16 June 2015

The bomber will always get through

I think it is well also for the man in the street to realise that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed, whatever people may tell him. The bomber will always get through, and it is very easy to understand that ...

- Stanley Baldwin, former UK Prime Minister, addressing the House of Commons on 10 November 1932 - thanks to Brett Holman
Baldwin was talking about the prospect of air warfare, developed initially in what we know now as the First World War and developed to a greater and much more deadly extent in the Second (Holman's blog is very good on the British prewar dread of bombing from the air, as WG Sebald's On the Natural History of Destruction is on the German experience of it). He could have been talking about today's climate of fear that is throwing away important civil liberties with no real increase in safety.

Tony Abbott has staked the survival of his government on a game of chicken with the Labor Party, according to recent articles by Laura Tingle, Lenore Taylor, and others. There are two problems with this.

First, Labor seem up for such a game, which puts them into their traditional position of being Almost the Liberal Party - i.e. a permanent opposition, rather than an alternative government.

Second, the game depends utterly upon there being no actual terrorist incidents - something that no amount of bipartisanship can guarantee.

When Man Haron Monis took hostages in Martin Place last December, Abbott acted the statesman and denied it was a terrorist incident. Since then he has, to his discredit, insinuated it into the ranks of terrorist incidents. He has increased funding to the AFP and other agencies for "national security theatre" activities rather than measures that directly address terrorism and the motivations behind it.

When the US was attacked on 11 September 2001 it punctured the idea that what the US calls its 'defense' forces do not actually defend the country, and some people never got over it. The same would happen here: all that talk about sacrificing civil liberties for safety and losing both, all the talk about submarines and F-35s, all that pales in the face of a terrorist attack against Australia and Australians. A conservative government can't afford to risk such unconcern for public order and safety, and is foolish to place it all on a game of chance with their fellow former political staffers.

The entire premise behind Abbott's fear campaign is that it people are grateful when the government steps up and takes charge. Nobody is assuaged or comforted when Tony Abbott steps up and takes charge.

Evelyn Waugh (who would have agreed with Abbott on many aspects of general outlook) once said of a fellow writer that his treatment of the English language was like watching a Sevres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee. Watching Abbott in charge of the government, having him speak on anniversaries for Anzac or Magna Carta, the economy or anything important really induces similar queasiness.

This goes to policy areas unrelated to "national security theatre", too.

The peer-review systems for managing academic and artistic grants are imperfect, but almost every alternative to it is worse. Christopher Pyne has not made the case that he has greater wisdom on education and research than those with established reputations in those fields. George Brandis has not established himself as much of an aesthete outside Liberal circles in Canberra. They are drawing on an authority that they simply do not have.

Senator Mitch Fifield is the minister responsible for realising what used to be the National Disability Insurance Scheme. People familiar with that work praise Fifield's commitment and industry - but he will not get the credit he deserves because he is a minister in the Abbott government. His achievements are met with relief that he hasn't yet botched or slashed it, as though he were defusing a bomb rather than building something of lasting value. To give Fifield the credit he is due would require a broad acceptance of this government that nowhere exists outside the studios of shock-jocks and party headquarters. Liberals still hope there might be some circumstances so dire that Abbott might be seen as reassuring.

The idea that Abbott can make up for policy failings elsewhere in government with the lights-and-greasepaint of "national security theatre" isn't just 'flawed', as they say in Canberra: it's crap. It doesn't play to a strength. It doesn't compensate for his weaknesses, it emphasises them.

Mike Baird knew that there is no political capital in disasters. John Brumby took charge of the 2009 Victorian fires, so what? Anna Bligh reaped nothing from the Queensland floods of 2011. Baird did what a real leader does: praise the emergency services and get out of their way, then praise the post-recovery volunteer organisations and get out of their way, too. Baird's popularity stemmed directly from that humility in public and support in private.

Abbott and the dopey crew surrounding him think there's value in inserting their guy into genuinely tough situations, like an action hero cavorting in front of a green screen within a film studio. There's no helping him, or them, get over it. There's no way the press gallery will snap out of it either. They can all be shown up, and they probably will; and once again we will all pay the price of a bad government foisted upon us by misleading, disinformative, unchallenging work from the press gallery.

10 June 2015


Tony Abbott will never, ever pass same-sex marriage into law while he is Prime Minister. He will support those who resist it so long as he lives. All the Canberra-insider hints that he might accommodate it are just bullshit, beating up a story that does not exist.

When John Howard became Prime Minister, Australia's political momentum toward a republic was growing. Howard shored up his monarchist base and invoked his authority as leader by pretty much declaring that Liberals who supported this cause were not Liberals at all. Liberals lose office when they're seen to be on the wrong side of history, and nothing is truer to the Liberal tradition than wanting to win elections: Howard divided republicans and saw off any threat a united anti-monarchy movement might have made to the political structure which he had come to master.

Same-sex marriage advocates have done everything you would hope in a democracy to promote their cause. They have written letters to and met with local MPs. They have raised money and organised peacefully. Any demonstrations have been polite affairs: nobody has been arrested, no conflagrational symbolism as with draft cards and brassieres in a bygone era. No same-sex marriage opponent has suffered personally for their views as Stephanie McCarthy has suffered for being who she is. Proponents may even believe that Abbott is giving them some sort of tacit support, and some Liberal MPs may be under a similar misapprehension.

They have been clever in framing the issue as being about equal rights. But Abbott can frame as well as anyone, and the press gallery are helpless as kittens before his framing (even especially the 'experienced' ones).

It is not reasonable to expect that a Prime Minister will sit back and allow legislation to which they're fundamentally opposed to just slip past into law. It has never happened. Again, when Howard was PM the press gallery mused how ironic it would be that lifelong monarchist Howard would usher in a republic: there was no republic, and hence no irony. Now the same people muse how ironic it might be for Christianist homophobe Abbott to usher in same-sex marriage:
  • Have they learned nothing?
  • Are they stupid?
  • Why listen to them?
There are many in the Coalition who feel as Abbott feels about this issue. There are those in the ALP, and on the crossbenches, who oppose same-sex marriage too, and they will cast their votes as they see fit. Like any politician, Abbott shores up his base when his overall position is weak. Any credit Abbott gets from rock-ribbed conservatives on terrorism and the ensuing loss of civil liberties (inside or beyond the Liberal Party) would be wasted were he to let same-sex marriage pass.

Just four months ago, Abbott faced down a leadership challenge. Nobody believes that he might sit back and allow a piece of legislation to pass to which he was fundamentally opposed, and that such passage would not reflect negatively on his leadership. This is where we get to Abbott's framing, and why that framing counters the equal-rights framing by same-sex marriage proponents.

Abbott was being too smart by half when he insisted that the only same-sex marriage bill that would pass was one he would move himself, and that any other bill (initiated by Shorten or Leyonhjelm or anyone else) was just 'posturing'. He will never move such a bill himself. The idea that he might is itself just posturing. So too are the timid announcements from Coalition MPs who say they'll vote for same-sex marriage if there's a free vote: there won't be a free vote, so the promise is hollow.

Let's use a sporting analogy to illustrate Abbott's yeah-nah position. Let's assume that former Carlton coach Mick Malthouse could and would have insisted that his team would only take the field if they played with a ball that he owned. Let's also assume there was no penalty for forfeiting games. Malthouse would refuse to let any of his balls onto the field, Carlton players would declare themselves undefeated, other teams would play to their supporters by expressing a willingness to play (one or two Carlton players might do the same). Assuming AFL journalists are as bad as the press gallery, they'd hail him as a wily genius. Nothing would change - and to leave the analogy, that's what Abbott wants, to change nothing. Happy to have the charade of change, happy to frame any and all change as a charade really - but nothing will change so long as Abbott has his way.

Same-sex marriage is not a 'distraction'. Given that Australia is exposed to the ebbs and swells (and reefs) of the global economy, given that the government can't do much about interest rates or property prices or even tax, pretty much everything the federal government does is symbolic. They don't accept that their opponents can do symbolic politics that resonates with people. This is a government that lives or dies by culture war. They love a bit of symbolism. They just don't like having its most potent weapons turned against them.

Many Liberals are as opposed to same-sex marriage as Abbott is; many, if not most, are not. Surely these are the people who will join with most of the ALP, a few crossbenchers and all* the Greens and pass same-sex marriage into law? No.

Those Liberals can take or leave same-sex marriage. Let's face it, nobody who was truly concerned about same-sex marriage voted for the Coalition in 2013. There are no votes to be lost for not voting for same-sex marriage, or engaging in parliamentary shenanigans so that the vote doesn't come up.

Liberals are primarily concerned about looking like a leaderless rabble. They are in government because they framed Labor for acting like that (and the press gallery love a bit of framing). Any same-sex marriage talk makes Abbott look weak. By toeing the party line on same-sex marriage they are protecting their leader, and nobody expects any more or less of any Liberal. If anyone breaks the party line, or if there is no line to toe (i.e. a conscience vote), you put Liberal MPs in a position where their personal moral positions are exposed and have to be justified.

While previous generations of Liberals were more than happy to do develop and justify their own positions on broad social issues, today's line-toeing Liberals regard personal beliefs as an indulgence. Individual-freedom-to-the-max Liberals like Amanda Vanstone get nowhere in today's Liberal Party - just ask John "Third Preference" Roskam. On the rare occasions when the government allows voices from the backbench into the media, it puts up careerist sucks like George Christensen or Andrew Nikolic rather than randoms like Andrew Laming or Dennis Jensen.

Broad philosophical positioning used to be core business for a political party, now it is outsourced to consultants. If you want to know what it means to be a Liberal in 2015, don't ask Tony Abbott or Julie Bishop or Mike Baird: ask Mark Textor.

Don't believe Peter Reith either. Reith opposed four binding referenda in 1988 because they would limit the scope of professional politicians like himself. He spent more than twenty years in politics doing nothing to advance the cause of direct democracy; the nearest he came was to use high office to pollute democracy by lying about asylum seekers.
If the marriage reform is not dealt with this year, political backroom advisers will encourage politicians to focus on bread-and-butter issues, which do not include same-sex marriage.
Rubbish. In his budget reply speech Bill Shorten talked a lot about science and technology, which also lies outside what Reith would consider "bread-and-butter issues". The reason why he did that was to frame Abbott as unprepared for the future, of not being open to or equipped for its challenges. Same-sex marriage fits that narrative perfectly.

Consider the past three Labor victories over Coalition governments (2007, 1983, 1972) - in no case did Labor win on "bread-and-butter issues". In every case Labor won on the perception that it was more flexible and credible than the obstinate incumbents in dealing with an uncertain future.
For supporters of reform, waiting for politicians to give the public the right to have a say is a mistake.
It's begging the question to claim a popular vote is the only way the Marriage Act can be changed.
To ensure reform the best approach is to demand a plebiscite.
A plebiscite is a non-binding vote. Proponents of same-sex marriage want real legislative change, which won't be achieved with a plebiscite. Strangely, those who want a plebiscite on same-sex marriage are dead against the same measure for a republic.
If the reform or its timing is left in the hands of politicians, there is no guarantee.
Yes there is: you replace the politicians. It's called democracy. Then again, Eleanor Robertson has a good point about learned helplessness, and if not this what? Here we start getting all Letter-from-Birmingham-Jail about the very question of effecting political change.
... both sides are struggling with the issue.
Rubbish. Labor's leader and deputy leader made their position clear. Senior Labor figures who might have opposed same-sex marriage, like Tony Burke, declare themselves supporters while none are going the other way.

During the republic debate in the late '90s, people like Reith insisted that Labor was riven over that issue; I am yet to meet a monarchist Labor voter, and I suspect Reith is happy for such a bunyip to stay out of his sight too.
There is no government bill. Tony Abbott has not said if there will be a party room discussion on the issue. The Coalition party room has not yet decided to allow a conscience vote. They may stick to their current position.
This is Scott Morrison's position: the Liberal Party will not be rushed, and if it does not get around to same-sex marriage then it will not happen, and you'll just have to accept that.
Understandably, the Prime Minister wants to keep Bill Shorten at bay and Shorten is desperate to get the kudos of allegedly having championed the issue.
One of those guys is desperate: the one trailing in the polls, the one with more to lose, would be the more desperate.
That would work for Abbott in the same way as when John Howard opposed the 1999 referendum. Howard ensured a fair process which empowered the Australian people to decide whether Australia should become a republic. Howard was widely respected for allowing the vote.
Howard started from a position of opposing a republic and framed it so that it couldn't win. Reith and Abbott saw that up close. Abbott is playing a similar game with same-sex marriage and Reith is happy to play along.

Reith is dishonest here, as he was in the Irish example, for conflating binding referenda with non-binding plebiscites.
Australia runs a pretty good democracy. We enjoy telling our politicians what we think of them but we have a lot of quality people in the political elite in Canberra, including the media as well as the MPs.
Reith's idea of democracy is to minimise real public input, to frame it as something flaky, while the politicians make the real decisions. His idea that there might be "quality people" in the press gallery is almost entirely wrong, until you realise he spent most of his parliamentary career in the press gallery leaking against every Liberal leader who wasn't John Howard.

Tony Abbott's breach of faith with the electorate is every bit as great and irrevocable as that of Julia Gillard in the middle of her term as Prime Minister. Reith is right when he says "Abbott could not switch from his long-standing and principled opposition", because that would be like Kevin Rudd abandoning climate change.

Christine Forster is a bonnet ornament on the same-sex marriage cause, not a driver and not part of the engine. Abbott has been happy to use his wife and daughters and props to create the impression of being more awake to women's issues than he is. Opponents can't simply brush his sister off, but nor is she much use in making the case.

Mind you, this is the site that predicted Abbott would never become Prime Minister at all, and Reith has forgotten more about politics than I've learned; there's your grain of salt. Doesn't mean that Abbott will pass same-sex marriage though. The press gallery can't bear to report on Abbott as he is, as they know him to be. They cling to their fantasy that he might change, that Tony 2.0 is real and just around the corner, and this fantasy prevents us realising properly how we are governed.

* I can't think of a single Green politician who's opposed to same-sex marriage, not even from the perspective that marriage is a patriarchal construct. Is it even possible to be a member of the Greens while opposing same-sex marriage?

05 June 2015


Insofar as the Abbott government has a heart or a core at all, it is trying to create a convincing form of non-economic protectionism. It can't succeed at that, it won't succeed, although it already seems to have a convincing re-election scenario in place.


For most of the 20th century the Australian economy was highly protected. Australian manufacturers were protected from import competition by tariffs and other similar measures. In return for this protection they were obliged to pay Australian workers higher wages than workers in other countries would get for similar work.

Murdoch commentator Paul Kelly identified what he called "the Australian Settlement", a system in five parts which began to be unravelled in the 1980s under Hawke and Keating:
  • White Australia
  • Import protection
  • Centralised wage fixation
  • State paternalism; and
  • Imperial benevolence (first under Britain, then the US)
This system of economic protectionism began to falter in the 1960s, and aspects of it were modified during the 1970s and '80s. The wholesale removal of this system and an embrace of a low-tariff exposure to global market forces took place under the Labor government of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating (1983-96). They slashed tariffs and other trade barriers, and floated the exchange rate of the Australian dollar (i.e. rather than have government set the value of the currency, it was set by the market). They also reduced the share of corporate income that went to wages, and wound back long-standing measures that limited labour market flexibility.

The governments that followed Hawke-Keating did relatively little in terms of economic reform. Even now, commentators will urge politicians to engage in more economic reform, without being specific what that should be: roads or public transport, broadband, still more reductions in working conditions, more tax or less (usually less), etc. No politician wants to burn themselves out like Hawke and Keating did, realising too late that all political careers end and that you may as well do something with them whilst you're there.

Abbott's dreaming

Tony Abbott never promised to reintroduce trade protectionism or centralised wage fixation. What he seems to want is a variation on Kelly's five themes, namely:
  • A mainly Caucasian Australia, with vigorous non-Caucasian cultures like Islam or Indigenous communities shunted to the fringes and policed for any sign of dissent;
  • Trade-promotion measures that only really apply to high-volume mineral and agriculture exports
  • Acquiescence to import deals favourable to foreign goods and services (e.g. interstate dispute settlement processes)
  • State paternalism (but only in policing, defence, and intelligence, at the expense of civil liberties); and
  • Imperial benevolence (definitely the US, but one that's less dominant globally and which has made significant missteps in western Asia)
As far as employment is concerned, Abbott regards jobs as private-sector welfare, rather than as roles necessary for the economy to function (more on that later), or occupations that give workers' lives meaning. Abbott believes that a sound economy will make jobs plentiful and stable, and believes his mere presence in government is all that's necessary to give the economy the confidence it needs to keep producing stuff and keep people employed.

This government has given no thought at all to the idea of economic development leaving employment behind, and what that means for the nation. That isn't quite the stuff of treason but it does mean we are being misgoverned.

This government has been keen on some form of state paternalism in a straitened age. It wanted to extend this to welfare recipients, but this only focused on inequality and made gainfully employed people fear for what might happen if their personal circumstances deteriorated through no fault of their own. No government is safe in those rare but potent occasions when middle-income people start identifying with lower-income people.

The government's lust for state paternalism has shifted from social security (which presupposes social division without social disintegration) to national security (which regards division as disintegration). The first step has been to define "national security" to include people who aren't threats to the nation in any meaningful sense: lonely randoms who stumble into militant Islam (which does not quite include that attention-seeking loser from Sydney's Martin Place siege, but Murdoch journos and other simpletons lump him in), asylum seekers, artists - and anyone using that thing Abbott can't quite fathom, in terms of its form or its appeal: the internet.

The press gallery has been content to report this as some sort of Canberra parlour game - which it is, sort of, if you overlook actual threats to civil liberties, and believe all that policing activity precludes any real threat to Australian lives and property.

Which brings us to ...

Laura Tingle and business confidence

Laura Tingle is political editor for The Australian Financial Review. She is one of the few press gallery journalists who, when a politician makes an announcement, validates and verifies it with other sources of information*.

The target market for The Australian Financial Review is corporate Australia. These people who seemed so enthusiastic about the prospect of an Abbott government while Labor were in office, yet who are according to Tingle quite surprised and dismayed by the reality of the Abbott government.
No one can think of a funny retort to Tony Abbott, possibly because they are having enough trouble coming to terms with the unhinged nature of the rhetoric in which our Prime Minister now engages.
Firstly, Abbott was always big on the apocalyptic rhetoric. It was part of his 'junkyard dog' thing when he was first elected to Parliament in 1994, in the dying days of the Keating government. He did it all the time when Howard was in government; the press gallery regarded it as part of his charm. He kept at it when Labor were in government, and since he became Liberal leader in 2009 he has pretty much done it daily.

That word "now" does Tingle a disservice. In the lead-up to the last election, when the press gallery seemed convinced that the sunlit uplands of good government were within reach, Tingle was at least dubious, occasionally putting Cassandra-like warnings on the record. Nobody in the press gallery has any right to be surprised at Abbott; the more experience you have, the less right you have to act all surprised at what he and his government are like.

Secondly, Bill Shorten comes up with funny retorts to Abbott all the time. As an authoritarian, Abbott regards others as either allies or enemies. Being ridiculed blurs that clear line, and Abbott hates ambiguity. Mockery is the very thing authoritarianism elevates you above.

The press gallery thinks it's their job to stand around whispering and giggling about powerful figures. They resent Shorten's funny retorts, which they call "zingers", which they have to report to outsiders undeserving of insider wit.
Abbott is taking a wild punt on a message that would be coming out of the Coalition's focus groups. That is, whatever voters think of him, the thing they crave more than anything else is stability and certainty, not just after the Rudd/Gillard years but at a time of deep economic uncertainty, and even amid the shock they have had in the past 12 months when the return of "adult government" only gave them more uncertainty in the form of the 2014 budget and February's almost leadership coup. In what could be a tight election contest, Tony Abbott will be relying on this yearning for stability to save his increasingly undeserving neck.
The lack of scrutiny of Abbott, the fact that the press gallery gave him a free pass for being the antidote to both Rudd and Gillard, meant that he could create a sense of certainty without any ability to deliver it. All Opposition Leaders promise a sense of certainty: even those who never made it sought to cultivate an unthreatening image. It's why he was so ready to be portrayed as a "daggy dad", and why he implied (largely unchallenged) that he contained economic confidence within his person awaiting release by vice-regal imprimatur.

Abbott never had the ability to restore economic confidence, nor confidence in the security of the nation (however defined). Nor was there any basis for confidence in his administrative ability, nor in the regard for which his Coalition colleagues held him. Again, the more time you've spent in the press gallery and the fancier your official title, the less excuse you have to be surprised by Abbott.

The business community worked closely with Abbott before the last election. They gave him millions of dollars. They helped develop such policies as this government has. They accepted his assurances that he had the relationship with the public necessary for those policies to not only pass through parliament but be accepted and supported by the wider public.

Now they admit, feebly and privately, that this wasn't what they meant. Their creation, like that of Dr Frankenstein, careens across the landscape on a mission to crush, kill, destroy. Laura Tingle is too polite to confront them with this.

Abbott was always undeserving of the job of Prime Minister. This isn't a recent development.
The Prime Minister is desperate to shut down any possible area of Labor attack.
Oppositions gotta oppose.
Yet all he is currently achieving is open warfare within his own ranks on a range of contentious issues from national security to gay marriage, and policy chaos in the pronouncements of his ministers. He is actually fomenting division between his cabinet and the party room on national security.
And you expected - what, exactly? Was it really only social media denizens who knew an Abbott government would tie itself up in its own contradictions?
On Wednesday, Assistant Treasurer Josh Frydenburg [sic] tried to give the government wriggle room on retirement incomes policy, telling a Canberra conference "the government will, of course, consider good ideas put forward as part of the tax white paper process and any changes recommended by that process will be taken to the Australian people at the next election".

It should not have been that controversial a statement.

Yet it was smacked down within hours, first by Treasurer Joe Hockey, then by Abbott.

Hockey had second thoughts on Thursday and he too tried to keep some room for change in a second term.
Two things come from that.

First, the government's tax reform process is as dead as Greg Jericho said it was. Next time Abbott, Hockey, Frydenberg or anyone else confuses it with a live prospect, journalists should laugh and  let their audience in on the joke. They should not do what they usually do - simply broadcast the quote, considering they have chewed up media space and thereby done their jobs.

Second, what the government is trying to do is not only shut down their own options, but those for the alternative government. It's possible that Abbott, Hockey et al won't even be in government after the next election. The government claims Labor will jack up taxes, while Labor denies it: this is to deny Labor the scope an alternative government needs to address the country's economic issues (real or perceived). Therefore, Abbott will claim that Labor would balance the budget through retirement incomes, because all other options will be ruled out; the press gallery will not think outside that narrative, so there's the next election for ya.
Ironically, retirement income is an area where everyone agrees that, because of its long-term nature, there needs to be bipartisanship. Both sides of politics pay lip service to this idea yet cannot resist the temptation to play politics, whether on pensions or super.
If bipartisanship isn't possible (let alone whether it results in the best possible policy), stop wishing for it. Where better to stop wishing for something so unnecessary and counterproductive than the hard-bitten no-nonsense pages of The Australian Financial Review?
Years ago it became fashionable to outsource service delivery from government to the private sector. But in the current, fetid atmosphere, people outside government are taking an "oh for goodness sake, let me do that" approach to policy too.
This idea that policy and politics is too important for politicians - I'm sure I've heard it before, and not just "in the current, fetid atmosphere". It's called democracy, Laura. As the major parties' lack of touch with people increases, as they seek cosy bipartisanship over the tumult of consultation, expect "the current, fetid atmosphere" to become the new normal. Political climate change, if you will.
A point of underlying agreement was that things can't stay as they are. As shadow treasurer Chris Bowen told the conference, the irony of the government's approach of doing nothing is to create more uncertainty. That's because few people believe the system is working, equitable or affordable.
Bipartisanship led us to this position. Bipartisanship keeps us in stasis. Therefore, to move on from this position, we need something other than bipartisanship.
Sinodinos reflected on how important external pressure and community consensus had proved in forcing the hand of governments on numerous occasions, notably on Howard's signature tax reforms and on climate change.
How much did he charge to say that? (Zing!)
Dawkins observed that the risks of vacating a policy debate are leaving it open for others, and making it harder to do an inevitable U-turn without looking ridiculous.
Likewise! (Zing! Balance!)
Unfortunately, Tony Abbott seems to have perfected the art of looking ridiculous whether or not he is doing U-turns.
Zing. Bipartisanship is the last refuge of political and journalistic scoundrels. If you want to get important things done, bipartisanship must die; if you want to tell the big stories, kill your yearning for bipartisanship.

* "Other sources of information" does not include other politicians, anonymous sources, or other journalists. This verification and validation is, in theory, what journalists do. In practice, press gallery journalists do this rarely if at all, which is why disdain for press gallery journalists does not mean a disdain for the very practice of journalism per se.

31 May 2015

That Hartcher piece

Wow. Just wow. All the press gallery and Labor staffers were united in their belief that this piece by Peter Hartcher was Very Important Journalism, which must of course be wrong. Well, it mostly is, but mainly because of Hartcher overreach. When he gets it right, though, he gets it right - but not nearly enough to warrant all the hoo-ha, or even a net positive regard for Hartcher.

The most important sentence in Australian political journalism for a decade

One paragraph, buried way down the article, revealed more than Hartcher knew or dared admit. In it lies buried much of what's wrong with our politics, mediated through traditional broadcast media, with an insular political class that monitors those it governs, but keeps its distance; that doesn't understand what a country needs, and fights a losing battle over its bipolar tendencies to populist binge followed by neoliberal purge. In it lies everything that's wrong with the press gallery: those who see it and fail to understand must not report for "work" on Monday. The second sentence in this paragraph:
The Labor opposition has struck a position of bipartisan accord with Abbott on national security. For this reason, the Parliament is no longer a functioning check on the government in this realm.
The press gallery - and Hartcher is one of the worst offenders - reports on politics from the premise that whatever Labor and the Liberal/Nationals/LNPQ/CLP/OMG/WTF Coalition agree upon is Sensible Bipartisan Reform. They believe - yes, even the best will lapse from time to time, or their editors do on their behalf - that whatever Laborandthecoalition don't agree on (or what others disagree with the joint ticket on) must be pointless bickering at best, destructive nonsense at worst.

All manner of dumb, nasty policy has been foisted on the Australian public by Laborandthecoalition: a budget in structural deficit, mandatory detention of boat-borne asylum-seekers, a contradictory and half-baked foreign policy, no policy on renewable energy or climate change to speak of, lip-service to health, education, science, and social programs while actually cutting them (more on that later); I could go on, and I have. All of those bad policies have been praised by the press gallery for being bipartisan. That praise only spurs more bad bipartisan policy, which will escape scrutiny because bipartisanship, and the press gallery become drawn into the protection racket that is the political class.

Any and all criticism of those bipartisan positions has been written off as irrelevant, because bipartisanship is its own reward and trumps all others. Peter Hartcher is one of the worst offenders but they all do it. Bipartisanship is an idea above its station.

When bipartisanship shuts down debate, there is some scope for the broadcast media represented in the press gallery to open up the debate that parliament isn't having. To do that, they'd need some understanding of the issues at hand and the stakeholders in the community who can articulate why the bipartisan position isn't the only and best one, which is how it appears to Capital Hill insiders.

Hartcher is yet to demonstrate any difference in the way things appear to Capital Hill insiders and the way such decisions affect those who are governed. This is why the rest of his article, bar the sentence referred to above, fails and fails utterly.

Wannabe Woodward

Bob Woodward is a US journalist most famous for his work uncovering the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s. More recently he wrote a series of books on the decisions by the Bush Administration to go to war against Afghanistan and Iraq, in which he used verbatim quotes from leading figures at crucial moments. Woodward had access to those people but he didn't have access to those meetings; he could not have taken those quotes directly but those who uttered them all come off as wise, learned, experienced, and wanting what's best for the their country and the world.

A review of Hartcher's recent columns show him to be a Woodward wannabe. Joe Hockey, Julie Bishop, Barnaby Joyce, and Malcolm Turnbull have all been tongue-bathed in recent Hartcher columns, where he uses direct quotes from meetings he did not attend that flatter those who flatter him in return. Hartcher is aiming for some sort of eminence in his profession, rather than a serious examination of how we are governed by this government.


Peter Dutton's proposals to strip people of their citizenship are the result of too little scrutiny of bad decisions that arise from bipartisanship.

Under the last Coalition government, Australian citizens Vivien Solon and Cornelia Rau were effectively stripped of their entitlements under Australian citizenship. Robert Jovicic, born in Serbia but who emigrated to Australia as a child and who held dual citizenship, was deported to a country he had not lived in for four decades after committing crimes here. Mohammed Haneef, a foreign citizen working in Australia, had his visa cancelled because of a ministerial decision about his terrorism activity. Dutton's proposal should not be seen as some sort of ambush, but an example of the classic conservative principle of perpetuating that which has gone before. Consider Dutton's predecessors as a Liberal immigration minister:
  • Phillip Ruddock is an elder statesman among Liberals, whose demotion by Abbott earlier this year anguished many in the party but who has recently been restored to a supporting role in anti-terrorism measures;
  • Amanda Vanstone is a Fairfax columnist. OK, so maybe she wasn't commissioned directly by Hartcher, but it's hard to imagine he hasn't at least acquiesced to such a position;
  • Kevin Andrews not only sits at the Cabinet table but was quoted favourably by Hartcher in his piece.
Hartcher's framing is all wrong, and he is horribly compromised in trying to misrepresent Dutton's position.

Quote unquote

Turnbull asked Abbott directly if the Daily Telegraph had been briefed on the proposal for the next morning's paper, which would have meant the cabinet meeting had been pre-empted by the Prime Minister's press office. The Telegraph is a favoured Abbott outlet for signalling his moves in advance.

It had not, replied Abbott.

Yet the next morning the Telegraph carried a report saying that the proposal would be "included in the bill" that had been approved by the cabinet the night before. Oops.
OK, so Abbott is a liar. This isn't even news, let alone the big give-him-a-Walkley-already scoop that the journosphere thinks it is.

What this does is prove a point that has been obvious throughout Abbott's career, not least in his infamous interview with Kerry O'Brien where he basically asserted his right to make shit up on the fly and nobody in the broadcast media called him on it. This was a significant moment in Australian political and journalistic history; Abbott should have been politically dead, but he is Prime Minister today because Peter Hartcher, those who report to him, and their counterparts in other organisations, went along with the idea that Abbott had to be taken at his word - whatever that word was.

The kind of insider access Hartcher and the rest of the press gallery aspires to is negated by the assumption that a direct quote has some sort of journalistic value, that there might be a connection (rather than the odd coincidence) between what is said and what is done.

The result of the 2013 election was based upon the assumption - reinforced by the coverage by Hartcher, his underlings, and their peers - that Abbott's word was worth more than that of Julia Gillard or Kevin Rudd.

Journalists place a lot of value in a direct quote. Abbott has devalued it considerably. Yet they go on, jamming stories full of direct quotes, often from people who don't have names (admittedly Hartcher's piece is refreshing for having a named person by each quote, which his reporting and those of his underlings have lacked in recent times).

It is in the nature of politicians to give self-serving quotes that reflect well upon them. Journalists need not feel obliged simply to transcribe these without further analysis.

On re-reading the above quote, why not have Abbott snarl: "And I suppose you're going to leak this to Hartcher at the SMH, are you Malcolm?". It would have been out of character for Hartcher to have published it, though. Anyway, Abbott isn't that fast on his feet, and his rejoinders tend to be both nasty and prepared in advance.

False balance

Rights are hard won and should not be lightly discarded. And, overall, the Abbott government is an active agent in the furthering of rights in Australia in at least three areas.

The rights of the disabled. The Abbott government is working to bring to fruition the National Disability Insurance Scheme. The rights of women and children in the home. Abbott has pledged to work to reduce domestic violence, even if he is criticised for doing too little.

The rights of Indigenous Australians. He has called a meeting with Aboriginal leaders for July to try to set a process and timetable for achieving recognition of Indigenous Australians in the constitution.
This is Hartcher's attempt to avoid being frozen out by a government that insists, against all evidence, that it must hold office without being criticised for the decisions it makes.

The NDIS has been cut down in budget and scope to suit a government of limited capability. Let's hope that it helps Australians like Solon and Rau, and Greg Anderson, and millions of others similarly afflicted - and their carers. It has a precarious existence under this government, whose announcements are received with nervous surprise rather than the warm gratitude they would hope for.

Hartcher's other two examples are just bullshit. Funding has been cut for women and children facing domestic violence, and for Indigenous people (not to mention those who fall into both categories). The government is not entitled to be taken at its word, which is a key assumption of the very notions of human rights. The insider access counts against the insider who ignores this credibility gap, and who therefore falls into the gap along with those in the community afflicted by more than their pride or 'balance'.

Hartcher sits atop a reporting structure designed to feed him the information necessary to avoid such a strain to his credibility. His lunge for insiderdom undermined the credibility he had sought to put beyond doubt.

Don't take his word for it

Bizarrely, Hartcher rounds off his column by reference to what he considers a higher authority, Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker. Pretty much everybody who has been a second-year Arts student over any of the past thirty years has an opinion on Pinker, but Hartcher is happy to quote him too verbatim and uncritically.
The only risk now is that it falls prey to petty political vanity ... Rather than a mean game of using rights to divide, whether the rights of citizenship or the rights to equal treatment of gay people before the law, Australia's leadership has a chance to use rights to unite.

An Australia united in advancing fairness and human rights is not only the right thing to do. It's also a profound repudiation of the barbarians who call themselves Islamic State. That truly would be an extraordinary proposition.
Hartcher dumps us back in the moral swamp of bipartisanship. Had Shorten endorsed Dutton's proposal, Hartcher would have no story and would likely have piled on the criticism of Turnbull and other "dissenters".

Whether or not others share Hartcher's political-class delusions is neither here nor there. We have a government that stands athwart history, screaming "stop!", across almost every portfolio. That is the nature of our government and Hartcher, as with the rest of the press gallery, is wrong to represent it in any other way. With regard to same-sex marriage Abbott is foxing, like Howard did with the convention on the republic. Hartcher is a fool to take the current prime minister at his word, to assume he is capable of anything beyond political vanity at its most petty.

This triumph of hope over experience, sacrificing reportage of what is happening to a desire to think well of the government, is where all political reporting fails. Peter Hartcher, a puffed-up man holding a senior position in Australian political reporting, fails where he wanted to succeed and fails all the more for that.

26 May 2015


Should I apply for this? Take our exclusive Politically Homeless poll:

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Name: Andrew Elder

Address: http://andrewelder.blogspot.com.au/

Headline: Better than some press gallery herd animal


Company: Politically Homeless

Industry: Political blogging

Position: Blogger

For over nine years (I know) I have examined the points where politics and media intersect, and I have been critical: http://andrewelder.blogspot.com.au/

To give a sample of content and method, look no further than my three most-read posts: on Scott Morrison, Sophie Mirabella, and Michelle Grattan.

Company: (various)

Industry: Business analysis/project management on large-scale IT projects

Position: Business analyst/project manager

Seeing as you're keen on LinkedIn profiles, mine is here - fat lot of good it will do you in assessing my suitability for this role.

Summary: I have been an avid and critical consumer of political media since I was ten. I'm now 46, and an adherent of US commentators like Jay Rosen and Eric Boehlert. Over the past nine years I have taken apart this country's best-regarded political reporters and put the story back together better and more comprehensively. I read and consult widely and boil things down to the right level with the right wording.

Cover letter: If you're going to cover Australian politics, don't just hire another press gallery herd animal. Hire someone who is awake to political positioning and resistant to the cliches that are rightfully killing this country's political media. Hire someone with the ideas and the ability to develop a wholly different and better way of reporting how we are governed.

I see this role as comparing/contrasting what is said in public policy with what is done. If hired, I will be using lots of data feeds from different sources, not just relying on press releases. I will trace stories from their headwaters in community groups and corporate offices, not start with the press release once the fix is in.

I would offer different levels of focus, from the Indo-Pacific regional to the local community level. I would assess the impact of local, state, and federal governments, as well as international factors bringing to bear on those communities. People would read about those issues and assess the behaviour of their local representatives against those issues.

If hired, I will only engage press gallery journalists to cover the upper houses of Australian parliaments, and sparingly even then.

The fact is that the audience for political journalism has shrunk to the point where the mass, barely engaged consumer has dropped off, and those who remain require more and better information than the cliche-mongers can ever deliver. This is where HuffPost Australia should be - having a go in a space that doesn't exist yet, not poaching representative samples from the tried-and-died.

No stories should appear in your publication on:
  • polls, or other inside-politics artefacts like focus groups
  • pre-announcement stories, or any other story type where a politician is taken at his or her word
  • politics as horse-race, where policy consequences affecting millions are "good news for" X or "bad news for" Y.
Indeed, one live issue in Australian politics at the moment is that labor laws are undergoing change so that it will not only be possible to dismiss journalists for submitting such stories, but to defenestrate them and sue their estates for polluting the public discourse. Be assured that I will take maximum advantage of the regulatory environment to defend and promote the best interests of Huffington Post Australia.

I will resist at all costs dragging down a promising media venture to the doomed squalor that is the general state of this country's media (particularly when it comes to politics).

Do you have full rights to work in Australia? Yes.

Are you currently located in Sydney? Yes. Right now I am in the office between my lounge room and back deck, wearing only my ... look, I can do this.

Is there anything else we should know? While I realise that HuffPost has freely entered into a joint venture with Fairfax, almost every piece of advice you have received or will receive from Fairfax's Political Editor, Peter Hartcher, will be wrong. You will need someone to stand up to Hartcher and point out why he is wrong all the time, and I am well placed to do that. The success of this venture depends on it.

Do you reckon I'm in with a shot?

Me neither. Still, you have to do what you can with what you have when the opportunity arises, and yes I have been doing this for more than nine years now.

16 May 2015

No flies on Scott Morrison

The one sure way to tell that a politician is on the rise is when nothing they do blows back on them. They say clumsy things, they do clumsy things, as we all do - but for those on the ascent, someone else takes the blame. It’s a sweet position to be in, and Scott Morrison is in that position now.

For years, the part of Mr Do-no-wrong was occupied by Tony Abbott. In the Howard government, ministers and backbenchers were castigated for speaking out of turn –Abbott could say what he liked, and did. At the 2007 election, when the Coalition needed all the help it could get, Abbott’s silly pronouncements embarrassed Liberal candidates across the land. When Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull led the Liberal Party they had to put up with Abbott’s often unhelpful interventions; sending him to the backbench either never occurred to them, or did and proved too scary.

Now, the part is played by Scott Morrison.

Morrison had been something of a media tart in opposition, talking big about what he was gunna do. In office as Minister for Immigration, he stopped talking. He refused to comment on “operational matters” of his job that were, actually, central to the very point of his job and notions of democratic accountability.

The Labor opposition missed a big opportunity when they failed to bell him as a secretive creep, giving rise to suspicion that they’d behave the same way if given another crack at government. His behaviour casts doubt on his unverified pledge that he stopped asylum-seekers coming to Australia by boat.

Promising ministerial careers have ended after lesser debacles than the riot on Manus Island last year. Reza Barati, an asylum-seeker inmate, was killed. A Senate committee found the riot “eminently foreseeable” but Morrison, as minister responsible for the detention centre and Barati’s guardian, escaped censure. He escaped censure from Abbott too, of course, but also from the press gallery; it was as though the government could not have been held responsible for conditions in an institution within its purview.

Tony Abbott had whittled down his lavish paid parental leave scheme over time, but he had taken it to two elections and consistently used it as his most tangible shield against charges of misogyny and sexism. Had it been a genuine personal commitment Abbott would have introduced it as soon as possible after being elected. When he finally dumped the policy, Abbott said he was putting more money into childcare.

In 2009 the Productivity Commission recommended that childcare should get the money promised by politicians for PPL. Yet, the credit for averting a policy whose cost far outweighed its benefits went not to the Commission but to Morrison, who stepped up to claim credit for increased childcare resources, promising to work bipartisanly with a startled opposition. The press gallery loves bipartisanship and reported the very promise of better resources for childcare as further proof of Morrison’s effectiveness. Abbott had clung to PPL for too long and Morrison weaned him off it; now we see who’s really running this joint.

When the budget was finally released on Tuesday, the narrative was still alive that the attractive but inappropriate PPL had given way to a simpler, better and fairer childcare system. Hockey and Abbott had the limelight on them. They knew that Shorten would have his go in two days, but nobody counted on Morrison.

It was Morrison who described the situation where women in permanent employment can claim both the basic government paid-parental-leave scheme, and any such scheme their employer might offer, as a “rort”. It's an evocative word, a provocative word, and yet Morrison has largely escaped responsibility for using it.

Abbott used much milder language to describe his shift in policy, but he has worn the full brunt of betrayal and disappointment from those who had been convinced that a man who offered women little might come through for them where they needed it. Mia Freedman does her woman-scorned thing, covering the issues:
  • The strong, confident women surrounding Abbott are there to support him, and he in turn supports them. Freedman, like many women, assumed that he could and would extrapolate beyond them to the women of Australia; she was wrong. The only women who will get a break from Tony Abbott are those who had formed a close personal and supportive relationship with him well before September 2013.
  • The strong, confident women surrounding Abbott aren't what they were. His daughters are spoiled. His wife takes less interest in her husband's career than anyone in her position since Bettina Gorton. His chief of staff has gone to ground.
  • All those points Freedman lists about Abbott acting against women's interests should have shown the inevitable fate of PPL. A government that won't even fund women's refuges but might spend $10.1b on PPL? Dream on.
  • People wanted to believe in PPL, and in Abbott, against all the evidence. When Julia Gillard nailed him on misogyny, PPL enabled him to draw attention to her childlessness and her cuts to welfare payments to poorer mothers.
Freedman is disingenuous on why she allowed herself to be played, what she hoped to get from being played in this way, and what she actually got from it. But this isn't about Freedman; it's about the idea that even after he failed to implement the PPL, even after he dropped it altogether, he still got the benefit of the doubt on childcare.

Recently, however, Morrison is steadily accruing more and more credit.

Morrison was praised for his handling of childcare until days ago. Morrison was a member of the Expenditure Review Committee that signed off the budget. Morrison did a lot of the spruiking in the lead-up to the budget, more than Hockey as many commentators noted. Yet strangely, as the PPL/childcare furore rages, the Minister for Social Services is unscathed. He hasn't gone to ground, keeping his profile up throughout; the vigorous questioning of the press gallery hasn't troubled him.

Joe Hockey had hoped a cautious budget might save his political skin. He did himself no favours when Laurie Oakes drew him out on "double dipping", but Morrison could have smoothed the waters had it suited him.

Matthias Cormann and Josh Frydenberg were both accused of "double dipping". The speedy discovery of this by press gallery journalists who are better at catching drops than conducting investigative journalism is suspicious. It was fascinating to watch both men try to deflect the accusation by denying double dipping was even a thing.

Cormann controls a number of party-room votes among WA Liberals and Frydenberg is a player in the Victorian Libs. Both men stood by Abbott in February, both will be key when the leadership is raised again. Watch Morrison praise both men, and their wives (which Abbott hasn't), offering a quid that might yield a quo from these men the next time Abbott goes wobbly.
Malcolm Turnbull earlier refused to back the language his frontbench colleagues Joe Hockey and Scott Morrison have used to criticise the existing paid parental leave arrangements.

Andrew Probyn quotes from Morrison but puts the blame on Abbott and Hockey. Abbott is the head of government, so ultimate responsibility is his - but he is soft on Morrison:
This is policy development by the lowest common denominator - that if the worker in the bakery doesn't get it, nor should anyone else.
This is a lowest-common-denominator government and Scott Morrison is a lowest-common-denominator guy. This should be clear by now, even to press gallery journalists. Some of us were awake to this before September 2013, but never mind that now.
Morrison's charge is that Labor and the unions struck a secret deal to entrench the so-called "double dipping".
Liberal minister takes a swipe at Labor and the unions to rally a base cowed by the public storm over this issue. Almost as obvious as the deal over "double dipping", when you think about it.
Not only is it awful judgment and bad politics at a time the Prime Minister and his Treasurer can least afford it, it may also prove to be a policy of false economy ... This, from the side of politics that spent five years railing against the inadequacy of the existing PPL scheme, proposing instead to give women up to $75,000 (later trimmed to $50,000) for six months leave under Tony Abbott's "fair dinkum" paid parental leave scheme.
My kids are about the same age as Probyn's, but I'm not a press gallery journalist so I was never taken in by Abbott's carry-on. I mean: Abbott. "fair dinkum". Pfft.

Here is the killer:
Tuesday's Budget confirmed the Abbott scheme would have cost $10.1 billion over four years. Its ditching in February amounted to the biggest saving in Hockey's Budget.
The fiscal credit for that saving will be enjoyed by the relevant minister (Morrison) long after the Treasurer who brought that budget down (Hockey) has been forgotten.
Earlier this year, Abbott demonstrated a capacity to lance political boils.

If he truly has changed, he'll be lancing this one early. It's rotten policy and stinking rhetoric.
I must have missed that - did this happen when he was fighting off threats to his leadership? Proof positive of the failure of press gallery journalism is the idea that Tony Abbott has changed. Abbott hasn't changed. The disingenuousness and ineptitude of this government is a given.

Now Hockey, Abbott, and the government, depends utterly upon Morrison as the responsible minister to find a detailed solution to the whole PPL/childcare issue, and negotiate it through the Senate. He is both arsonist and fire brigade, hoping - knowing - that only the latter role will be remembered by a press gallery thirsty for a new hero. There are no flies on Scott Morrison. You can't even see where they've been. His run to the Prime Ministership will not be questioned.

13 May 2015

Have a go ya mugs

Coverage of the budget is always dreadful. The entire Australian media relies far too heavily upon the lines the Treasurer's office wants to push, it congeals around a consensus that is almost always wrong, and throws away what little journalism skill it has for the sake of ... for the sake of filling up airtime/adspace that nobody wants to buy.

1. The consensus on this budget

We get it, Joe:
  • No bold moves fiscally or policy-wise.
  • A bit of help for AussieFamilies™ in 2017 or something.
  • Please don't hate us.
  • We're doing the best that we can. Really. We're firing on all cylinders.
  • You should see the other guys.
You don't need more than 200 press gallery journalists to tell the exact same story with the exact same quotes. Three or four, tops, would do that 'job' more than adequately. Bussing numpties down from Sydney is just redundant, unless it freed up the increasingly sparse office for real journalists to get some work done.

2. Insiders outside

... Standing on the outside lookin' in
Room full of money and the born to win
No amount of work's gonna get me through the door ...

- Cold Chisel Standing on the outside
I watched the ABC's budget coverage, and how strange it was.

There is no point to being an "insider" if you are shunted outside on a cold Canberra night. The ABC have perfectly good studios embedded within Parliament House from which they could have done their talky-head bits, and in which technicians have already done the wiring-up and other preparation. If you reject the idea that the outsider thing was Uhlmann at his most absurd, the only other explanation is the sheer spite toward the national broadcaster by the Speaker.

Leigh Sales gave Chris Bowen too much rope and he was boring. She gave Hockey too much stick and made him look good. Her desk stuck in a corner was basically a pimped-up table from Aussie's.

She made less of a fool of herself, though, than Uhlmann. His reference to the voters and taxpayers of Australia as "the mob" was unfortunate, and revealing, which made it all the more unfortunate. His insistence that politicians must be taken at their word was stupid, and probably revelatory of his whole journalistic approach; even more unfortunate.

3. A year's worth of stories

Why even bother recounting the announceables when you never, ever follow up those stories: just because it was announced on budget night doesn't mean it will happen at all, or in the way the government intended. The budget should contain 90% of the following year's stories for a journalist covering politics and government, insulation against the very possibility of a "slow news day".

All of the points made well here should have been tracked by the press gallery before the budget. That would have been more important - for their own self-worth if nothing else - rather than dropseeking.

Journalists who sit around the budget lock-up interviewing one another should not be allowed out - or they should be cast into the cold darkness where they can hone their inanities with Sabra Lane and Annabel Crabb. They are a bit like motorsport drivers huffing petrol fumes: they might think they are taking in the very essence of their profession, but they're wrong about that too.

4. Ferals in the Senate

The idea that it is appropriate for the press gallery to refer to Senators outside Laborandthecoalition as 'ferals' is clear proof of journalistic failure. Why even bother going on about an $X increase here and a $Y cut there when they are mere offerings to the unknowable Senate, like Quinctilius Varus' legions heading off to the Teutoburg forest.

Start covering the Senate. Press gallery journalists have nothing better to do. It is functioning as the Constitution intended, as a House of Review, and the fact that a control-freak government can't negotiate with those it doesn't control should be a bigger issue than press gallery journalists seem to realise.

5. Re:hash

Joe Hockey's speech to the National Press Club was a waste of time. He stuck to his script. The journos were all hung over and less pertinent than usual. They should all have been strafed.

6. The undead

The idea that the government's nasty policies have been excised from the budget was stupid and wrong. When there is a busy news day - one that doesn't involve the press gallery at all, like a real disaster far from Canberra or a royal something - the government will disinter one of its many nasty proposals. That's how this government works. The easily diverted press gallery will miss this until some kind soul from an interest group points it out to them, and explains why it's bad.

This is what happened with Kevin Andrews' Poor Laws; it fell to ACOSS to point them out and explain why they were bad, while only Kevin Andrews could defend them. The fact that a man whose entire career has involved defending the indefensible - and failing - is now Minister for Defence should be more of a concern than it appears to be.

Being a product of this government, this budget is of course full of half-baked ideas and contradictions which journos have overlooked in their rush for a consensus (see 1. above). They will not keep poring through it, nor follow its fate through the Senate; instead, they will wait until the story is pointed out to them in social media, then run it as EXCLUSIVE. Media execs call this a 'business model'.

7. Savings

When the government cuts money to a thing, it does not announce the cuts as a cuts: it calls them "savings". Journalists who refer to these cuts as "savings" do not understand what they are reporting on (policies that affect people's lives) and have come to identify with the incumbent government to a greater extent than is healthy or wise.

Before the election Tony Abbott said "I don't want to be known as Mr Cut, Cut, Cut", and the press gallery immediately complied. They stopped referring to the very idea that he might cut into services that people need - and can't get other than through the kind of group-buying scheme that Australian government has been since its inception.

8. Our Taxes and Aid to Foreign Kiddies

In between budgets, traditional media run well-researched thinky pieces on how foreign aid is a useful tool of foreign policy, projects our influence abroad (especially when we need stuff from international bodies, like UN Security Council seats or big sporting events) and is generally good to do, reinforcing and magnifying the generosity of this country's private donors.

When the budget rolls around they forget all that: see "Savings" above.

Yesterday the press gallery quoted Julie Bishop as telling the Coalition party room that foreign aid would not be cut. Yet, the budget papers show aid to subsaharan Africa cut by 70%, aid to Indonesia cut by 40%, with no corresponding rises elsewhere to make Bishop's assurances true in any way. Nobody in the press gallery appeared to question this discrepancy, or even notice one existed.

9. Our Taxes and Aid to Australian Kiddies

Unmarried, childless people sometimes grumble that their taxes subsidise other people's children, and resent any increase in resources devoted to their fellow citizens. Their concern is misplaced.

The government has lavished additional funding and legislative powers to security agencies. Apparently those who breach our national security these days are not wily agents of foreign powers but unmarried, childless loners. The Bali Nine were UCLs until they developed a sense of community. So were the Bali bombers of 2002 and '05. You show me someone who's joining Da'esh or an outlaw motorcycle gang and I'll show you someone who doesn't qualify as a "busy mum", or otherwise as AussieFamilies™.

People in sporadic employment need childcare as much as those in more regular employment. Say what you will about the previous government, it would have at least taken seriously a policy response to these people. The people least likely to be securely employed, most likely to be unemployed or sporadically employed, are Indigenous. Their children are not catered for in Smirky Morrison's calculations. They should have been, and if you overlook those in need then you can't really begrudge them.

10. Our Taxes and Aid to Foreign Kiddies Imprisoned by Australia Outside Australia

I still think this is something that should have been discussed at budget time. Remember how Scott Morrison closed down the debate by stonewalling the press gallery? What makes you think he's not going to do that kid of crap in his current or future roles? Wake up press gallery, and stop sucking up to him. He doesn't respect you any more than I do.

11. Hole-heartedly

Joe Hockey has the look of a guy who is giving his current predicament his all, in return for a promise of political survival that Abbott is unable to honour. He reminds me of one of those doomed dancers in They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, it hardly matters how much he smiles and poses for selfies.

As Samantha Maiden points out, Hockey gets no credit for this budget but all the blame. To punch through the passive voice for a moment, this happens because people like Samantha Maiden don't and can't give him any credit: it goes against the narrative. Any journalist who notes the "optics" of a situation without being able to push through and question them is no journalist at all.

The press gallery is the hole in the heart of Australian democracy.

12. The opposite of leadership

Re Hockey above (and there are other examples), no greater love hath Tony Abbott than this: that he would lay down his friends for the sake of his life.

The government has no plan to stimulate the economy: they hope Australia's small businesses will light a path they cannot see, let alone build. The government has no generosity toward less fortunate people overseas: they take credit for our private donations, and by being niggardly show themselves as not our true representatives. They cut health funding, but insist we be impressed by a $20b mirage that funds nothing. What's good about this budget can't be trusted; what's bad about this budget (including what's hidden from us) will bite us, hard.

In all its coverage of the budget, the press gallery misses that and gives mendacious bunglers the benefit of a doubt that has almost disappeared.

13. How to tell when a Liberal government has run out of ideas

They spend big but tax less-than-big. If the people take the bribes it confirms the conservative notion of the people as ever more grasping and greedy. If they don't it leaves the incoming government in an economic hole, and the Coalition opposition can attack them for being in a bad situation.

When conservatives do this it shows they're out of ideas, like a cricket team that sends fielders to the boundary to limit a high-scoring batsman they can't get out. This is what Fraser did after 1978, what Howard did after 2000, and what Napthine did as soon as he became Victorian Premier.

When Coalition governments do this they place themselves utterly in the hands of Labor. If Labor haven't got their act together (as in 1980, 2001 and 2004), they are re-elected and hailed as geniuses. If Labor have their act together (as in March 1983, 2007, Victoria and Queensland 2014-15), conservatives not only lose but are bewildered.

Kim Beazley showed that caution is the risky strategy when boldness is required (so did Peter Costello, but anyway). Shorten is certainly very cautious.

14. Early election?

Journalists only run the early election story because they can only report on elections - or think they can. The years that drag on between elections full of complex governing which they can barely describe, let alone analyse. This story has become so discredited it is a joke, particularly when coupled with lavish use of anonymous sources.

15. When the history of this government is written

... this budget will have been its high point.