28 January 2016

Flogging a Trojan horse

Press gallery journalists continue to assert that their years of experience are valuable, and that they draw on it to the benefit of readers. It should be valuable - but the actual value of press gallery experience is one of those PolSci101 nostrums that vanishes upon closer inspection. There is simply no evidence to support it. The press gallery regularly finds itself in positions where they don't understand what is going on with people and events they have supposedly been observing closely, and blame others for their confusion. Now is one such time.

There are a number of issues here - the supposed resurgence of the Liberal right, etc., - normally I would deal with all those issues in a book-length blog post. I'll deal with that stuff as time permits over the next few days. Let's start with Turnbull and the republic.

Consistency is turmoil

On the evening of Saturday 6 November 1999 it became clear: the referendum for a republic held earlier that day was heading for defeat. Malcolm Turnbull, the former head of the Australian Republican Movement, declared the question of a republic was over for a generation - possibly not to be revisited until after Queen Elizabeth II had died.

When he ran for Liberal preselection in 2003-04, Liberals were concerned Turnbull would revisit the republic again. He reiterated that the question of a republic was over for a generation - possibly not to be revisited until after Queen Elizabeth II had died.

When he became Opposition Leader in 2008, Turnbull said that the question of a republic was over for a generation - possibly not to be revisited until after Queen Elizabeth II had died.

In January 2016, he said once again that the question of a republic was over for a generation - possibly not to be revisited until after Queen Elizabeth II had died. The Daily Telegraph was so desperate for a front page (no I won't link to it) that it presented a story almost two decades old as some hot new please-please-buy-the-paper development.

There was no intervening moment over that period where Turnbull lapsed back into revving up the republic. It looks uncannily like a consistent position on Turnbull's part.

It also looks consistent with polling - and press gallery journalists love polling. Polls in 1999 showed the referendum was bound for defeat; regular readers of this blog will not be surprised that I voted for it. Polling since then has not shown dramatic spikes in support for a republic, not even after last year's knighthood for Prince Phillip.

Experienced press gallery journalists regard Turnbull's position on the republic as a backflip, evidence of turmoil within the government. No, me neither.

Under traditional understandings of what journalism is, you'd expect journalists to report Turnbull's position as no change. Even excitable outlets like The Daily Telegraph would normally regard this sort of thing as a non-story: on par with the sun rising in the east, the Pope attending Roman Catholic Mass, bears defecating in the woods, EXCLUSIVE NUDE PIX: RANDY RUPE'S NEW BLONDE etc.

What the Australian Republican Movement learned from Turnbull and 1999

Nothing. Skip to the next subheading if you like.

The current practice of the Australian Republican Movement confirms the wisdom of Turnbull's position. They have a passionate advocate in Peter FitzSimons, who is all over the broadcast media like a hospice blanket (fewer and fewer readers, listeners, and viewers tap into the broadcast media despite the population growing and ageing since 1999).

They are courting celebrity endorsements, which count for very little. After half a century of advertising politics as another commodity, we can see that celebrity endorsements on national issues do nothing for either the endorser or the endorsee. Until a few weeks ago, you could imagine the ARM striving to secure endorsement from clean-cut and highly regarded players of popular sports: like, say, Jobe Watson or Mitchell Pearce.

They argue that a minimalist position on a republic would both change the country very little, yet also change it a lot; this places it alongside other suspicion-inducing, self-defeating political promises.

They present a republic as utterly disconnected from national issues like:
  • structural reform of different levels of government, and
  • Indigenous land issues that arose from the High Court's judgments on Mabo and Wik and have not, despite Tim Fischer's buckets, been extinguished; and
  • Half-hearted/baked alternative flags.
These are important issues (the latter one less so - until a great design changes everything, as with Canada in 1967) and can't be wished away. Clearly, they can't work with republic to produce the kind of coherent reform vision hankered for by commentators beyond the press gallery.

When state and territory leaders endorsed a republic recently it was very much not a triumph for the ARM, nor for a republic. It demonstrated that supposedly practical politicians had taken their eyes off the ball, and they better get back to work soon if they know what's good for them.

A politician that can tackle those issues as part of a coherent role is the sort of leader who can bring about a republic. Placing the republic first and insisting other reforms must work around it is arse-about. Turnbull is right to recognise that (insofar as he does).

The Australian Republican Movement today is repeating most of its mistakes from the late 1990s, even with (bipartsan! Lovely policy-goodness bipartisan!) political leadership both more potentially supportive and less wily than John Howard. I set a low bar for the ARM and FitzSimons has limboed under it. You can hope for a republic but reject the ARM in the same way people believe in God while rejecting institutional religiosity.

Turnbull would be a fool to throw in his lot with such people - which may explain why he hasn't.

The real story

Journalists, and Turnbull's enemies within the Liberal Party, insist that his consistent position on a republic is some sort of ruse. They insist their fevered imaginings of Turnbull's republican fifth column are "the real story". Turnbull's Prime Ministership definitely isn't a Trojan horse of republicanism, but neither is it a dead horse. Good journalism should allow for complexity; but then good journalism could not be more absent from the press gallery if it were illegal.

Where imaginings become "the real story" and demonstrable fact is ignored, both politics and journalism suffers.

You might say that politics is a realm where black becomes white, and yes I've read Hunter S. Thompson too. If you are representing black as white then either you don't understand what black or white are, or you're covering up for those with an interest in the difference remaining obscured - or both. Either way, you're so much less of the experienced and capable press gallery journalist you might assume yourself to be.

02 January 2016

Not ready

Not ready for a ministry

For years, Little Jimmy Briggs was touted as a rising star in the Liberal Party - particularly by journalists who've been around the press gallery long enough to know better. Just because the Liberal Party holds someone in high regard it doesn't mean they're much good: Ross Cameron, Tony Abbott, and Peter Shack, among others, got the Rising Star treatment. They, and we, are all poorer for it.

The press gallery must have known what he was like on the grog - the fractured leg and now the sexual harassment allegations couldn't be hushed up or buried on some inside page.

Firstly, there are no inside pages to hide in any more: it's all surface with mastheads these days.

Secondly, the strict demarcation between "official duties" and "personal activities" maintained by the press gallery was always bullshit. The personal always, for good or ill, intrudes into the official. To go back into history (but within the direct personal experience of some members of the press gallery), John Gorton's performance as Prime Minister is inseparable from from his personal predilections toward women and alcohol.

The onus is on the gallery to defend this pointless and destructive demarcation. We're all flawed in various ways, but where is the philanderer, the pisshead, the fraud, the broken person who is nonetheless particularly good in the execution of public duties (I don't mean someone who can hold it together so long as the media goes easy on them; I mean someone who can beat all comers from all other parties in a public contest where voters are aware of the facts).

More than a month elapsed between the incident in Hong Kong and Briggs' resignation. Canberra must have been abuzz with rumours, yet the press gallery either a) missed them, or b) knew all about it and hid it from us. How many media cycles are there in a month? There are more than two hundred "journalists" in the press gallery' every one of them has been derelict in their duties, and now that Christmas is behind us all now should show cause why they should not be dismissed.

When a scandal erupts it isn't good enough for the press gallery to say: we knew he was like that. Whenever there is any discrepancy between insider knowledge and the general awareness of the public, journalism has failed. You have to tell us, show us what they're like - and none of this Annabel Crabb confected shit either. We can handle the truth, the press gallery's job is to tell it.

This means journalists can't reasonably spend fifty years steadfast hung aloft in the press gallery, but that's OK because longevity there is drastically overrated. They still fall over surprised at things that should be foreseeable. The press gallery is not some politico-media protection racket, and it is not the media's job to protect politicians against the populace they serve.

It is not, as Terry Barnes seems to imply, the role of the public service to cover up for inadequate representatives like Briggs:
... the public servant should not have been placed in that situation, not only by Briggs and his chief of staff, but by her own managers and supervisors. From Briggs's explanation, it appears that she was a locally-based officer: her bosses should have ensured that she was not put into a position that risked compromising her. They failed her.
Note the passive voice ("she was not put into a position"), and the way Barnes relies on Briggs' word. Jennifer Wilson's piece on Briggs is particularly good at calling out excuse-makers and smoothing-over incidents like this.

Turnbull could have stood up for ol' mate Briggsy, and for the next one, and the one after that, as Abbott would have done. To squander his political capital in this way would not enable Turnbull to solve the Liberal Party's short-term problems with women voters, let alone its long-term problems in being able not only to represent women, but to be comprised of and embodied by them. Turnbull seems genuine about seeking to address structural disadvantages faced by women within the Liberal Party, and he is certainly better placed to do so than any other leader in its history.

When boofheads like Cormann, and Ewen Jones, and this blog's favourite Josh Frydenberg, start insisting that Briggs will be back, they do him no favours. They did this for (to?) Sophie Mirabella in 2013; all that insistence, plus numerous petty snubs to Cathy McGowan since, have only strengthened McGowan and weakened Mirabella's case for re-election in Indi. Rebekha Sharkie has a strong story to tell about why she can do a better job than Briggs. If voters in Mayo are as receptive to change as those in Indi were before the last election, Briggs is finished.

Why should Briggs not be finished? The last politician caught doing something similar, Andrew Bartlett, certainly was.

Are we obliged, as Crabb insists, to maintain the political class in the manner to which it has become accustomed? Could the people of Mayo not do better if they tried, and were better informed than they have been? Will Briggs spend his future on The Drum or lolling about Adelaide in some consultant/ lobbyist/ slashie role - opening and closing his mouth without saying anything, like a fish out of water?

Is the press gallery entitled to be believed when it insists that only chaos can ensue when people elect politicians from beyond the major parties? Will the SA Liberals sandbag Mayo at the expense of marginal seats in Adelaide (including that of Chris Pyne), as the Victorian Libs did for Mirabella?

Not ready for the future

The reason why we are unlikely to have an early election is not because of Briggs - nor even because of the press gallery, which brays for an early election when it cannot handle policy. The reason is because the Nationals are broken.

Tony Windsor points out what the press gallery never could - that two old men (Warren Truss and Bruce Scott) are prolonging their political careers to block Barnaby Joyce, who will inevitably be elected Nationals leader - and hence Deputy Prime Minister - if Truss retires over coming weeks.

Joyce does not get along as well with Turnbull as he did with Abbott, and he is not a capable minister. His agriculture white paper failed to address national quality branding strategies, failed to link meaningfully with recent big free trade deals, and failed to address anything but drought handouts for family farms. It is a welfare policy, not a strategic, big-thinking, ambitious long-term strategy at all.

Where is the regional electorate not held by the Coalition that the Nats might win if Joyce were leading them? Where is the Nationals-held electorate on a knife-edge margin that they will retain if Joyce were leader? The NSW election last March showed the Nationals are the only Coalition partner at risk of losing seats to the Greens. Joyce has a profile all right, and the press gallery love him - but so what?

Barnaby Joyce is already a dead loss to the parliament and government of our country, but the press gallery can't imagine their "jobs" without him.

The decline of all media organs in regional Australia bar the ABC means that every National MP could well be on the skids, and nobody in the press gallery would even know. Look at how bad the reporting out of Indi was over 2010-13; it hasn't gotten any better. Imagine if an ABC reporter detected a shift against a sitting Nationals MP, and reported on it: Senator Canavan would bellyache as only a Nat can, but neither he nor anyone in his party would have the wit to shore up the vote or get a better candidate. Maybe they have no better candidates.

Joyce is the architect of his party's funding strategy, whereby mining companies fund the Nationals. This was fine so long as farming and mining were separate - but the Shenhua mine on the Liverpool Plains within Joyce's electorate shows how the boomerang can smack you in the back of the head. Small miners (the ones with ex-MPs on their boards) have less cash to splash about these days, while drought-stricken farmers have less still.

It's understandable that Joyce faces so much resistance within the Nationals, but that resistance is so feeble - Truss and Scott are too old to credibly present much of an alternate future, and if they could have crushed Joyce they would have done so by now. The next generation of Nationals, like Darren Chester or Bridget McKenzie, are not ready for the Deputy Prime Ministership or even the future of agriculture.

The Nationals are not ready for the future of their own party. The idea that, in a few weeks, they might be ready to present a vision of the future to voters at an early election is not merely inaccurate, but crazy. Add to that:
  • the disarray within the Victorian Liberals;
  • the outright chaos within the CLP in the Northern Territory (one HoR seat and one Senate seat, but still);
  • the existential crisis within Queensland's LNP;
  • the factional wars exacerbating decay in Tasmania and WA; and
  • the fact that Tony Nutt, while a formidable campaigner, has only just gotten his feet under the desk as National Director of the Liberal Party.
Now consider all of that against the oeuvre of the press gallery journos' press gallery journo, Phillip Hudson:
  • Is the government doing well in the polls? There must be an early election.
  • Is the government not doing well in the polls? Early election.
  • How should we respond in Syria? Early election.
  • How do we balance the budget? Early election.
  • Will an early election make Australia more innovative? Whatever, early election.
  • What's your prediction for 2016? Early election.
  • Was that your prediction for 2015? Yes.
  • Is there any problem that can't be solved with an early election? No, or make one up.

Not ready for prognostication

There is something about a new year that leads one to forecast what is foreseeable but unknown, and to set aside a record of failure in doing this very thing.

This blog has often detected the decline of the Nationals, and prefers to be regarded as premature rather than flatly wrong after successive rebuttals at the hands of political reality. However, intelligence from the obviously self-interested Windsor, and the usual obtuse reporting from the press gallery, seem to indicate that this time (for sure!) the politics of the bush are in for their biggest upheaval since the Country Party was founded in 1919.

Can Labor take advantage of this chaos in Coalition ranks? Not really. Shorten has done an impressive job in stabilising his party and even tentatively generating some centrist ideas. The fact that he has gone from parity with Abbott to roadkill under Turnbull shows Shorten is not yet the master of his own fate and has not used the media to convey a strong sense of what he is about, as one expects of prospective Prime Ministers. Shorten will not be Prime Minister after the election later this year.

Maybe he was always set on a two-term strategy. Maybe it was unreasonable to expect him to win after one term - but even factoring out partisan bias, Abbott was always going to stuff up the Prime Ministership and the Libs were always going to be reluctant to blast him out.

Second-term governments often lose seats. The press gallery must know this, yet later this year it will engage in pantomime surprise that the public are rejecting Turnbull (with a disbelief that such a result endorses Shorten). It will be helpless before right-whinge Liberal claims that Abbott might have done better. Voters' rejection of the Nationals would not necessarily be a rebuttal to Turnbull, but the Liberal Party is not equipped to do anything but wring their hands at the Nationals' foreseeable shortcomings.

The press gallery will cover this year's election closely, and badly. This year's election coverage will, yet again, make a mockery of the press gallery's belief that it is better at the sizzle of elections than at the sausages of governing.

27 December 2015

Dropping the penny

When Michael Gordon describes his Manus Island nightmare it is in one sense a nightmare for all of us, given that our laws and taxes create the position Gordon is describing. In another, Gordon is forced to confront - however unwittingly - a professional failure on his part, and of pretty much all Australian journalists who report on Australian politics.

Since 1992, Australian government policies on detention of asylum-seekers has been increasingly cruel and wasteful. Since then the Prime Ministership has changed six times and the political party in government has changed three times; the policy has continued, becoming crueller and more expensive. The idea that such policies have a deterrent effect is palpably false, believed by nobody except politicians and journalists.

Journalists cannot tell whether a policy is good or bad. They can tell who has announced it. They can tell whether or not both Labor and the Coalition support it. They cannot evaluate competing claims about its cost or efficacy or other qualities a policy may or may not have, merely describing them as noise toward the end of their articles (they may reinforce this with a pithy quote from a minister, named or unnamed, who describes this as "whinging").
There is a view that the situation on Manus, like that on Nauru, is unsustainable, and that eventually the penny will drop that the end does not justify the means, that punishing one group of people endlessly in order to deter others is immoral and that there is another way to achieve the same policy objective ... the images that trouble me are two sides of the same coin.
That view is not new and more widely held than someone in the Canberra bubble might dare admit. To be fair to Gordon, he's had a hell of a shock and has changed his mind about a big issue where it was easy just to go along. He was wrong to be so dismissive of the view he now holds just because it lacks "savvy".

Michael Gordon has dedicated his career to avoiding the drop of that 'penny'. It is the coin with which he is paid, his very currency as one of this country's leading political journalists. He has helped devalue that coin, and can't let it drop without losing something of himself - something no PNG thug can ever take from him. The press gallery unanimously agrees Michael Gordon is one of their finest and most experienced journos. Impressionable younger hacks look up to him, and in some cases he shapes their careers.

Political journalists have - and if you read back through his work, Gordon in particular has - a bias toward 'bipartisan' policies. Bipartisan policies are reported favourably by the press gallery. Policies which don't have the support of the opposition, where the government can only pass them through the Senate with the help of the Greens or Senators from other parties, are reported less favourably than bipartisan policies - regardless of their other merits.

Journalists are more interested in how a policy will play (i.e., what politicians and journalists will think of it) rather than how it will work (i.e., long after journalists have moved on to something else, we will still be bound by regulations and spending decisions that may not even address the issue).

Almost all bad policy is bipartisan:
  • The fact that the government spends more than it raises in taxes, and that it prefers to tax individuals over corporations;
  • The ongoing war in western Asia, which has neither success criteria nor an exit strategy;
  • Australia is committed to billions of dollars of expenditure on defence equipment that doesn't meet our needs;
  • The fact that we have reduced our civil liberties in the name of safety in the face of terrorism, yet we are no safer and less free while terrorists flourish;
  • The failure of our relations with Papua New Guinea and other states in the southwest Pacific;
  • The ducks-and-drakes over federal-state relations. Press gallery journalists like Gordon are fond of quoting one of Keating's less well-considered lines about Premiers and buckets of money, without realising their responsibilities to fund services from a low tax base; and
  • There are others. So, so many others.
Almost all of those policies have, if you go back through the archives of Gordon and his ilk counterparts, received strong support for the breadth and depth of their bipartisanness. Other considerations are marginalised; bipartisanship is all.

Michael Gordon had a glimpse into the consequences of bipartisanship, and in short, he was afraid. He grizzled a bit about it in his second-last paragraph, but I suspect it will take a better journalist and a stronger person than he to admit his mistakes and change the basic assumptions of his professional life. He could well end up like Katharine Murphy: someone with random flashes of insight into the sheer extent of journalistic failure in Australian politics, but who can't recognise it as such and won't ever do a damn thing about it.

Forty years after the events of 11 November 1975, and after the three main protagonists have died, Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston have concluded Kerr wasn't a very good choice for Governor-General. The reports at the time Kerr was appointed, however, led to the opposite conclusion and can be summarised as follows:
  • The son of a Balmain boilermaker, Kerr won pretty much every academic prize at the University of Sydney Law School;
  • Glittering career in the law, culminating in becoming Chief Justice of NSW; and
  • Whoa hey, so impressive
There was, of course, the undertow which journos would have known at the time: the vainglory, the alcohol, the pushy missus, his collegiate approach to the law (and thus his inability in a role requiring sole discretion, where counsel with legal peers like Barwick, Mason, or Ellicott was inappropriate), etc. In keeping with the mores of the time all that stuff was hushed up. There was no way journalists or editors could link what they saw as scuttlebutt with the way Kerr would execute his responsibilities in office. Kerr might have sued, and - worse! - the press gallery might have missed out on garden parties at Yarralumla.

Kelly won't be changing the way Murdoch journalists cover politics. Gordon won't institute much change at Fairfax either. I don't know why either of them bother.

Hunter S. Thompson used the death of Richard Nixon to underline the essential failure of press gallery journalism - not just in the US:
Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism -- which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.
Plenty of Australian politicians have similarly slithered into office, looking good on paper (remember how Tony Abbott was a Rhodes Scholar, of Jesuit education and social justice principles?). Paul Kelly and Michael Gordon and every other press gallery numbskull lauded all those unsuitable people into positions of power, and lauded one another at how savvy they were, without daring to show us what the consequences are of bad leadership (beyond, say, a blistering phone call from Peter Credlin).

Pure gonzo isn't the answer to what afflicts press gallery journalism. Thompson's holy fool routine requires the reader to indulge the journalist even more than the assumptions under which the current press gallery operates. Gordon's mistake with his revelation above is that he can go back to covering politics in the same way he has always covered it.

When the people are badly informed, it is the media's fault - especially when they coalesce around one side of a story. That's when you blame the media. They're not to blame for everything in our political system - but going after the press gallery for failing at their jobs isn't "shooting the messenger". We are right to insist on more and better from these people.

24 December 2015

Going in too hard

This exchange on Twitter shows how social media can apply good sense to political journalism where it would otherwise be miserably absent:

David Crowe from The Australian was, in line with his predilections and those of his employer, galumphing down the road of a shock-horror story of differences of opinion within the government until social media pulled him up. Naturally no consideration of the issue at hand, and its effect beyond Canberra, is forthcoming or even possible from such an experienced press gallery denizen. The post from Richard Cooke (not a press gallery journalist) above shows a perspective that Crowe lacks, but also reveals that Crowe is not even sure what politicians like Fierravanti-Wells are up to. What is the point of all those support services in the press gallery when people like Crowe - no blow-in, supposedly a senior operator there - disregards years of slow and patient policy in favour of cliched schlock? It was good of Fierravanti-Wells to put out her statement within Crowe's working hours.

So Fierravanti-Wells and Abbott are both conservative Libs from NSW. Crowe, like many experienced political journalists, can't draw on past events to explain what is going on now. He's probably right in assuming such audience as he has cannot even handle nuance, but a good journalist would make an effort nonetheless. Once you understand the Fierravanti-Wells/ Abbott relationship, Crowe's feebleness in lunging for the low-hanging fruit of division (and missing!) becomes apparent:
  • Fierravanti-Wells ran against Abbott for preselection in 1994.
  • When she later decided to run against Bronwyn Bishop in the adjacent electorate, under the assumption that the older woman had her go and Howard didn't like Bishop anyway, Abbott supported Bishop.
  • When Abbott became leader he made Fierravanti-Wells opposition spokesperson on seniors, while Bishop was opposition spokesperson on ageing; an inexplicable balls-up unless you see it as a means for fomenting clashes between two people whose relationship was already damaged.
  • Fierravanti-Wells is no dummy; but she didn't have the impressive pre-parliamentary career that Julie Bishop had, nor is she a serious policy wonk like Marise Payne, nor is she a factional death-star like Bronwyn Bishop, nor is she representing a marginal seat. Each of those qualities may have seen her advance beyond the uncomfortable position she appears to be in today.
  • When Abbott became Prime Minister, almost all of his opposition frontbench became ministers for the portfolios they had shadowed. Bishop became Speaker. Fierravanti-Wells was demoted.
  • Abbott and Fierravanti-Wells both used to believe that Muslims were a conservative constituency who should be courted by conservative politicians. Abbott chose to depart from that belief, and that departure led him to where he is today. Fierravanti-Wells stuck to her beliefs in light of the evidence before her.
After all that, Crowe could only run the stale and pointless SPLIT SHOCK narrative.

Over nine years of blogging I've dismantled Crowe's finest constructions numerous times, and I think I've established that he is a galoot. He stands at the dead intersection of both press gallery drones and Murdoch yes-people, the most unfortunate crossroads since Robert Johnson's in the 1930s. Unlike Johnson, Crowe is not developing any new licks; he is just assembling and reassembling political cliches from the journalistic tailings provided by his employers. I almost feel sorry for him. Perhaps it's Christmas sentimentality, or perhaps I'm just losing my touch.

On one level, I really want to believe that a) press gallery journalists work hard and b) are clever enough to get around political manipulation; but because the evidence points away from such a belief I just can't support it, and can barely even humour true believers. We need more and better information on how we are governed (and how we might be governed) than the press gallery are capable of providing: such a belief should be more widely shared, given the failure of the contrary assertions and the manifest inadequacy of the political choices proffered to us. People make dreadful decisions when they're misinformed, when at the ballot box, when making investment decisions, or at the Cabinet table.

Nobody in the press gallery, nor in the wider Australian broadcast media responsible for political news, is any closer to getting this than they were in 2006. They cannot bear their own culpability. They would prefer to blame things beyond their control (the internet, ad revenue), or even invent them ("24 hour news cycle"), rather than change their ways.

Nine years from now the thick crust at the top of the press gallery will probably still be there, and coverage of government won't be any better, and the media organisations probably won't have the good grace to shut down and stop wasting everyone's time and resources. In calling for more and better, over and over, perhaps I am repeating myself; but this is true of anyone with a cause unfulfilled that is too important to be abandoned, yet so bereft of measurable impact that it fails to attract the like-minded to put their shoulders to the wheel.

Yeah political coverage is broken, but what can you do? You won't change them. That's why I go in hard here: the failure of Australian political coverage matters, it has far-reaching consequences and the incumbents cannot be persuaded. When journalists are sacked I neither cheer nor weep but am amazed that the press gallery is spared, while proper journalists are dumped unpaid from a profession that needs the good ones more than ever.

It's so stupid that coverage of East Timor and West Papua, or the Rugby World Cup, is better than that of the federal government.

Should I take the time to show political journalists how they should be doing their jobs, per the dotpoints above, or do press gallery journalists work for billion-dollar corporations that can do their own fucking research to save their own worthless employers from further discrediting themselves? Isn't the whole point of them to provide information to those of us paying attention, but too busy to do so fulltime?

You don't have to do your own foraging to eat - so why should you have to do your own journalism to find out what's next, and what your options are? People talk about the future of journalism as though current employers of journalists have one. In an information age information providers should be making out like bandits. The fact that broadcast media aren't, that they are not only incapable of organising a booze-up at a brewery but are dying of thirst in such an environment, shows that they are stubbornly persisting at something other than providing necessary information. Rarely can you stop them lapsing back into their stock of cliches to try and describe situations that simply don't fit them.

Not being a press gallery journalist I knew Abbott would be a fuck-up as Prime Minister, and said so. Every day he held office defied political gravity. I thought he'd be such a fuck-up that he wouldn't get there in the first place, and I underestimated the extent to which Crowe and his silly mates covered for him and made such a clueless man look like he had all the answers.

Not being a press gallery journalist, I can amend a previous post where it is eclipsed by better information.

All the very best to you over Christmas and the New Year, dear reader, even if you are like Crowe and the still too many others who can only write the same stories about the same things in the same way that he does: it's called media diversity. I'm still considering doing formal in-depth study into the sheer depth and breadth of the failure of Australian political coverage 2006-2015. Summertime is good for reflections and suggestions, and as ever any suggestions on how this blog can be improved will be welcomed to the extent they are constructive.

20 December 2015

In defence of the NDIS

I think the NDIS is one of the great nation-building initiatives, and said so here in response to what I thought was an ill-considered attempt to talk it down.

I gave examples where tinkering scuppered policy outcomes, and have worked on public-sector projects where short-sighted, rapidly changing objectives increased costs and depressed outcomes (and depressed good people trying to make the bloody thing work). Yale Stephens at Red/Blue probably doesn't have that experience and was hypnotised by the figure of $24b, which admittedly is a biggie. Anyway, pop over to his blog and see what you reckon in what are apparently Contesting Assertions.

15 December 2015

Between two stools

Ian Macfarlane knew better to entrust his political career to the Nationals. As head of the Cattlemen's Union in the 1990s, he had shown a real skill at getting seemingly unreconcilable interests to come together and form some sort of agreement; a case of political skill preceding political ambition. When he began expressing an interest in going into politics, but was reluctant to join the Nationals, John Howard persuaded him to join the Liberal Party and to replace Bill Taylor as MP for Groom.

But I doubt he'd suit the office,

Soon after he was elected in 1998 he went on Lateline with then-Nationals MP DeAnne Kelly. Kelly ragged him for being less than a true Queenslander for not having joined the Nationals (I hope the ABC can dig up that episode; it must look pretty funny right now). Howard made him a minister and, like all ministers in the latter part of that government, he built his reputation on shelling public money at those who already had plenty in the name of incentives.

The press gallery regarded Macfarlane as a "straight shooter" because history shows they are suckers for that rustic schtick.

At every point in Australia's political history, in every jurisdiction, there has been at least one MP from the backblocks who turns up to Parliament with grass-seeds in his eyebrows. He is patronised unrelentingly by the urban press because this visage affirms their half-arsed stereotypes about The Bush. That politician proves a master at diverting money earned in the cities to pet projects in his electorate, and those of his growing number of vassals. As that politician rises in the ranks - rarely to the head of government, but close enough to escape scrutiny while getting his demands met - he continues to be patronised by the same media who puzzle at his success in getting things done and in securing largesse for voters in the back-of-beyond. A six-lane sealed highway from Kickatinalong to Wheelabarrowback. An irrigation channel where the water evaporates before it reaches the neighbouring electorate.

Such politicians deliver nothing whatsoever for local indigenous communities, nor for those who claim the local Bishop is too lax in enforcing rules against ... that which must not be spoken; but such absences, silences, and negatives are achievements in themselves for representatives of this type.

In recent times Macfarlane, Barnaby Joyce, Ron Boswell, and Bill Heffernan have pulled this rustic schtick over the press gallery. Labor does it to a lesser extent as they hold fewer rural seats (e.g. Dick Adams and Warren Snowdon; Joel Fitzgibbon looks stupid when he tries). Old hands who can remember Peter Nixon, Ian Sinclair or even 'Black Jack' McEwen have should be awake to it, and in theory an journalist who is fooled greatly for a long period has let down their profession as well as the public. Press gallery journalism is different to other journalism because experienced journalists show themselves over and over to be willingly gulled by pretty much anyone who tries it on.

Pantomime rustics wear press gallery scorn lightly, and relish the relative freedom from scrutiny that urban pollies don't have and can't get. Bill Heffernan can make rampantly sexist and homophobic remarks and even bring a weapon into Parliament: the press gallery just roll their eyes, that's Bill being Bill! If Mal Brough spoke and carried himself like Bob Katter or Doug Anthony, he'd have succeeded in shrugging off the Slipper-Ashby thing and made Mark Dreyfus look like a whinger. Lawrence Springborg gets another shot at state leader of the LNP over some new face (or someone urban like Langbroek) from the southeast, where the party needs to win seats to regain office.

Cut forward to late 2009

... and Malcolm Turnbull was, as the journos say, beleaguered. For all the media coverage at the time showing the frontbench deserting Turnbull en masse, the Liberal Party was evenly divided over keeping Turnbull as leader - certainly if the alternative was Abbott. By then the Nationals had realised their traditional base was no longer capable of keeping them in the manner to which they had become accustomed. There was no conflict between mining an farming interests so long as miners kept their operations well away from farmlands (e.g. the deserts and semi-deserts, and the Barrier Reef), or maintained the sorts of mine-farm balances seen in communities like the Upper Hunter or Gippsland, where rural workers even out the ups and downs of agriculture with steadier incomes from the mines. At the time they thought climate change was an issue that could simply be voted down. The Nationals were showing their donors that they could deliver, and currying favour with the rise of conservative Liberals who promised a closer Coalition than had been seen for decades.

Abbott went to Brisbane to court LNP powerbrokers. Turnbull phoned individuals, who mostly ended up voting as the powerbrokers told them to. Abbott's defeat of Turnbull in 2009 was more like Gillard's defeat of Rudd the following year than either side dares admit; more than the press gallery, who saw it all up close, could comprehend.

The formation of the LNP in Queensland was a takeover of the Coalition in that state by the Nationals, with the purpose of securing the powers of state government to benefit Nationals constituencies. They resented the fact that the federal Coalition got involved in what they saw as internal Queensland matters; they agreed to Howard's demands to maintain a separate Liberal/National presence (including maintaining individuals like Macfarlane, or Brandis) in Canberra in return for letting the merger go ahead at state level. The powerbrokers who formed the LNP, like Bruce McIver, were the successors to Joh Bjelke-Petersen and Bob Sparkes: they arrogantly pushed aside their political opponents, scorned irrelevances in far-off Canberra (and the nerds who wanted to go there) and did pretty much what they wished. In 2009, the Nats who ran the LNP could happily sacrifice one Sydneysider leading the Liberal Party for another if it meant they'd be left alone.

One of the core motivations behind Abbott's leadership of the Liberal Party was the idea that Labor's victory in 2007 was illegitimate and some sort of mistake. They thought they were entitled to take up where they left off. Ian Macfarlane was no more, and no less, entitled than anyone.

Why 2015 is different to 2009

  1. Macfarlane has, as Turnbull said in September, had a good go at being a minister. At the time Macfarlane seemed to agree - even in the face of the ignominy at being replaced by Christopher Pyne.
  2. The LNP powerbrokers have been knocked on their arses. They fooled some of the people some of the time in southeastern Queensland, but this region proved so hard to govern and chewed up so much state government time that the Nationals' traditional plunder-to-the-regions never took off. That old Bjelke-Sparkes arrogance has been knocked out of them by Labor, and by the realisation that shafting Turnbull again would take them further backwards.
  3. The LNP powerbrokers have knocked both their current leader (Warren Truss) and the likely next one (Barnaby Joyce) on their arses. If those guys can't win the LNP executive, what good are they? Their credibility is shot, and not only with Turnbull.
  4. Consider this, Nationals voters: the Infrastructure Minister and the Agriculture Minister have buggered their own credibility. This is fine if you think Infrastructure and Agriculture policies don't matter.
  5. The Treasurer, who is not out of favour with the PM, is looking to cut subsidies. The government as a whole is under no obligation to make Truss or Joyce look good. While these guys are deciding whether or not they'll retire, Infrastructure and Agriculture bureaucrats will have to start putting budget proposals together, not knowing who the relevant minister will be. Now tell me again what the point of the Nationals is, and why you think their vote will hold up.
  6. Shenhua Coal have an approved mining permit to dig up much of the Liverpool Plains and affect the watercourses on the rest of it. The Liverpool Plains includes some of Australia's best farmland, and it's within Joyce's electorate. If Shenhua pulls out of the Liverpool Plains through sustained political pressure, Joyce will be a big winner in the local electorate - if not, he won't. Joyce's bargaining position is weakened rather than strengthened after his part in The Macfarlane Affair/ Maccagate.
  7. Joyce tried to rope Scott Buchholz (from the electorate adjacent to Groom) into a Lib-Nat switch. Buchholz used to work for Joyce, but Joyce has made him look like a patsy. Like Macfarlane, Buchholz looks more like a Nat than a Lib anyway.
  8. Turnbull's representative on the LNP executive was Peter Dutton. Had Macfarlane joined the Nats and been their candidate to displace a Liberal from Cabinet, Dutton would have been the Liberal displaced. Dutton is the weakest link in Turnbull's Cabinet (with the possible exception of Scott Morrison) and was, in effect, arguing for his own job. Macfarlane would have deserved the administrative clusterfuck and moral swamp that is Immigration.

The value of press gallery experience

Michelle Grattan, Paul Bongiorno and Laurie Oakes have all recounted Macfarlane's tale in traditional horse-race terms, as though it were disconnected from the Nationals-Turnbull relationship in 2009 or the coming Budget. Michael Gordon deserves special mention for a piece that is particularly vapid even by the low standards he sets.

Katharine Murphy has developed a strong reputation for describing game-playing across politics while being coy about the press gallery and its role in political manoeuvrings. Sure, Macfarlane is throwing a tantrum - but consider the role played by Murphy and her colleagues in building Macfarlane up as a "straight shooter", someone with unmatched largesse-shovelling skills, etc. She's been a sucker for the pantomime rustic routine, and now is piling onto the poor hapless bastard ... presumably so she can write another one of her hand-wringing pieces about piling onto poor hapless bastards. Murphy writing about cynicism in politics is like Abbott beating up Islamic extremism: be the problem you denounce, rinse and repeat.

Mark Kenny, the Official Bunny of this blog, proffered two gobbets of analysis on this matter:
Macfarlane's rejection has left his career in the wilderness - with only his credibility for company.
Snappy line, that.
But whatever is done with him, it is pretty clear his party backers are too. Done with him that is ... Now Macfarlane is hinting he might look at something in the resources sector after his stint as Australia's longest-serving minerals energy and resources minister.

The cynicism of such manoeuvring apparently knows no limit. Having failed to secure personal advancement through skulduggery, the risk is he could take the corporate knowledge of national service and deploy it for private corporate gain.
You can't look at something that isn't there. Macfarlane should know that by now.

In challenging times, the mining industry needs all the friends it can get in Canberra - why would they hire someone with no credibility? Former Labor minister Martin Ferguson would probably have better standing with the current minister, Josh Frydenberg, than Macfarlane could ever muster. Do you reckon Clive Palmer would want him involved with Queensland Nickel? You see the problem here, provided you aren't as shortsighted as Mark Kenny.

Nobody in the press gallery is prepared for a post-Joyce environment.

Plenty of journos out there will tell you political journalism doesn't - can't - get any better than those people.

Update 24 December: Tony Windsor's piece on Macfarlane a superior article to the one I had written, so I disavow the above to the extent that it departs from Windsor's analysis. As you can see I placed too much reliance on gallery interpretations (e.g. Macfarlane as turncoat). My post would have been improved with more of the dreary cynicism of which I am so regularly accused.

29 November 2015

Brough enough

As we head into the end times for Mal Brough, let's consider how his career represents several things wider than him: machismo, keeping Aborigines "in their place", opportunity costs, and the price of loyalty. Oh, and of course, piss-poor standards of political journalism.

Act I: Taking the crease

Before first entering parliament for the electorate of Longman (now held by Wyatt Roy) in 1996, Brough had been an army officer. The press gallery singled him out for Big Things. When Tony Abbott was promoted to Cabinet in 2001, Brough replaced him as Minister for Employment Services.

Malcolm Farr made a telling anecdote [link broken] about Brough at a cricket match. Because Farr is an old-school journalist in the mendacious world of political reporting, he did not use that anecdote to look into what Brough did and how he did it, questioning his statements and fitness for office generally; instead, the coverage of him (by Farr and others in the press gallery) is pretty much all direct quotes and giving Brough the benefit of the doubt.

Act II: Hubris

In 2004 Brough became Minister for Revenue and Assistant Treasurer to Peter Costello, where he was responsible for hacking into the tax base at the very time the mining boom was taking off. Part of the reason why Wayne Swan, Joe Hockey, and now Scott Morrison, have been unable to do much about the revenue side of the budget is because of Brough's hard work back then. It's notable that those tax breaks did not lead to the private sector picking up the slack in terms of infrastructure; Australian history suggests that where government fails to take the lead, no infrastructure magically appears. Interesting experiment, though.

In 2006 Brough entered Cabinet as Minister for Families and Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. This might sound like he was doing squishy welfare stuff; not a bit of it. Brough came up with the idea of using a report into sexual abuse in Northern Territory Aboriginal communities, Little Children are Sacred, as a pretext to send the Army in to occupy those communities and stamp out anti-social behaviour. He ignored the report and there is no evidence it made much of a difference one way or another, but it made a big splash - this may explain why Labor kept it after 2007. Frances Jones shows how Brough encouraged the Tiwi Islands Land Council to adopt schemes that created no jobs and degraded the environment: a lose-lose situation for people who were doing it tough already.

Despite the demonstrated lack of any link between the Northern Territory Emergency Response and any sort of success metric, the press gallery remained convinced that Brough was an action man and a Liberal star on the rise. He was Hotspur to Tony Abbott's Prince Hal. Consider this table of Sheer Damn Manliness:

Relationship to the Queen
Talked a lot of talk about the Queen
Held the Queen’s commission
Occupation before entering politics
Student (well into 30s), journalist
Army officer, sales
Economic credentials under Howard govt
Peter Costello disdained his understanding of economics
Minister for Revenue, helped diminish tax base
Military deployment proposals
To Ukraine, protect plane debris
To Northern Territory, protect Aboriginal children
Military deployment proposals supported by Labor
Re-elected in 2007
Complained publicly about decline in income after having been Cabinet minister
Disdained major political development
Climate change
Merger of Liberal and National Parties in Qld
Supported Brough for LNP preselection in Fisher for 2013
Supported Brough for Abbott ministry 2013
Supported Abbott as Liberal leader February 2015
Supported Abbott as Liberal leader September 2015

Act III: Nemesis

If Mal Brough had held Longman in 2007 then he, not Tony Abbott, would have been the favoured candidate for leader when Turnbull stumbled in 2009. Brough would have negated Rudd's Queensland appeal and been a bit more presentable than the often uncouth and puerile Abbott. The press gallery would have loved that action-man crap and Labor would hardly have been in a position to criticise his failures in Indigenous policy, having perpetuated them.

But, he didn't. If ever a minister was going to come out of the Howard government and fall into a series of cushy boards and advisory roles, according to the political-class fantasy, he was it. Brough faffed around and ended up as the last Queensland State President of the Liberal Party. He was against the merger with the Queensland Nationals that formed the LNP: he lacked the clout to stop it altogether and the wit to turn it to his advantage. He looked truculent, like a lamb trying to back out of a sheep-dip at the last minute, rather than a political operator contributing to something bigger than himself. It meant he couldn't secure a seat for 2010, which may have seen him back in Cabinet in 2013; more faffing around, this time outside the LNP power structure.

George Brandis also showed his true colours at this time, putting up a token resistance before succumbing. As Attorney-General his role has been to talk about John Stuart Mill, but then assert that civil liberties must be sacrificed to Daesh and that you can exercise a right to bigotry. If your idea of political activism and progress is to offer a token resistance before succumbing, Brandis is your model for involvement in major-party politics.

By 2012 Brough had come around to the idea that politics was his only real career option, and that he had no choice to suck up to people who were once his peers and juniors. Brough was a minister when Peter Dutton was first elected; when Brough went into Cabinet Dutton had taken over his junior portfolio. Dutton had been re-elected in 2007 and was cruising to a Cabinet role without doing anything. As Peter Slipper committed political suicide by all but switching to Labor, Brough could have played the statesman and let the LNP bring Fisher to him - but instead, he got his hands dirty. That sexist menu for his fundraiser in 2012 (no I won't link to it) is a perfect example of officers' mess wit.

As with Kathy Jackson, Independent Australia were onto Brough from the outset. The press gallery resisted the allure of sleaze and illegality because Brough was part of the Restoration narrative. This is why there's no point dipping into broadcast-media summaries, and why ABC reporters look silly when they write off questioning of Brough as 'Labor mischief': the Ashby thing ain't their mischief. IA put out numerous articles and a book on the matter while the broadcast media can offer only potted half-embarrassed recaps.

Act IV: You can't step in the same river twice

When the Abbott government took office in 2013 there were a few changes to the Shadow Ministry becoming Ministers, but basically the Abbott government was all about restoring the Howard government as though nothing had happened between then and 2007. Two Howard-era Cabinet ministers elected in 2013 did not get a portfolio - Philip Ruddock and Mal Brough - and Ruddock had declared he didn't want a portfolio. Brough sucked it up and got on with backbenching, and the press gallery stopped gushing over how great it was to have the old gang back together. Brough didn't have the twinkly-eyed gravitas of veterans like Philip Ruddock or Warren Entsch, and wasn't a fresh face either.

The LNP merger Brough had so opposed was designed to make it easier for the Coalition to win State government in Queensland. Brough had foreseen that it would be a disaster, and the performance of the Newman government 2012-15 proved him right. In politics you can be a drunk, a thief, a sex maniac and/or a terror to work for, and people will cover for you; but get proven right when everyone else is wrong, and that warm inner glow won't save you. The January 2015 Queensland state election proved everything turned out to be just as bad as Mal Brough said it would be.

The first chance he got, in February 2015, he voted against his brother-from-another-mother Abbott. In September he voted against him again. The lack of press gallery coverage about Ashby (mainly protecting favoured source Christopher Pyne) must have lulled Prime Minister Turnbull into thinking Brough was cleared of the matter concerning Slipper's diary and other questionable behaviour. It was always a sad joke to put him in charge of electoral probity, and now it seems like the Prime Minister will have to find someone else.

The longer Brough stays as Special Minister of State, the less likely it is there will be an early election. A quick replacement would have been a clear sign the government was up to something. He is also Minister for Defence Materiel at a time when big procurement projects are up for grabs.

If Turnbull hadn't appointed Brough to the ministry, Brough would have joined the Abbott-Abetz sooks' club, and/or gone bonkers like Senator Macdonald.

Abbott allowed himself a chuckle as Labor finally started questioning him over Ashby-Slipper, at a time when even the press gallery would give them coverage for doing so. Abbott allowed himself a chuckle, as he does when others come under the scrutiny he has always escaped: a could-have-been Liberal leader mocked by a has-been.

The Australian Federal Police had all but dropped their investigation into the events surrounding the Speaker's diary until recently. I note, without making any allegation, that the minister responsible for the AFP is George Brandis. If this investigation damages the political careers of two of Brandis' ministerial colleagues (Brough and Pyne) while leaving his untouched, it could be a masterstroke worthy of House of Cards. If not, it could be the greatest own-goal in Australian politics since the Costigan Royal Commission.

Governments can lose a minister or two without affecting their ability to be re-elected. Turnbull knows this, as does any student of Australian politics. Predicting the demise of Brough or even Pyne will finish Turnbull is to over-egg the situation. Mind you, Mal Brough's whole political career has been empty hype on the part of the press gallery. Now that it is over, it is clear how insubstantial it was.