo-ha you can bet a press gallery journo has heard from Alexander, and should be in a position to tell me and my neighbours how he is voting tomorrow. We should be able to lobby him, as we would for any other matter of public importance. The idea that Baird and others are protecting him in some way is silly and wrong. What great journalism ever came from petty confidences such as these?

It would probably be a waste of time. Alexander's media is full of his getting out and about and being consultative, etc. The fact is he turns up late to local events, gets his pic taken, talks briefly to the two or three people who run the event, and high-tails it out of there. He grimaces or winces at people rather than smiles: I just don't think he likes people and resents that great-unwashed aspect of his job. Why Baird feels the need to protect him, or any other incumbent, is unclear. Anonymous sources should only be for the big stories.

That said, I have read Baird's other pieces on anonymity and loss of control by the sorts of people who mentored her career, and how everyone on social media whom she has not already met is some batshit-crazy freak. From that I have reverse-engineered this cut-out-and-keep guide for all of you social media denizens who want to do things to Julia Baird's satisfaction:

Acceptable Use of Anonymity in the Media

Condition
Verdict
Anonymous sources commenting on matters concerning the life and death of governments and policies
Acceptable
Anonymous focus groups and poll responses, and the anonymous figures who leak those findings anonymously
Acceptable
Anonymous social media comment
Unacceptable. The end of civilisation as we know it
Social media comment that isn’t anonymous, by people who don’t mix in politico-media circles
How is that different? I’m confused


The task of the press gallery

The press gallery failed in its role to properly scrutinise Abbott, just as it had with Rudd.

The ALP and Liberal Party respectively also failed, but that's another story; it's too easy to let the media off the hook when it comes to systematic failure. Indeed, letting it off the hook only lets it blame internet or whatever, and excuses its gaping and ongoing failures. The audience, the readership, the citizenry are mostly content to slip away from the failure of political reporting, and too few of the press gallery really miss them/us when they/we have gone, assuming they are vindicated by their employment and those (fools) who maintain them in that employment.

The press gallery can't all be like Niki Savva, who wouldn't hear a word of criticism about Abbott until her employers told her to Make Glorious Propaganda Against Running-Dog Abbott, whereupon she pivoted and the guy can't do anything right. She's not a journalist. Niki Savva can fuck off, and so can everyone who thinks "that's a bit harsh".

The task of the press gallery is to match what politicians say/do against objective, or at least respected, sources of truth. That's the job. The above do that to varying degrees but not nearly enough. They do not work harder than we outside the gallery work. They deserve no more excuses or allowances than the rest of us get in our jobs. If developing an ability to analyse policy, and assess politicians' words against that, will save your job - then why not do that? What else would you do? You can't seriously imagine the same old crap will be good enough ad infinitum.

When you grizzle about how hard you work, and cringe before the phantom that is the "24-hour news cycle", consider that Tony Abbott did his best - and his best wasn't early good enough, not even close. This should have been more obvious to the press gallery long before this.

*Grabs the press gallery by the lapels and shakes* You should have told us. You could have forwarned us. This, our country, did not have to be in this predicament.



Feeling sorry for Tony Abbott

Yes, seriously. I thought he was a dickhead when I met him in the '90s. But then, look at who he has to work with.

Abbott kept Arthur Sinodinos' job open for him for over a year (hell, the Liberal Party only gave Harold Holt a month). Abbott copped a lot of stick for that. To see Sinodinos turn on Abbott was pretty low - had he held his water and stood by the leader, he would have demonstrated the integrity his supporters insist is the essence of the man. I wouldn't give him any job after this.

It can be a tragedy when good, hardworking MPs lose their seats when a duff leader stuffs up the campaign. One of those who sponsored the spill motion tomorrow, Luke Simpkins MP, is a climate denier who wants to ban burqas. A more moderate approach to government will save his job; while a leader in line with Simpkins' values would see him lose his job. Politics is pretty funny, isn't it.


A final thought on Turnbull

Imagine if Turnbull had quit the Coalition front bench on any number of issues - climate change, gay marriage, the NBN or the ABC. Imagine he had spent the last 17 months on the backbenches. How would things be different? He wouldn't have missed the extra ministerial income. He would have shown that sucking up to Rupert doesn't make a lick of difference; when you're gone, you're gone. Someone like Peter Dutton could have achieved everything that Turnbull has done as Communications Minister. Turnbull would still be a contender for the leadership, just as Bishop would have piked it as she always does.

All those compromises, those heartfelt declarations of fealty to Abbott and his agenda, the one that can't be sold. What was it all for?