07 July 2015

One Tony Abbott

There is only one Tony Abbott, but the press gallery report him through the lens of an imaginary, wise and capable leader. The fact that so many journalists limit themselves to the same story at any one time is what's wrong with both politics and with journalism, not some sort of vindication of either.

Take this piece by Michael Gordon. Despite Gordon's experience and seniority it is no better/worse than other pieces of its type (which doesn't say much for notions of experience and seniority in political journalism):
Tony Abbott has reverted to the tactics that proved so devastatingly effective in opposition in a bid to achieve ascendancy over Bill Shorten, wedge Labor on national security, consolidate his own recovery and increase his flexibility on election timing.

By reducing the complex issue of citizenship to a slogan, shattering any prospect of bipartisanship on security and brazenly misrepresenting the position of the country's foremost expert in terrorism law, the Prime Minister is out to maximise short and medium-term political advantage.

Having declared that "Daesh is coming, if it can, for every person and for every government with a simple message: submit or die", Abbott's emphatic message now is that Australians are safer from terrorism under the Coalition. This is an extraordinary and irresponsible claim.
Abbott never moved on from the behaviour that so enthralled journalists. This is why he's such an abysmal Prime Minister.

The press gallery were willing to take him at his word, while the rest of the country wasn't. Australians have always been Tony Abbott sceptics. Whenever people were asked who they would prefer to lead the Liberal Party, Tony Abbott or a brown snake, Abbott couldn't win a trick. Since he became leader of the Liberal Party major media broadcasters have insisted, like people trapped in a bad relationship, that they knew the real Tony and we didn't. He Can Change. He's Looking Prime Ministerial. He'll Grow Into The Job. This Time. This Time. Good Government Starts Today, Or Maybe Next Thursday, Definitely After The Budget. No Really This Time It Will Be Different, Please Believe Me.

They made excuses for him that they didn't make for Latham, or Downer, or any other party leader manifestly unfit to become Prime Minister.

To return to Gordon, Abbott is not being "extraordinary" when he executes the responsibilities of office in his typically irresponsible way. Every week, if not every day, Tony Abbott does things that fall short of the press gallery ideal that they call "Tony 2.0", "Prime Ministerial", or whatever. Rather than abandon this pretence and report on Abbott as he is and has always been, they hold him to a fantasy ideal and act all surprised when he falls short.

Now somebody has taken Peter Hartcher to lunch and convinced him that the environment is a real thing in politics, something that goes beyond the weak tea and small beer that is the major parties' positions. It's so risible I won't even link to it, because the SMH campaign on the environment works from the same assumptions as all bad political reporting:
  • the incompetent boofhead we see trashing government services, and with that our very confidence in government itself, is somehow not the real Tony Abbott and something of a surprise to seasoned observers;
  • the real Tony Abbott is a sensitive and well-rounded fellow who feels people's pain, and is very receptive to issues like same-sex marriage and renewable energy; so
  • with the right form of words, offered respectfully, we just might get him to tone down his opposition to something against which he fundamentally defines himself.
This bullshit has to stop. I am singling out Fairfax but every organisation with any mouth-breathing muppets in the Canberra press gallery is guilty of the same malicious negligence. Stop believing in "Tony 2.0". The whole reason Abbott is Prime Minister at all is not because conservatives pushed for a conservative government - conservatives are entitled to make their case - but because of smirking dipsticks like Hartcher and Gordon who insisted they knew Abbott better than the rest of us. They falsely asserted against all the evidence - against everything that journalism is supposed to stand for - that he wouldn't be so bad.

Start seeing Abbott for what he is and report accordingly. Misinformation kills democracy, and it kills media organisations that peddle it.

05 July 2015

Doubting Thomas

Occasionally some self-indulgent fool from the Canberra press gallery will complain that they all work so hard and are so put-upon, and all it does is keep in mind why press gallery journalism has failed on every level - including failing its very practitioners. The latest is this joker.

As I write this, I'm overseas and have only seen the first episode of The Killing Season. I thought it would be hard to convey the bureaucratic log-jam of Rudd's office on television, and the show barely even tried to do that. Without the incompetence of Rudd's office you can only explain Rudd's downfall the way Rudd and his supporters seem to do: that Gillard was a backstabbing bitch. The first episode seemed to be a condensed and warmed-over version of the he-said-she-said crap that passed for journalism at the time, but with mood music. I will give those episodes I haven't seen the benefit of the doubt, but let's hope they are corkers.

This blog isn't about a TV show. This blog is about the way politics is covered by the sorts of organisations that employ members of the press gallery. It dealt with the events covered in the show in more detail than any TV show ever could.
The story, told by veteran journalist Sarah Ferguson, will scoop the pool at the Walkleys – the journalism industry’s own award night.
Last year Ferguson hosted the Walkleys. She had to yell to be heard even with a PA system, because members of the industry in which she's a veteran kept talking over her. It might be unfair to assume she's used to this, being married to Tony "Talkover" Jones, but it's undeniable that every pissed hack there owes her an apology - and maybe some consideration about what professional courtesy and recognition might mean.
But it omitted a major angle. The role of the media in the downfall of two Prime Ministers.
I would have reviewed those two episodes very keenly for such an angle, and regard this as a spoiler that no such angle exists. No wonder she's up for a Walkley. You only win a Walkley in two ways: a) gushing about the Australian media, or b) morosely comparing every wanker who rehashes PR emissions to Peter Greste.

Thomas raises an important point, but starts making excuses in the very next paragraph:
Trying to fit months of excitement into an hour of TV means things must be skimmed over.
In three hours (not one) you can get across the salient points. That sentence offers yet more proof that whenever a journalist lapses into the passive voice, they are up to no good.
The political journalist’s job is absurdly stressful and difficult. I doubt many people could imagine how precious time is for a working journalist. Deadlines don’t just loom. They crash down. There is scarcely time for typing, let alone time for reflection.
Oh, fuck off. Fuck right off, you absurdly ignorant twat. And when you've fucked off from there, fuck off from more until ... no, just fuck off.

It's 2015. Everyone's stressed. Everyone's busy. Everyone who does the sort of job for which you need a university degree does the sorts of things journalists do: they gather information (some written, some verbal) and then analyse it, and then present those findings in written/other formats to deadlines that often shift in both time and importance.

Those people - we - need people to tell us how we're being governed, and options for how we might be governed (which involves more than the banalities of the major party not in government this year). If political journalism has a business model, that's it. To do that job, you have to get over yourself and do the best you can with what you have; not plead for special consideration to which journalists are simply not entitled.

The first step toward journalists getting over themselves is to respect that others are busy, and to do the hard work necessary to explaining complex issues "as simply as possible - but no simpler", as Einstein* put it. When you resort to cliche it's like the news doesn't matter, like it's some sort of make-work scheme for you and your silly mates which taxpayers/voters can safely ignore. When you refer to your eructations as 'yarns' it implies you don't even care whether or not they are true.

The failure to take that first step is why the broadcast media is dying. Internet or bonus hogs in the executive suite are secondary to this primary failure. But don't let that stop you whining, Thomas:
Pondering the role of the media in shaping political events is a job for retirement. Their job is to get stories out the door. Now.
And their performance in doing that is a legitimate field of inquiry by those who practice journalism, those who manage journalists, and those who are subject to it. Again, everyone is busy, and everyone could do their jobs differently and better with a bit of reflection on what you're doing and for whom you're doing it (other than yourself). Never mind retirement - even journalists who stagger under the weight of awards and cracker stories find practitioners sneering at them when they proffer advice.
Even if journos wanted a critical reflection on the media, where would it be found?
Never mind what journalists want, this blog and the others linked to at right of this screen give them what they need, good and hard and often. Pearls before swine, but pearls nonetheless.
The mainstream media is not in the business of introspection.
The mainstream media is barely in business at all. If this is to change, it must change its ways. Change is most likely to occur from frontline journalists waking up to themselves; the people currently running media organisations will never be able to reform them to the extent necessary to ensure their survival.
So the press gallery favours a paradigm where they merely observe and report. If speculative reports come true, the paradigm is only strengthened.
Where speculative reports fail, they are ignored - the Young tweet Thomas quotes is of a boy who cried wolf so many times he became a joke. It is worse for a journalist to be ignored than merely sacked, or even imprisoned. The broadcast media has clogged the arteries of its public trust with rubbish speculation to the point where life-giving corpuscles of policy discussion and execution barely get through. Journalists who are risible are not "strengthened", not even in some inside-journalism have-a-Walkley sense.
But of course media practice changes politics. Without the media acting as it does, we’d not have half the policies we do. Boat arrival reporting drives asylum-seeker policy, for example.
Yes. When Scott Morrison stonewalled about "on-water matters", journalists became relieved at not having to do any reporting work and started rewarding Morrison for his guile. When Morrison said the boats had stopped, they believed him. Now it turns out the boats haven't stopped at all, and the journalists can't get past their own narrative to report what's going on.

It's one thing for the government to treat journalists like the ignorant, up-themselves, stress-bunnies that Thomas and I agree them to be. It's quite another for the government to treat us all in that manner, by extension, which is what you get when you embrace the fantasy that journos just observe and report and hold decision-makers to account.
The media’s lens made John Howard trim those eyebrows and Joe Hockey get lap-band surgery.
Not sure those count as policies, Thomas.
But this is not a major subject of the thinkpieces that damn modern politicians’ inadequacy.
We're already across the idea that the broadcast media aren't that introspective.
As in any mob, no individual can be blamed.
This is where Thomas' laughable self-indulgence veers into the outright stupid.

The members of a mob are unknown and unknowable before they appear without warning and wreak their unpredictable havoc. Members of the press gallery are known quantities who mostly operate by turning complex developments into reruns of events that have happened before. Look at any journalist's twitter feed and you'll see genuine longing that some new development was not more like something that happened under Howard, or Hawke/Keating, so they could just cut/paste the old story and call it a day.
Picking on Grattan or Oakes or Lenore Taylor is silly.
Picking on them is. Going back over their record and doing a thorough and professional quis custodiet ipsos custodes job manifestly is not. They are responsible individuals and should be held to account just as individual members of braying mobs in the Parliament are. If you're going to recognise individuals enough to give them Walkleys and other gongs, you can't then absolve them of any blame attributable to any "mob" which they join.
There are around 180 journos in the official press gallery, from dozens of outlets. Then thousands more weighing in from beyond Canberra.

It’s rational behaviour for any one journo to see everyone else reporting leadership speculation, and so to report leadership speculation.
Actually, it isn't. The opposite is true.

Journos hate the idea that their industry is not unique and that other industries are irrelevant to theirs, but fuck that and fuck them. Here's an example: in the suburb where I live there would be a couple of hundred restaurants. They too face regular deadlines, but because they're not drama-queen journalists they just get on with it. Some serve hamburgers, but not all do. Some serve bibimbap and others serve laksa. You can get Coca-Cola at many but not all. The idea that there is only one meal available is nonsense.

If I order a lamb curry, I don't give a fuck of any type whether or not it might be easier to make a peanut-butter sandwich. If it is served cold, I don't want to hear about all of your [food industry equivalent of Walkleys]. It is not the time to harangue me about veganism either. If you're going to package journo yarns as content for consumption, then you set a higher standard than that under which in-house criteria might have been developed.

Consider that restaurant staff often earn less than average wages, while press gallery journalists get salaries and other perks of fulltime employment (not to mention taxpayer-funded parliamentary resources) enjoyed by almost nobody in the restaurant industry. You'd think that the press gallery would get some perspective on their lot in life and shut the hell up - and if they have genuine problems, chances are journalists will have stronger support mechanisms than restaurant staff.

The number of stories produced by press gallery journalists should be at least 180 to the power of 180 (180180), one of those mind-boggling numbers used only by astrophysicists. When the Budget comes out each year, you might be forgiven for thinking it's nothing more than a speech from the Treasurer - it is a document that runs to thousands of pages over numerous volumes, and in it are more than enough stories to keep at least 180 journalists broadcasting for a year. And then they do another one the following year.

If there is really ever only One Story, then 180 journalists is too many to cover it. 18 is an extravagance. Even 1.8 is more than is required. Why not just run algorithms over press releases?

The idea that there's only ever one story at a time is rubbish. It's the opposite of what's true, like the crashing deadlines thing. Thomas' argument is pretty much dead now, but let's shoot the stragglers:
Indeed, the media organisations can throw up their hands too, and say they merely serve an audience. If those stories did not draw frenzied millions of clicks, they would not publish them.
That's crap too.

When this blog was starting, broadcast media carried a lot of content about an individual called Paris Hilton. Serious news consumers like me complained, but broadcast media asserted there was a wide and deep audience for Hilton's comings and goings, and that they were mere servants - if not slaves - to the indomitable public will.

In truth, nobody gave a damn about Paris Hilton. Even people who had sex with her felt that way. All that content - and there was so, so much of it - was supply-driven rather than demand-driven. At some point Hilton's publicists simply turned off the supply of content, and the media stopped reporting about her - much like Scott Morrison did with the boats.

If there really was an audience among broadcast media consumers with a genuine interest in Paris Hilton, that audience was simply abandoned by the very same broadcast media that insisted it was not only real but insatiable.

Over the period between Hilton's bouts of obscurity, the media's reach, circulation, and credibility declined rapidly. It was in no way "strengthened" by this charade of concocting a Paris Hilton audience and then pandering to it.
But having no individual at whom the finger can be pointed doesn’t matter for a meta-analysis.
It's begging the question about journalistic culpability, and that of the organisations which employ them.
The reporters and outlets can be basically innocent ...
No, they can't (see below).
... and the industry very much implicated.
No it can't (see below).
(Much like the problems within Labor don’t end with Shorten or Gillard, or even the people who responded to those polls ‘Dasher’ Dastyari was so smitten with.)
The problems with Labor under Whitlam continued under Hawke and Keating, but the party was not only able to win elections but govern in between. I'm not as bothered by "the problems with Labor" as either the press gallery is, or as some ALP members seem to be. There are other issues to which Labor, and other responsible entities, should address themselves. I hope the press gallery might examine those issues - but they probably won't, given that veteran industry veteran Sarah Ferguson can't be arsed and nobody else in the mob can either.
Having been in the media and seen how much power there is, how lightly governed it is, and how much you can get away with, it’s amazing.
No it isn't. Just because you came down in the last shower it doesn't mean we all did.
What’s the Finkelstein inquiry, you ask?
Not me asking, fella. Some of us followed it, and the coverage of it, and were not nearly as shocked as you were. Another begged question.

The Finkelstein inquiry was a bit like current inquiries into trade unions, or the institutional sexual abuse of children: an institution so powerful, so arrogant, so heedless of the rights of individuals, can appear so vulnerable under examination. Only when you consider that institution in a wider context that went beyond either perpetrators or victims did it make any real sense, and only then can it be governed effectively (whether internally or externally).
But the media is not above reproach.
Just because you regard that as a big admission, it doesn't mean we all do.
The Killing Season included at least two examples of politicians backgrounding journalists with information that may well be fake. Arbib saying he’d reconciled with Rudd in 2013, and the SMH reporting Rudd was checking his numbers in 2010.
So much for "having no individual at whom the finger can be pointed" or "reporters and outlets can be basically innocent".
Reporting off-the-record comment means that the public can’t check its veracity. It requires utmost trust in the reporter. That trust was eroded during the period in question.
Really? Peter Hartcher was Political Editor of the SMH in 2010, and he holds that position today. There is an old saying about how nappies and political offices should be changed regularly, but strangely this does not apply to the press gallery: where is the press gallery journalist who has suffered a fraction of the opprobrium that fell upon Peter Slipper, or Godwin Grech, or Craig Thomson? Even people who thought they deserved it felt sorry for them. No, really, give me more of that journo self-pity please.
But off-the-record comment is just a small moving part in a big machine. The influence of the media on politics is like the water fish swim in – so pervasive they don’t notice it or question it.
They do very little else but notice and question it - another Thomas assertion that's palpably false. It's a fantasy that you can only understand the media by working in it, that you can't reverse-engineer a lot of it and compare it to non-journo activity.

Then, there's Thomas doing what he accuses others of: brushing aside a genuine fact as though it doesn't matter, as though baby and bathwater must both go out if the Narrative says so.
Politicians would be starved of oxygen without the media.
Garbage. There are 226 members of federal parliament, and the press gallery cover a couple of dozen at most. Politicians need a connection with the voting public, even in dictatorships; their relationship with the media is a subset of this, not the whole story. Social media, direct mail, parliamentary printing allowances, even old-fashioned shoe-leather in some cases - all mitigate the political risks that come from over-reliance on the broadcast media.

For example: I'd argue that Chris Pyne would be a more effective politician if he spent less time with the press gallery.
Like a current in the water, we can normally only identify it by the ripples.
Depends who you mean by 'we', really. Experienced specialists should have more diagnostic tools available than having a squiz at some ripples. Focusing on some ripples in one place does not mean that there's nothing important going on elsewhere.

It is not only journalists doing the framing; they too are framed by those who feed them information. Sometimes journalists are aware of this and quite enjoy being duchessed, feeling no need to trouble readers with any narrative but the one they're fed. Mostly, however, they are just gulled - too dumb to see through it but too proud to admit it. These are the people for whom Thomas dies in a ditch, with that looming crashing etc.
Note: I can see the response this piece is going to provoke
No you can't. You'd have to get over yourself to succeed at that. Rudd supporters were few and far between in 2010 but the press gallery told us otherwise. Whatever the "problems with Labor" were/are, the press gallery told us Tony Abbott was the answer. They were wrong about that, too.

Abbott runs a control-freak, policy-hopeless PMO just like Rudd did, but the press gallery still can't report on policy and process. As soon as Abbott attracted a fraction of the scrutiny Rudd and Gillard did, he went to water, promised to reform, but palpably didn't. The press gallery can't report on that either because their "Tony 2.0" fantasy keeps getting in the way (more on that later).

We just don't have the information we need on how we are governed, and how we might be governed. Fuck the press gallery, fuck everyone who makes excuses for the press gallery, and those who keep them in the manner to which they have become accustomed. Never mind that you're a little cog in a big machine - fuck you too, Thomas.


* Do not ask which newspaper Einstein wrote for. Don't.

03 July 2015

The shadow of BIll Shorten

Australia's political media assumed that Tony Abbott would be a good Prime Minister because he led the opposition to the previous government. This assumption was false and has been proven false pretty much every day this government has been in office. In no respect is it a better government than the one it replaced. It chops and changes and makes big decisions on the fly, and has even undergone a leadership challenge that resolved nothing.

The press gallery owes us all an apology, but in the absence of that it is doing what bad governments do: committing to a course of action that ensures an unrepeatable set of circumstances never recurs. They are going to hold this opposition leader to account, oh yes, because the last one got the green light and look what happened. The Abbott horse has bolted so they are trying feebly to lock the gate on Shorten.

Go back through the archives and read the profiles on Shorten, particularly those preceding the Beaconsfield mine disaster. They are all the same:
  • Bill is a very smart fellow. Everyone says so.
  • Bill is very personable. Everyone says so.
  • Here is a picture of Bill with Richard Pratt. Bill used to eat fancy dinners at Richard's place all the time (you can see why he had so much trouble at that pie shop), even though he was a union official.
  • Richard says Bill is very smart and personable.
  • Either/Both Bob Hawke/Paul Keating say Bill is very smart and personable. Those guys used to be Prime Minister! Maybe Bill will become Prime Minister too one day ...
  • Bill bats away predictable question about leaving AWU to go into parliament, and does so in a smart and personable way.
  • Gee you have to be smart and personable to bat away a predictable question from a journalist! Maybe Bill Shorten will become Prime Minister! You never know!
If the Royal Commission into Trade Unions uncovers any serious allegations against Shorten, it will be a sign of failure by every industrial and political journalist in the country (same with Gillard's renovations from twenty years ago). The dire hints from the press gallery about what might come from that are not based on any real knowledge, but on behind-the-scenes briefings from the government.

Shorten inherited a divided caucus and has united it. Unity has been a characteristic of almost all state Labor caucuses over recent years; Labor victories in Victoria and Queensland would have been impossible without it. For those who rate polls, Shorten has outpolled Abbott (and where he hasn't, Rudd outpolled Abbott in those areas before the last election and so what).

By this point in the last parliament, the press gallery had written off the incumbent government and were convinced Abbott would win, without feeling any necessity to scrutinise what an Abbott government might be like. Their consensus now is that Shorten is unknown and unknowable, that he's no certainty to win and could do anything in office. Again, this is a failure of journalism, not an example of it.

The personal offices of Rudd and Abbott were/are chaotic sinkholes of good ideas and effective policy. The press gallery narrative never twigged to this despite odd and unconnected stories giving examples. What's Shorten's office like, and how would a journalist know anyway? Easier to let the government frame Shorten, and then do an article about how clever the government's framing of Shorten is.

This piece by Rod Tiffen on how Labor can afford to ignore Murdoch is excellent. The Murdoch press needs Shorten more than he needs it, which will be interesting for its business model going forward. Once politics works out how to get around the broadcast media, and so long as broadcasters continue giving them incentives to do so, access journalism is finished. Gillard was half-hearted in embracing social media and the Labor Herald is an opportunity wasted. One redeeming feature of former UK Labour Leader Ed Miliband was that he realised no good would come of truckling to the old man.

Then there is the nature of the office Shorten now occupies. Oppose the government and you're a wrecker (unless you're Tony Abbott, in which case you're "devastatingly effective"), agree with the government and you're a wimp. To what standard are the press gallery holding Shorten, and (never mind fair) is it coherent or even sensible? Senior press gallery journalists have seen plenty of opposition leaders come and go. They should understand what they cover and report accordingly. They should have some perspective and be able to deal with complexity.

The idea that Shorten is a wrecker one day, wimp the next might be worthy of government spin, but it does not help the country understand how such a man might govern us.

The press gallery has no excuse for doing a lousy job in covering Bill Shorten. He should be a known quantity by now, enough to start enabling comparisons between the incumbent government and the alternative.

But, but ... it's hugely significant that he lied to Neil Mitchell. I mean, Neil Mitchell!

So?

Soon after he assumed the position Shorten now holds, Tony Abbott went on the ABC to tell Kerry O'Brien that he made stuff up on the spot, that he'd say anything really, and that only written statements counted. He should have been gone within 24 hours; that, not the 2014 budget, was Abbott's point of failure as a potential Prime Minister. The fact that journalists continued to hang off his every word and report him credulously is their point of failure, day after day, year after year.

If experience counts for anything in political journalism, they'd realise this, and recognise the Mitchell thing for the non-event it is. At the risk of rubbing the noses of Victorians in their inability to determine the fate of national governments, I have to say: Neil who? Is he some sort of Sandy Stone with headphones?

A successful leader rises above media gotcha, and Shorten has done that. A successful leader unites his party, and Shorten has done that. There's more to being PM than those things, however - but the press gallery wouldn't even know what that is after all these years, and neither would Neil Mitchell.

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

Same-same

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

Protection-ism

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.

Protectionism

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.

unAustralian

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.