12 October 2014

Another week in federal politics

For more than four hundred weeks this blog has read/ heard/ seen press gallery journalists try to sum up 'the week in politics', when what they really mean is the week in media.

Katharine Murphy is on the record as saying both how tired she is of the Canberra blah-blah, and how she loves to follow the herd; and that dichotomy is on show here.

Here's what happened this week in Canberra, in terms of how we are governed:
  • The Social Security Minister decided not to push the idea that unemployed people under 30 could go without benefits. There is no telling when he will revive this idea, or when the Liberal right will lament not having gone far enough down that track.
  • In the face of national security paranoia, budget cuts and a commitment to patchwork telecommunications infrastructure, three ministers announced a cloud policy.
  • The Prime Minister said at a book launch that government was obliged "to make considered, thoughtful and wise judgements about the use of force", when it is not clear that it has done so in this instance.
  • The Minister for Health announced headspace mental health centres for young people. The only one of the 15 centres in the nation's most populous city is to go to Castle Hill, a bastard of a place to get to by public or even private transport; perhaps he thought people who vote for Alex Hawke urgently need it. There are none in fast-growing northern NSW but three in the demographically-stagnant southern expanses of the state.
  • The Ministers for Employment and the Environment have declared Tasmania a gateway city [sic] to Antarctica, but otherwise basically re-announces a whole lot of same-old about Antarctic policy.
  • The Prime Minister visited a firm in western Sydney and trotted out his usual lines about cutting the carbon and mining taxes, even though neither of these was levied on Ace Gutters. How did our Very Fine Journalists In The Press Gallery respond to this? How did they call the PM and the government to account? "Prime Minister, I just wanted to get your view on Canberra being named the best city to live in the world?" - no wonder journos sneer at bloggers, only a pro can talk truth-to-power like that.
That, among other things, is what happened in Canberra this week.

Instead of being able to rely on journalists at the coalface to ask the big questions and get them answered, I had to do my own searches of government websites from here in my back room in Sydney, while supposedly professional and experienced journalists confuse pantomimes staged for their benefit with the main game.

Meanwhile, Katharine Murphy was demonstrating just how tired she is of the Canberra narrative by wallowing in it:
The attorney general, George Brandis, held a short, strange press conference in which he told assembled journalists that the retired judge conducting the government’s royal commission into various alleged nefarious conduct(s) by trade unions and officials had sought an extension of time to pursue criminality. A closer reading of the correspondence supplied by Brandis indicated the commissioner had been rather more ambiguous about this “request”, which was, according to the man making it, “neither an application to widen the terms of reference nor an application to extend the reporting date”.
Julia Gillard was written off as a liar for less than that. Given his record with bigots' rights, bookcases, and taxpayer-funded wedding jaunts, at what point do you simply write off Brandis as a credible source about anything?

At what point do you write off Murphy?
Somebody, meanwhile, forgot to tell Joe Hockey, off in Washington, that expressions of bipartisanship on Iraq must trump his more immediate problem of making the columns in the budget papers add up. Hockey either didn’t get the talking points about how good Bill was being on Iraq, or he didn’t read them. Hockey was busy, after all, embarking on the task he spent much of opposition roundly bagging Wayne Swan for doing – moving the goal posts about budget forecasts that were proving about as wobbly as jelly. Poor old Joe. Rough going at the moment, it must be said.
That's not, actually, what Hockey was doing in Washington.

What Abbott was doing by seeming to favour Shorten over Hockey was to bring his friends close and his enemies closer. It's a pity that the experienced journalists on that story weren't awake to, and couldn't explain, the actual politics of the situation.

What Hockey was doing in Washington was making sure policy disagreements between the IMF and the US Congress don't rain on his parade at the G20 in Brisbane next month. He even made a speech kinda like this:
In Sydney, we thought carefully about initiatives that lift infrastructure investment, with an emphasis on fostering more private sector involvement.
That bit where the Cross-City Tunnel meets the Eastern Distributor is a showcase for what happens when infrastructure is designed by merchant bankers rather than engineers. I bet Hockey took the fleet of limos there so delegates could be inspired about what it's like at peak hour, and take in the world-class signage.
Some months later in Cairns, we agreed to a Global Infrastructure Initiative, which is about increasing quality infrastructure not just among the G20 membership but across the world.

The Initiative includes members' individual commitments to improve domestic investment climates, as well as collective actions to facilitate the development of infrastructure as an asset class, improve project planning and preparation, and reduce information asymmetries.

We committed to developing a database of infrastructure projects to help match potential investors with projects.
I wonder whether Melbourne's East-West Link will ever appear on that database. As Gay Alcorn points out, it was not mentioned at the last election and may become one of those Yarraside in-jokes by the one after next, but has been bustled through in the meantime with unseemly haste by the dying Napthine government. It is hard to believe that other G20 jurisdictions are not also dogged by projects where politicians have failed to take the public with them.

As a Sydneysider I want to believe in Westlink, but I just can't. Hockey and Abbott, another coupla Sydneysiders, just don't inspire confidence.

It is hard to believe that Hockey, or any other minister in this government (and many other G20 governments, it must be said) has any sort of commitment to "reduce information asymmetries". Will the Global Infrastructure Initiative database be publicly accessible?
In Brisbane next month, we hope to announce a mechanism that will help us deliver this important, multi year initiative: the Global Infrastructure Centre. This Centre can bring together in a single hub, governments, international organisations and the private sector, to facilitate a knowledge and information platform – for new infrastructure, or upgraded infrastructure, across developed and emerging economies. The Centre already has the strong support of the international business community, including the B20. In fact, the B20 estimates that establishing a global infrastructure hub could help facilitate tens of billions of dollars of annual infrastructure investment.
There are three such hubs for global engineering capabilities: London, Tokyo and Houston, which enable continuous work on big projects. It is unclear what a Global Hub would add to these centres, except as vectors for finance and regulation which are unclear at this stage (but, as the man says, hopefully thrashed out in Brisbane).

The word 'hopefully' has to be used here. A Treasurer who can't get a budget passed five months after delivery is not a bit of a duffer (Murphy's "Poor old Joe"). Bill Hayden's first and only budget was also held up by the Senate and ended up bringing down the government. Certainly, the government would not want to go to its much-vaunted double dissolution with that as its economic centrepiece. The political and policy ineptitude at this most basic task casts a shadow, if not a pall, over anything else Hockey and Abbott might say or do. Again, though, the press gallery give them the benefit of the doubt.
Meanwhile, in chambers of substance, various things occurred. Bret Walker – an eminent lawyer who knows the odd thing about national security law, having studied the Australian regime as independent legislation monitor ...
Walker said at that hearing that the only legislation that he was formally called upon to review was the one abolishing his position. Murphy's set-up for Walker's comments was clumsy ("in chambers of substance, various things occurred" - how would she know?), and the silly final sentence in parentheses makes you wonder what trade she's talking about.
And of course, we went to war. Officially. Australian Super Hornets this week ended their period of flights without engagement, and went after an Islamic State target. Australia undertook the first sortie in what will be a long military campaign with highly uncertain domestic and international consequences.

Politics doesn’t get more substantial than that.
And more's the pity. Some media outlets in Australia and a few blogs provided the public debate that parliament couldn't bear to have. This should have caused a sentient press gallery to turn towards those who had thought about the issues involved and the best ways to address them, and away from the focus-group banalities offered by our current politicians.

Press gallery journalists complain that they can't turn away from what they are meant to cover (even if there is no debate to cover), but they jealously assert their right to apply 'context' to what is said and/or done in Parliament. Whenever people cling to two incompatible positions, it's appropriate to work to deny them both.
So what, then, of Faulkner’s point?
Faulkner is engaging in a w(h)ither Labor? debate, a debate conducted among and for members of that party. It has wider ramifications, sure, but it's an essentially partisan position that outsiders might note, but should only participate in if they share his assumptions about the ALP as the best vehicle for participating in politics.
One of the most perplexing trends in politics right now is its apparent appetite for working against its own long-term self-interest, in small things and in big things.
The same could be said for journalism, really. When it was revealed in 2008 that big banks were run by reckless fools it took many by surprise. Today, those running media operations - whether at the Deputy Political Editor level, the CEO level, and all points in between - remain convinced of their perspicacity and rectitude in the face of all evidence, and award one another bonuses (for executives) or prizes (for journalists) accordingly.
Faulkner didn’t term his diagnosis in this way, but his argument was essentially the cabal culture which now dominates in professional politics has reached such a nadir that major party powerbrokers don’t actually mind if they are on the Titanic as long as they have plush seats.
Faulkner doesn't give a monkey's about factionalism in the Liberal Party, and he doesn't talk up minor parties that seek to displace the majors. He's a Labor man. He thinks the ALP is more than those cabals. He thinks the people he supports are exempt from those sorts of descriptions; this isn't to say Faulkner is a hypocrite but people like Murphy should bring the nuance if their analysis is to have any value at all.
There was another poll this week ...
Great, more bloody Family Feud journalism.

Family Feud was a lame gameshow that has been revived by Channel Ten, further proof that Australia's media sector is run by dulled-witted people with no idea how to engage with people. It does surveys about particular topics and teams get rewarded for how closely their answers match the conventional responses. Katharine Murphy is an absolute sucker for Family Feud journalism, and mocks politicians who stray too far from "Survey says ...". Mark Textor is normally the Grant Denyer of Family Feud journalism, but in this case any survey will get them going. Survey says:
A poll of 1,200 voters now apparently rates the federal government behind state and local governments on trust. The prime minister ... made light of this rather grim milestone on Friday. “I think the surveys are lagging indicators if I may say so,” he said.
Again, the contrast with Gillard is telling: no 'loser' narrative, ..."and it's more bad news for the government, how long can this leadership go on?", etc.
Abbott’s broad diagnosis was firmly in the “ever thus” camp.
No, whether it's the press gallery or the public at large, Abbott's view is that he doesn't care what other people think. It was ever thus, if only journalists had been awake to that before last September.
Australians pride ourselves on our disdain for politics. Of course we tell polling companies we don’t trust politicians. “There are always going to be people who are disappointed with government because, let’s face it, we cannot do everything that everyone would like us to do immediately. We just can’t.”
We're a self-reliant people who don't depend as heavily on politicians as people in other countries seem to do. This is what makes Abbott's quote so cutting: he assumes we're all clamouring for a handout, like the lobbyists he sees every day. He has us all wrong, and yet he governs us while people like Murphy assume the show he puts on is the business of government itself.
Just get serious, full stop.
Just because press gallery journalists have been utterly discredited, it doesn't mean advice like that is complete garbage. They could use that themselves, but don't.
But if you can’t get serious, there is always another formulation to get you through the current press conference. Abbott: “We have repealed the carbon tax and the mining tax. We have more or less stopped the boats. We are working more effectively than the critics would concede to bring the budget back into balance and I think over time, if government is competent and trustworthy, the public will respond appropriately.” As is sometimes said in the classics, only time will tell.
Time has already told.

The evidence was in on the Coalition before it took office, but people like Murphy chose to give them the benefit of the doubt (and continue doing so): the gate is open and the horse has bolted, but with a weak ending like that the assumption is that the horse will bolt back in if the gate is left open. If you're left watching an empty gate with empty gestures then you are not where the action is, you have failed as a journalist and - worst of all - failed your audience. When an experienced journalist is viewing a stitch-up, surely their mind races to the real story that must surely be unfolding somewhere else - but alas, not if you're in the press gallery.

Poor old Katharine. Her journalism is no worse than others' from the press gallery, but most don't try to pretend they would or even could do better: but the proper response to someone who would have their cake and eat it is to expose their cake-management abilities. This week, and the next, will be like every other really. Just because press conferences are all about you it doesn't mean it's all that we need, and that it's all the government is up to.

09 October 2014

Mark Kenny still believes

Once again, we have a journalist who admits to have been played for a fool by the spinners of the Abbott government. Once again, this journalist is implying this is a recent development, when he has been played for years.

Today's bunny is Mark Kenny.

Trade unions were long believed by Liberals to be a declining force in Australian society, and that any attempt to hasten their decline might rouse them from their sickbeds. This is the lesson they learned from the union movement's extraordinarily successful Your Rights At Work campaign in 2007. Liberals who had opposed WorkChoices feared that very outcome, while those who didn't redoubled their determination to actively disempower the unions rather than tiptoe around them.

The fact that the current Opposition Leader makes much of his record as a union organiser adds to Liberal motivations to discredit trade unionism as it is practiced.

A serious policy response to trade union maladministration would be to beef up union registration requirements under Fair Work Australia, so that trade unions were regulated in a consistent way, with regular reports and audits and prosecutorial powers, similar to the way companies are regulated by ASIC and its attendant legislation.

The Heydon Royal Commission into trade union governance was always a political fit-up, designed to create daily headlines for easily-led and impressionable hacks like Mark Kenny.
Its true motivations were revealed on its inception by the Attorney General, George Brandis. Brandis' abuse of parliamentary lurks to attend social functions and build a bookcase required distraction; Kenny and the press gallery were happy to oblige him in that regard.
A cynic might say the 12 month extension of the royal commission into unions is politically convenient for the Abbott government because it will shift its report and release date to within sight of the 2016 election.
A cynic might; Kenny works in Parliament House, so I'll defer to him on what cynics do.

Ascribing base and snide motives to the Abbott government doesn't make you a cynic. It means you've been paying attention. Kenny is in the difficult position where he wants you to believe he's been paying attention (i.e., trust me I'm a journalist) but wants to avoid being labelled a 'cynic' for calling this government for what it is. Canberra can be a lonely place as it is, and this government is happy to turn off the taps to those they regard as less than fully with their program.

Mark Kenny did not get where he is by being labelled a cynic (or even being a cynic is the classical sense of questioning authority and matching/ contrasting words with deeds). He got where he is by doggedly insisting, day after day, that Julia Gillard did something wrong with Bruce Wilson's AWU money all those years ago, and that he was the scoophound who'd find it. He found nothing, and was disappointed that the Royal Commision didn't either:
Former prime minister Julia Gillard's hours in the witness box discussing her pre-parliamentary work as a union solicitor promised so much but in the end delivered dull TV. There was no smoking gun, no gotcha moment.
Nobody had any right to assume, after years of digging, that any such moment or artefact would arrive. It is the Lasseter's Reef of 21st century politics. Nobody should know this more than Mark Kenny. The man has been had, fooled, gulled, played for a mug. He has attempted to palm this off to the rest of us - but nobody seems to have been taken in but him and his silly colleagues.

It doesn't occur to Kenny (or Brandis) that moving the reporting date closer to the 2016 election only means that it will reinforce the two three big drawbacks of this government - that it is mean, petty, and vacuous - at a time when it will want to play down or negate that impression.
Leaving aside that [Brandis' explanation of his reasons for extending the Royal Commission] is hardly a muscular refutation of a serious charge - to wit, using scarce taxpayer funds to manipulate an issue and wedge one's political opponents - is it even true?
It is only now, more than a year after it has taken office, for Mark Kenny to start holding the Abbott government to account for its words/actions deficit.

Even so, he's pretty gentle: nothing like the all-pervasive savagery arising from Gillard's carbon-pricing statement, nor allowing for the standard political practice where previous positions require adjustment to new developments. As analysis goes it's pretty poor, but typical of Kenny.
Perhaps these objectives [discrediting Gillard and Shorten] will be progressed in the final report - or the interim one even.
Kenny has to be the last journalist outside NewsCorp to give this government the benefit of the doubt. Even the dullest hacks are starting to tire of the idea that it's all Labor's fault, an evasion that hasn't worked since the budget was excreted in May.
In the meantime, the process rolls on with taxpayers footing the likely $61 million bill.
That almost sounds like outrage. Could we be building up to a swingeing denunciation in the final par?

Sadly, no.
That will be money well spent, however, if it comprehensively addresses and resolves a culture of corruption and intimidation within the nation's unions ...
This is the wheedling of the chronic gambler, convinced that the next race, the next card, the next roll of the dice will be the big winner. C'mon, spinner! Time to cut your losses and go.

The biggest story of this royal commission is that Kathy Jackson, once called a "whistleblower" by Fairfax and the Liberals, could well be the biggest looter and villain of them all. Kenny forgot to mention that, despite having been very close to the Thomson saga.

His colleague Kate McClymont won a Walkley in 2012 by quoting Jackson without giving her claims due diligence. With that, and after the cadet-level error of mixing up Chris Browns, it's fair to say that McClymont is in decline and not the epitome of investigative journalism that the profession's boosters like to claim. If the NRL can strip the Melbourne Storm of two premierships retrospectively, then surely the Walkley Foundation can quietly ask McClymont to return their gong if the award is to mean anything going forward.

Like all press gallery journalists, Mark Kenny has been played for a mug by the Abbott team for half a decade. This is what's diminishing political journalism in this country. Given that Kenny lacks both the sense to realise his predicament and the backbone to get out of it, it's time to widen the scope and realise that his editors have no idea what sells, and that Kenny will go on being wrong until his employer dies under him.

04 October 2014

Covering up

Weeks ago, Tony Abbott did significant damage to his political base by going back on a promise to alter section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. He did this because he needed the co-operation of the Muslim community in identifying Australian Muslims who may plot to commit atrocities in Australia, or who might join organisations like Daesh, because this is a job that requires human co-operation. Non-human intel (e.g. monitoring phone calls and internet) cannot and will not do the job.

In other words, Abbott let down his base for the sake of wider, national obligations. Any fool can develop a base and pander to it, which is why we have a Parliament that includes (but is not full of) gimlet-eyed freaks like Cory Bernardi and Lee Rhiannon; the major parties' problems with sub-factional warlords like Laurie Ferguson and Bill Heffernan are widely canvassed elsewhere festering sores symptomatic of a wider disease, curable only by strong medicine and/or amputation. To address the big issues in the big jobs, using the power that comes with those jobs, you need a wider perspective. This is the toughest thing for any political leader to do, and only the masters really succeed at it.

Last week, the media reported Abbott declaring himself to be a born-again believer in multiculturalism. They didn't say what he meant by that, they simply did no more than they have done for the past five years: they took Abbott at his word.

On Wednesday this week, Abbott's chief of staff Peta Credlin was reported (by the press gallery's most Very Fine Journalists) as supporting the idea of banning Muslim women from Parliament if they cover their faces. Abbott said that he felt 'confronted' by such garments, despite (or because of?) their similarity to nuns' garb. Credlin and Abbott should be regarded as speaking with one voice on this matter.

When the Parliamentary Presiding Officers (Bronwyn Bishop and Stephen Parry) proposed shunting well-clad women to a glass enclosure, they were acting under Abbott's leadership. This is what it means to be a leader: to set the parameters, and have your followers fill in the details. It is rubbish to assert, as the Murdoch press does, that Bishop, Credlin and Parry were on some jag of their own with their monstrously silly proposal.

Those who reported these words did not relate his more recent words to his earlier ones. They should have, and in days gone by they would have, in an effort to show us how we are governed and what it means to be governed by these people now.

Targeting Muslim women is neither much of a problem nor a solution for government.

They are not well represented within the Nationals or the Liberal Party, in state or federal parliamentary ranks, nor atop its organisation, nor anywhere really. There are few Muslim women within political parties opposed (however nominally) to this government. There are no Muslim women in positions of power elsewhere in Australia, atop corporations or unions or other organisations with real clout. I can't think of any Muslim women with significant 'soft' or cultural power, but maybe that says more about me. They rarely feature in crime statistics, whether in violent or non-violent crimes.

Of the 60 (or is it 200?) Australians who have joined Daesh, I would be fascinated to know how many are well-clad women.

There are, as Waleed Aly points out, established procedures for screening well-clad people for weapons and facial recognition.

Muslim women wearing clothes that break up the lines of their bodies are, at worst, generally inoffensive; at best they may well be nice people and fine citizens of our nation. They would only be targeted by people insecure within themselves and unable to deal with their real problems.

This, of course, is the heart of the issue. The government spends a lot of time focused on a non-problem (no well-clad Muslim woman has apparently ever attended Parliament, let alone gotten rowdy there), while failing to deal effectively with real problems (health, education, the budget and all that it contains and means).

Anti-Muslim sentiment is a dog of a political tactic. Never mind that it's nasty, it just doesn't work.

Fred Nile has only turned to it because every plank in his political platform has crumbled beneath him: community support for abortion and homosexuality is strong not despite Nile, but because of him. Danny Nalliah disgraced himself by holding a World Congress of Families that omitted Muslims.

Whenever some local council considers a planning application for a mosque or Islamic school, the whole community is sullied by the ignorance and ugliness that results. Councils who vote them down embarrass themselves by citing traffic flow or whatever. They have to disguise the fact that they are voting against the worst elements of their own community as much as the application before them.

No community boasts, nor would any benefit from boasting, mosque-free status. This is true of places where the Muslim community is not big enough to want a mosque, or any service other than those provided by government to all residents. No politician in this country holds office because of anti-Muslim sentiment; even dills like George Christensen and Jacqui Lambie were elected for reasons other than that, and when they lose the Muslim vote will be the least of their problems.

The press gallery works in Parliament House, so what the Presiding Officers decide affects them directly (are there any Muslim women in the press gallery?) in a way that it doesn't affect those of us who don't. Because it works as a herd, and a lazy one, it decided The Story was whatever was closest to hand and easiest to understand.

The latter half of this week has apparently been all about a people who are not especially powerful but who, as Aly points out, suffer insults and shunning in ways that shame us all. Various deals to get the budget through, to go to war and to restrict our freedoms, have received less coverage than the non-issue of what Muslim women wear and where they wear it our Parliament comprising people who can't identify security risks to themselves; their ability to ascertain risks and benefits to the nation as a whole, and regulate accordingly, is in doubt. The press gallery cannot begin to admit this, let alone describe it, because its judgment is equally bad.

Even proposals to send journalists to prison, similar to those incarcerating Peter Greste and his colleagues, have passed with little commentary from the press gallery. Only investigative journalists run that risk. They can't believe that good ol' Tony and George would ever do that to them, despite all the evidence and the fact that the government has led the press gallery away from the stories they should have been covering.

Because the government-supplied content was readily available, the press gallery has an excuse for not covering the real and important issues. When you don't have a clue, an excuse will do.

Even though few Muslim women visit Canberra the sting of exclusion will still be felt. Years from now they will flinch at entering a building that is as much yours or mine - as though they were second-class citizens in some way. This is a failure of leadership on Tony Abbott's part, and on the part of everyone who put and keeps him there.

Bronwyn Bishop is a nasty person. She was partisan when she chaired NSW Liberal State Council in the 1980s. As Defence Personnel Minister she covered up sexual abuse allegations. As Aged Care Minister she covered up pensioners getting kerosene baths. None of the press gallery could foresee what an awful Speaker she'd be, apparently, and none dare admit that Chris Pyne leads her by the nose. Her proposal to relegate people to different sections of the public gallery is both appalling and typical.

Lacking any real record of achievement, or a reputation for loving kindness, Bishop stands on her dignity. Her dignity has been sorely bruised lately, what with all those pictures of Pyne in her ear like a boy scout guiding some rickety pensioner across the street. Abbott now has to placate Bishop; a task at once huge and petty. She is not just another one of his ministers, who can simply be told to suck it up. She has statutory powers independent of Abbott, unlike ministers who can be overridden at will.

Howard was careful to balance the seeming independence of the Speaker while filling the role with those who would basically toe the line. Fraser appointed the man he rolled as leader, Billy Snedden, who also stood on his dignity and did not hesitate to put the Prime Minister in his place. If Abbott mishandles Bishop, as he probably will, watch her become more rebarbative and even-handed; watch the government lose some battles on the floor of the House.

Bronwyn Bishop has known Tony Abbott for decades, longer than any journalist; she probably thought that good ol' Tony would never drop her in it like this.

One day a Muslim woman will be elected to Parliament by thousands of voters. The Presiding Officers of the day will have to accommodate her rather than play silly-buggers as they are now. MPs cannot cover their faces as they vote in Parliament. This dates from an 18th century practice, where British MPs sent their butlers or coachmen cloaked-up into the voting lobbies while they enjoyed London. The fact that those butlers or coachmen would have made better MPs than many of their masters led to expansion of the voting franchise, and gave political staffers ideas above their station.

What this whole episode shows is that Muslim women don't appear to have the rights that other Australians have. There's a basic social compact which says that if you obey the laws, the government will leave you alone no matter what race or religion or gender you are. With the Prime Minister 'confronted' by Muslim women one day and placating them the next, nobody can be sure that they won't have some or all of their rights stripped away whenever the Prime Minister feels like it. These people are playthings of Liberal strategists (the kinds of 'strategists' whose busywork is utterly disconnected from the movement of actual votes in real elections), a situation that cannot endure.

The intervention of Senator Fierravanti-Wells into this debate is designed to make the government look reasonable. All it shows is that the "punishers and straighteners" aspect of conservatism is not its only basis, and that you can't tell whether to expect control-freakery or live-and-let-live from this government. It emphasises the mean and tricky nature of the current Prime Minister rather than deflecting from it.

Credit is due to the Labor Opposition and their principled stand against both the Presiding Officers and the Abbott government. The press gallery failed to give them that credit, and in so doing have failed us all.

Muslim women deserve the benefit of the doubt. The Abbott government, the Presiding Officers, and the press gallery, do not.

26 September 2014

The difference

The difference between the Australian response to the war with a barely organised rabble in Iraq and the response coming from other countries is important, and it reflects badly on us.

US President Obama, UK PM Cameron and other world leaders have made it clear that Daesh are a foreign entity to be degraded and disrupted before their influence spreads.

Tony Abbott has explicitly linked the activities of Daesh to goings-on in Australia, that it represents an internal threat as much as an inexternal one. He has invoked the recruitment of Australians as a reason to go to war with Daesh that does not seem to be present with other multinational operations that cause death and destruction in this country, and the prospect that trained and experienced killers might return and create havoc. No other national leader has done this - not even those from majority-Muslim countries closer to western Asia, which have a far more substantial and pressing problem on both counts.

He even addressed the UN about an incident hours old, involving a messed-up teenager whose links to Daesh were neither strong nor clear. Mental health facilities in this country are full of people who want to kill the Prime Minister, or who think they are Prime Minister, and/or who see persecution everywhere.
Cuts to those services mean that police have to deal with those people, without training or resources. Tony Abbott has misled us on so much for so long, with so little challenge that I would not be surprised if this incident turned out to be bullshit too.

As if Abbott was going to talk about climate at the UN. Are you stupid? Do you think anyone following Australian politics for longer than a week is even sillier than you are?

You would only call for Muslims to denounce Daesh if you haven't been listening to what they have said and done, or if these people have to jump when you bid them to. Daesh are not representative of Muslims, and only Murdoch headline writers think otherwise. Every significant new wave of migrants has faced similar pressures to 'fit in'.

The reason why Brandis canned a revision of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, despite upsetting part of its base, was to maintain relations with Muslim communities to thwart or monitor Australians joining Daesh. A wise government would take action against those who think they have a licence to harass people they perceive as Muslim. This is a start. Police don't need any more powers/resources than they have already to enforce existing laws. If this really isn't a war against Islam generally but against Daesh-addled ratbags in particular, the first step - the sine qua non - is to stand against harassment of Australian Muslims.

The Fairfax press published the wrong picture of the person concerned, which is important for a number of reasons:
  • Bad journalism used to be limited to simply quoting press releases and speeches, like Latika Bourke does. Now, bad journalism includes sloppy combing of social media. Crap MSM journalism, not internet or Young Warwick Fairfax or whatever, is what's killing traditional media.
  • There is no link between that image and the apology. The guy in that picture will miss out on opportunities because future searches will link him to terrorism. If Fairfax had injected him with asbestos or had him install roof insulation without training, they could hardly have set him up worse for life.
  • Journo culture in Australia is so toxic that the guy in the photo and the impact on him will be belittled relentlessly and ignorantly. If he complains he'll be some unreasonable whinger. Yes, it was an easy mistake to make; but big-mistake-little-apology is just one of those MSM traditions that must die, along with the careers of all those who would defend it.
  • Nobody is calling for the severed head of the Fairfax Media Picture Editor, but (yes I'm going to go there) Peter Greste is not rotting in an Egyptian prison for the sake of some untrammelled right to fuck up to such an extent, and get away with it.
  • If it's easy for Fairfax Media to make a mistake, why is it no less easy for ASIO, the Federal and/or Victorian Police - and even George Brandis or Tony Abbott or Bill Shorten - to also make mistakes? And if you accept that they make mistakes, why treat their words with more gravity than they may warrant?
Any journalist who thinks I simply have some inexplicable hatred of the MSM is free to just piss off, and probably will when the next rounds of sackings come through.

Tony Abbott has never been a champion of freedom. In Battlelines, in other utterances and publications, he has consistently said that freedom and security are opposites and that he supports more of the latter than the former. It is one of the few things he has been consistent about, one of the very few issues on which he can be trusted. Tony Abbott is ambivalent at best, and at worst hostile, to your freedoms. He wants a society where you beg him for indulgences and are pathetically grateful for whatever he might deign to dispense.

The same applies to Brandis, as I've said elsewhere.

Journalists should have been awake to this when helping us, and themselves, decide whether Abbott would make an effective Prime Minister, and by extension Brandis an effective Attorney General.

Instead, we have people like Paul Farrell and Jonathan Green decide that Abbott's moves against freedom are something of a surprise. Green is right to say that Brandis, the buffoon of travel rorts and bigots' rights, has not suddenly become the wise and firm protector of the common weal. Green is wrong, though, to imply this has come about all of a sudden, that it was not foreseeable before last September; close and privileged observers of public affairs have been negligent in failing to point it out.

Belatedly, Farrell has stirred:
Really, we can only blame ourselves. Could all journalists, collectively, have done more than throw together a handful of submissions? Most major news organisations in Australia raised concerns about the bill and the new offences. But there was no concerted campaign, no unified push to stop these disclosure offences succeeding. We’re now stuck with these laws, probably until someone is made an example of to spur journalists into action.

There is a small comfort in all of this and that is that the laws simply won’t work as a deterrent. They won’t discourage whistleblowers. And they won’t discourage fearless journalists from reporting on our intelligence agencies when it is in the public interest to do so. The disclosures by whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning – and the reporters who told these stories – have shown us that people are willing to take extraordinary actions, at great personal risk, when they believe it is necessarily to do so.

It will just mean that some of them will go to jail.
Yep: Australian journalists regard Peter Greste, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning as them, not us. There are no fearless journalists in the press gallery, just sad little dropseekers who occasionally stumble over something big and then pretend it never happened. They gave Tony Abbott the easiest ride to the Prime Ministership since Whitlam; after a few pantomime slaps over the budget emergency/non-emergency, this pattern has continued.

The press gallery is unconcerned about these laws because anything that isn't in a press release, won't be covered by them. Some of them might have their photos taken with tape over their mouths (unless Brandis' press sec ticks them off for doing so), but that's about all.

This post was considerably longer than it was, before I read this by Katharine Murphy. Yes, that Katharine Murphy, the self-confessed press gallery herd animal. It's unusually good. Impressive, even, for the most part. The best traditional-media piece so far on this topic.

She is spot on in her insistence that journalists can and should go into the details of what's going on, rather than just ripping a press release off the telex and zooming out to Endeavour Hills or wherever. You can't present the work of police officers or politicians or other non-journalists in a sensationalist, simplistic way, and then insist that journalists:
  • are hardworking
  • are sensible and sensitive
  • balance moral/ethical dilemmas
  • are under stress
  • do their best to get it right, and
  • when if they don't get it right - well, fuck you.
In an article concerned about framing, Murphy lurches back a decade to frame society as a three-role drama: government, media, and a passive public that cares little for either. She won't or can't even acknowledge social media, let alone credit it with informed critiques as well-made or targeted as hers. However unwittingly, she exposes the fallacy, the sheer emptiness of the traditional media notion that you have to be in journalism to be able to criticise it (and even then you have to pull your punches, as Murphy duly does).

The comments on Murphy's piece are worth reading too. Journos are told never to read the comments: they transmit to an imagined audience but block reception from the real one.

Our country has the wrong government. We have the wrong media reporting on its activities. Both of these things must change.

19 September 2014

National security theatre

Once again, the Australian media has been completely bluffed by national security theatre.

What the Prime Minister and the various police chiefs - even George Brandis - have said may be proven. They haven't been proven yet and their words are worth nothing. Nothing. All this would have much more credibility coming from a judge after fair and extensive trials, even with the law's palaver.

No government is entitled to be taken at its word, especially this one. A policeman's finding is the start of a trial, not the end.

In reporting the arrests and related events of the past 48 hours or so, the traditional media had no right to drop the 'allegedly' and other qualifiers, to be excused for failing in its duty to be sceptical at the show put on for their benefit: the staged photo ops, the idea that any question would be fobbed off with 'sub judice' or 'operational matters', the absence of any inkling that the story might be elsewhere than where the media wranglers indicated.

Remember how the Murdoch press' investigative skill cruelled last year's Boston Marathon bombing, as @FearsumEngine noted. Remember the shameful treatment of Dr Haneef, and the great lie linking asylum-seekers to terrorism on the Tampa which our politics and media is yet to call out. Remember how credulous the media were on all those occasions - and how they have learned nothing, cowering and passing on unqualified the lines fed to them.

When you see transcriptions from staged events, you are not looking at a triumph of journalism, but a failure of it. Any event that resists investigative journalism is not worth covering. Being forewarned of photo ops is no proof of journalistic competence or savvy.

These are the occasions that ratchet downwards trust in traditional media. No amount of browbeating or sneering by journalists (or wannabes) will recover the respect they are busy shedding.

The national security agencies are ramping up security in the lead-up to the G20 conferences, particularly the leaders' meeting in Brisbane in November; and rightly so. Experience from previous incidents suggests that it is this far out that perpetrators start to finalise their plans. None of this was explained to, or by, supposedly experienced journalists. None of this appears to have been even a factor in recent raids. Instead, they talked of how police actions (which necessarily involve suppressing debate) might work for a government that has demonstrably failed at everything else, including economic confidence.

This fool would reward a politician who has spent seven years beating up non-threats. The journalist would give the politician yet more powers that he is demonstrably unable to execute effectively (even by his own standards - how many of those arrested arrived by boat? Well?). This shows why insiderdom is not worth journalists having, not worth people heeding, and why the story is not where the grizzled veterans (duped again by spinners) insist it is.

We are going into debt, financial and moral, for all this. Our public policy mechanisms appear exhausted of alternatives (and if this were not the case, the traditional media lacks the skill and wit to detect it). There is no small-o opposition offered by the official Opposition, only the most timid echo. It would be pathetic were there not so much more at stake than 'w(h)ither Labor?' witterings. Should this whole operation turn out to be the sort of sham for which I gave precedents above, they give no sign that they might anticipate or even learn anything from it.

12 September 2014

Good analysis requires perspective

Solid, intelligent analysis of how we are governed is possible. It is just not possible from within the press gallery.

This is what proper analysis looks like. Read it all, see you when you get back.
Westacott says that "never before has the public sector faced a more complex set of challenges". It's as if she's not heard of the "challenges" of: setting up the Federation, World War I and its long, severe, economic aftermath in Australia; the 1930s Depression; World War II and postwar reconstruction; the existential threats of the Cold War; the seemingly intractable difficulties of "stagflation" in the 1970s; and so on. Beside these "challenges", those of the present, for all their difficulty, are not nearly so complex.

It's not just that Westacott is talking historical nonsense. She has based her recipes on a false premise and she neglects the history and current circumstances of the Australian Public Service as well as the fundamental differences between the public and private sectors.
That's a takedown: it's about something other than attacking the person directly, but about the national context that the target here (BCA CEO Jennifer Westacott) sought and failed to address. It isn't ad hominem (e.g. Keating at his most caustic), and unlike most parliamentary insults it doesn't come from some stale catalogue of cliches (e.g. "depriving some village of its idiot"). This is why people despise parliamentary banter: it isn't half as well-considered as this.
So what is her game?
That simple question elevates this above most political commentary. When you're an experienced observer of politics you can look beyond what is said to the longer game of what the speaker is hoping to achieve. Again, the press gallery took Abbott on face value, and failed to ask what his real game was: had they done so the current shambles would have been more apparent when we went to vote last September.
Of course, these are not so much "insights" as modern management aphorisms; they're about as useful as such things usually are. Their consideration is not helped by the number of blunders Westacott makes in elaborating them.
Again, the intolerance for nonsense that obviates the ad hominem attack, followed with a point-by-point rebuttal.
The point Westacott overlooks is that the boundaries of innovation and risk for public servants should be defined by their ministers. There's no point in urging an "innovation mindset" on officials if that's not what their political masters want.
This is what it means to have the real understanding of politics which the press gallery, and those who employ them, insist they have but do not.

If the utterings and witterings of Tony Abbott and his frontbench had been subjected to that level of scrutiny there would not be a Coalition government now. If the last Labor government had been subject to that quality of scrutiny it would have lifted its game. By defying the instruction to not write crap and adopt and adolescent pose of sneering scepticism, the press gallery ensured that the Gillard and Rudd governments merely survived and that excellent policy was tossed out with a great deal of policy bathwater - not that the press gallery could tell the difference.

Let's contrast the above piece of analysis with the sort of thing you get from the press gallery - and not just from some poor newbie, or your bog-standard drone, but from someone who (by press gallery standards) produces reflective, thinky-thoughty pieces. Over to you, Katharine Murphy:
As a rule of thumb, politics would prefer to deliver voters steadiness and certainty, but increasingly this [sic] is a commodity in short supply.

So if you can’t deliver certainty, then uncertainty will have to do. And uncertainty has its own potent rhetorical currency.
It was the press gallery, of which Murphy was then (and strangely, remains) a senior member, who heard and reported Abbott promising to deliver certainty, without really questioning whether he had the capacity or even the inclination to do so.
The current uncertainty frame in national affairs isn’t actually a construction, or a complete invention delivered to us by a manifestly cynical political class.
Well, largely they are.

The current government, when in opposition, declared that the government had a debt crisis. It doesn't, but people like Murphy either simply reported that it did, or pretended there were two valid sides to such a question. They assumed, but did not check, that there was a real strategy for reducing debt rather than the same hopin' and wishin' that we saw from the previous government. They did not bother to do some basic checking on what Liberals do in government; namely, that when they do pay down debt it's a historical accident.

The current government, when in opposition, declared that it had a plan to deliver economic growth and jobs, and that key to this was the abolition of taxes paid by only a few big companies. The taxes went in their own good time but the jobs growth (and economic growth more broadly) hasn't materialised. This was foreseeable by anyone not so gullible as to take Tony Abbott at his word - someone like Katharine Murphy.
Reasons to feel bloody terrified are many. In no particular order, there’s Russian aggression, there’s Chinese regional ambition, there’s the consequences of the decline of American exceptionalism and the perceived vacuum of leadership in the White House, and there’s that sectarian violence in the Middle East and its deeply unpleasant consequences for all western liberal democracies.
Knocks "stop the boats" into a cocked hat, doesn't it? Doesn't it? What do you mean, simply reporting those words was all that was necessary? This geopolitical gibbering context is the sort of thing you develop from too much exposure to Peter Hartcher.

See the quote above on other points in history which had their own challenges, and see Murphy's global impressions for the shallow affair it is.
There’s concern about the direction of the economy, about job security and cost of living pressures. It doesn’t matter, apparently, if the data tells us we are travelling well enough and certainly a great deal better than elsewhere – the concern persists and wafts.
The data doesn't tell us that.

The data tells us everything is slowing down, and that there is no countervailing narrative that (or how) things will get better and that here are ways of joining the upward trajectory. As Paddy Gourley points out, sources of future growth from research and innovation are being cut back, not boosted. It's not that we're innumerate - we read things all too well, better than those in close proximity to the decision-makers who feel it's their job to make allowances and excuses.
Tony Abbott made a really big promise before the last election – he promised to end the chaotic cycle of the 43rd parliament and put the adults back in charge. He held out a chimera of certainty. Then he manifestly failed to deliver it.
He was never in a position to deliver it. This isn't being wise after the event it was starkly evident long before September '13 to anyone without a vested interest in the outcome. Everyone who reported to the contrary was wrong to do so, and has committed the most terrible fraud upon this country.

The press gallery put all of its credibility in Abbott's basket, and it has blown the lot.
This parliament has opened much like the last one, only it’s actually more lacking in a basic organising principle.
Yep. this was obvious just after the last parliament was elected, when you consider what might have happened if Windsor, Oakeshott et al had made a different decision. The idea that Abbott had to be taken at his word, and that the only way to assess an Abbott government was to have one, was both the unanimous press gallery position and deeply, deeply stupid and wrong.
Surprises emerge from back pockets.
Only if you're not paying attention, and if you have learned nothing.
The Coalition has been unable to communicate clearly what it stands for.
This has been the case since 2007, when Howard lost office. It was clear since Abbott became leader. He was clear about nothing other than the last Labor government was 'bad', which was all Murphy and the press gallery wanted to hear, all they reported. Murphy's failure to identify her own agency, and those of her colleagues, impedes any credibility she may bring to analysis of our politics.

That, and her childlike unquestioning belief in Mark Textor:
Textor noted soft perceptions about the economy. After years of economic growth in Australia “there is now a distinct possibility that easy prosperity may not continue”.
Again, the failure of agency here. This isn't a matter of disclosure, it's a matter of Murphy's ability to perceive what's going on and report on it accurately.

Mark Textor is largely to blame for making the silk purse of a Prime Minister out of the sow's ear that is Tony Abbott. Textor gamed Murphy and her colleagues for years and years, and they never picked it. He's still doing it. It was always the case that the Coalition did not have the answers for this country; Textor helped frame Abbott so that Murphy and her equally ovine colleagues didn't bother asking the questions that might damage the chances of Textor's client. Textor plays the press gallery for mugs and they love him for it.
I’d rate Textor’s assessment of our collective state of being bang on the money.
You would, wouldn't you.
Tony Abbott has moved into a discussion about national security and the steps the government is taking to keep us all safe. In so doing, the prime minister has defined an enemy which is both abstract and “other” and ephemeral – and very real.
Yes, yes but the idea of journalists covering politicians is not merely to quote, or even summarise, what they said. It is to check those words against other objective sources of reality, and to evaluate questions of how well we are governed, whether the priorities of the government are those of the nation, and so on.

In 1981, Robert Trimbole left Australia despite the highest level of police border alerts by changing his date of birth on his departure card. 32 years later, Khaled Sharrouf also slipped travel restrictions by using his brother's passport. Journalists should be alert to the idea that calls for greater powers are distractions from the ineffective use, rather than inadequacy, of existing powers. Instead, journalists like Murphy take Abbott at his word by accepting his word that he's "keep[ing] us all safe".
To put the current public posture at its simplest, Abbott is countering an abstract uncertainty with the imperative of moral crusade.
That's what he always did. The case against Gillard and Rudd was pretty abstract, but Abbott made up in fervour what he lacked in detail. Murphy and the press gallery fell for it then and here they fall for it again.
Prime ministers do what is right and what is necessary. Listen to him. He’s saying that every time he’s in front of a microphone. He wants to assure us that the adults, or in his case, the adult, has finally turned up.
Murphy and her colleagues quote him unquestioningly, giving him the benefit of the doubt, reinforcing him and Textor and the rest of them in the positions in which they are most comfortable.
The basic, reductionist, construction suits. So this is a key transition for him. If he can achieve the balance, Abbott has a good prospect of not only facing and dealing with a bunch of practical threats and problems but of stabilising his government and rebooting its political fortunes.
Murphy and her colleagues do reductionism really well, so they'll do their best to help Abbott. Were they to focus on subtleties and nuances and other points of view, they would serve their readers better but set Abbott adrift.
Shorten is also working himself up into a nationalistic lather about the intrinsic sacredness of Australian jobs and about defending “our industries” ... (in this case high tech Japanese submarine manufacturers, apparently creeping covertly around the Adelaide shipyards) who would make products more cheaply overseas and send them back here.
The Japanese submarines are designed for short-range operations, over a couple of hundred kilometres at most. Australian submarines need to operate over thousands of kilometres. Murphy could have found that (and other issues) out with a bit of basic journalism. Instead, operational issues like that are sneeringly referred to as "Australian conditions" or wedged into a half-baked narrative, and dismissed.
...understand that we are now locked in a process where we essentially hold mirrors up to each other.
We've always understood that, and journalists and politicians have both suffered as a result. The idea that Textor and others accurately capture our thinking about politics and what we want/need from it is risible.

Only when you understand the press gallery as a mirror in which Abbott loves to gaze, rather than as a 'fourth estate' for evaluating and checking state power, does this aimless wittering make any sense.
... it’s this abundance of reflective surfaces that exacerbates the disconcerting feeling that nothing in national affairs is ever quite real – and nothing ever quite penetrates.
And do you think Murphy will get off her backside and question any of the images crafted for her benefit? Never. Does this diminish Murphy and her press gallery colleagues? Yes. Abbott has hocked the credibility of his party and that of the press gallery; he demands still more credit, and Murphy and the gang will give it freely until he and they inevitably run out. They'll be all surprised at that, too.

Nobody should be surprised at the sheer obsequiousness from this blog's very own bunny, Mark Kenny:
Abbott has been using this neat bit of self deprecation for years now, trotting it out on those occasions when prime ministers are required, by tradition and format, to be funny.

It got a solid laugh from an audience of journalists, lobbyists, and corporates, at the National Press Club's 50th anniversary dinner in Canberra on Wednesday night - even if many had heard the punch-line before.
Jokes rely on their power for being unexpected. What Kenny heard there was a roar of appreciation for a politician who has always made a point of making journalists feel important, and feel competent by reinforcing their predictive power.

When Abbott promised a government of no surprises, it was a promise made to journalists. He promised that they would not have to deal with nuance and subtlety and different points of view. They love him for that. Having to run around and gather different opinions is hard work! Because press gallery journalists are morons, they failed to realise that differing opinions is normal for politics, and that any promise of 'slowing down the news cycle' was always nonsense.

A politician promising to slow down the news cycle is up to no good, doesn't know what they're talking about, or both. Nobody in the press gallery is awake to this.
Privately, Abbott has a wicked sense of humour and loves to laugh, but witty pre-written speech-making has never been his long suit.
Privately, Abbott's humour is petty, mean, and inane. Publicly, his speeches (particularly the ones he writes himself) are petty, mean, and inane.

Kenny dares not point this out. Kenny spent years chasing down the chimera that Julia Gillard had someone else pay for her bathroom and found nothing. Here he is applying his chimera-chasing skills again, seeking to achieve solidity from pure wind, with the idea that Tony Abbott is a good bloke who likes to laugh. There's nothing faux-reflective about Kenny, it isn't his fault he has an enlarged bullshit gland.
Yet, there is a sense about Abbott that despite his considerable intellectual power - foolishly overlooked by those who would want it to be otherwise - he is more at home in parliamentary attack mode, or at least when defending a serious position or argument.
The idea that there are great hordes who think Abbott is stupid is a straw man. However, the case that Kenny is an intellectual fizzer is strong. Abbott is good for a blast of bluster and not much good beyond that. Nobody who has observed Abbott up close for years and years, like Kenny has, should be puzzled by this. Kenny goes the straw man on a daily basis, a sure sign his analytical skills are non-existent.
That said, there is still something impressive about a prime minister who despite his time constraints and legions of staff, insists on crafting most of his own speeches. This is Abbott the writer and thinker.
Abbott is wasting time by ploughing away at something he's not good at, while other issues that need his time and attention go begging. This is something poor leaders do.

There's little impressive about the speeches themselves. School captains across the country blow the Prime Minister off the stage in terms of writing and giving speeches, which is why Abbott never goes to schools.
Even back in his day, Menzies had lamented the drift in political coverage of Canberra, criticising reporters for relying on mere pieces of paper provided to them by politicians – press releases – while the oratory and theatre, or "cut and thrust" of parliamentary contest went less reported.

Neither side of politics has shied from making similar criticisms since. Who can forget Julia Gillard's admirably economical plea to the Canberra gallery delivered from the same podium: "don't write crap".
Well you did, because you wrote nothing but. The coverage of parliamentary theatre has increased, without improving our understanding of how we are governed. This says a lot about the media, which neither Kenny nor Murphy are prepared to face (remember, Kenny and Murphy are both experienced members of the press gallery).
"The best contribution, if I may say so, the media could make right now is not to be more right wing, or more left wing, but to be more ready to give credit where it's due and to acknowledge the strengths as well as the weaknesses in our country and its people," [Abbott] said.
A government is evaluated against the strengths and weaknesses of the country. A government that simply trumpets the strengths of the country is being vacuous. A government that neglects or exacerbates the weaknesses of the country deserves criticism. Kenny, Murphy and the gang can't and won't do that.
In any event, Abbott's complaint suggests he believes he has not been given sufficient credit for his successes in ending deaths at sea from people smuggling, concluding free trade agreements and for his deftness on the world stage. This is not so.
Cute use of "deaths at sea" - a man shot in the head or who dies from a preventable condition in an internment camp is no less dead than those who drown.

Abbott hasn't "concluded" free trade deals. The Korean deal contains sovereignty-wrecking measures to invalidate our laws, and it is [$] not a high priority for the fractious KNA. He hasn't been deft at all in diplomacy. He's pre-empted the US and been oafish toward everyone else. Prime Ministers in trouble get their spinners to claim they're diplomatic geniuses, but Kenny is so "in tune" with Abbott that he overlooks actual practice in that regard.
Perhaps more substantively, Abbott also used the opportunity of the speech to remark on his own journey over some 30 years in public life and 20 in parliament, putting it up it as a model of how change can be embraced even against the necessary inertia of conservatism.

"I will admit to two significant policy areas where I am now different," he ventured, nominating multiculturalism, and paid parental leave. "In other words, there were good conservative reasons – liberal conservative reasons – for changing a traditional position."
The weakness of conservatism is that it can't distinguish between a passing fad and a permanent shift. Inertia, in itself, is not "necessary".

Abbott's supposed shift on 'multiculturalism' has to be assessed against his treatment of Muslim Australians regarding terrorism (compared with the treatment of other faiths with the terror of child abuse, for example), and the abandonment of his pledges to Aborigines. Abbott is not entitled to be taken at his word. No politician is. Kenny's insistence that he must, a Crabb-like bit of theatre review, shows that he fundamentally does not get what his job is.
In all, what we learned from Abbott's press club speech was that he remains firmly convinced of his own conservative position with minimal exceptions, and, that he thinks he gets a hard time from the media.
No Prime Minister in my lifetime (I've been an avid consumer of press gallery output since Fraser was PM) has gotten an easier ride from the press gallery than Abbott.
There was one final reason Abbott agreed to address the press club's black tie affair rather than its regular lunch-time series, and it was apparent in his final line: "I have to say, tonight, is my vision for the National Press Club – a speech with no questions afterwards."

Witty after all.
Abbott just wants to be taken at face value, and the press gallery has shown - and continues to show - that it is happy to oblige. Kenny can't distinguish wit from shit.

Penetrating but not personal analysis helps us think about what our leaders are doing, and how they might do it better. Paddy Gourley, who is not a member of the press gallery, is far more perceptive than senior press gallery members Katharine Murphy and Mark Kenny, who are heavily invested in this government and the way it relates to the traditional media.

We need better analysis of what our leaders are up to. We are never going to get it from the press gallery. It's one thing for Mark Textor and Tony Abbott to write their own pieces - but despite their limbo-dance under the low bar set for them we should expect more from those whose job it is to analyse them.

"Yeah, what he said" is not journalism.

Media consumers do not simply have to accept to accept their self-serving, badly constructed (but engaging! You had to be there!) framings. We need more than unquestioning agreement or minor, set-piece quibbles from those whose job it is to work out how we are governed. Good analysis requires perspective that the press gallery beats out of capable journalists.

08 September 2014

Smears from nowhere

The 'view from nowhere' is a principle in journalism where the journalist affects an impartial perspective and appears to be stating facts so objective that those who speak/write them cannot be held responsible for those facts, or for having stated them in that way. The US observer and academic Jay Rosen has written extensively on 'the view from nowhere' and its use for journalists denying responsibility for their output.

Throughout Julia Gillard's Prime Ministership, it was alleged that renovations on her home were paid for from a slush fund linked to the AWU. She helped set up a legal instrument which led to the opening of a bank account, and all before entering public life. The nation's top journalists were set onto the story and found nothing to corroborate wrongdoing on Gillard's part. On one occasion she fronted a press conference for over an hour and dared them ask anything they liked; the nation's toughest press gallery journalists asked and asked and got nothing.

Despite the absence of evidence linking Gillard to wrongdoing, Anna Patty and Paul Sheehan insinuate that she has something to hide from the Royal Commission set up to investigate this and other matters.

If the Royal Commission uncovers new information that shows Gillard received benefits improperly, then this is an indictment of journalists who kept insisting for years that Gillard had questions to answer, without their being able to uncover any information that required her response.

If the Royal Commission does not uncover any significant new information on this matter, other than that already chewed over by journalists, then this is an indictment of journalists who kept insisting for years that Gillard had questions to answer, without their being able to uncover any information that required her response.

In other words, journalists have let us down either way. In the latter instance, Patty and Sheehan are going to look stupid. They will diminish such credibility as they have in later dispatches.

They (and other journalists) could have spent their time more usefully by investigating what an Abbott government might look like, and whether there was any supporting or countervailing information on their policies beyond their press releases and their set-piece statements. What Gillard may or may not say, or what might be put to her by various lawyers, is less important - especially now that she is out of office - than the systematic failure of the fourth estate.

They are trying to present wrongdoing or negligence by Gillard as given, unproven but detectable and waiting to come to light any day now ... any day now. They would, similar to Rosen's example above, shrug off accusations of bias; but one aspect of bias is the maintenance of a position in the absence of proof. Neither Sheehan nor Patty - senior journalists - will put up evidence of Gillard's wrongdoing, but nor will they shut up about it. Theirs is the smear from nowhere.

If you can accept that Lindy Chamberlain didn't kill her daughter, or that Julie Bishop really feels for asbestos victims, or that Mark Kenny is a journalist deserving your respect - you can accept that Gillard paid for her own bathroom.

Another aspect of journalistic failure is the inability to see discussions on public policy as anything other than political conflict. The issues are lost in such coverage, which only reinforces the idea that the way the press gallery frames political conflict is the only way to do so, under the dual misapprehensions that public policy conflicts are both extraordinary and exciting in themselves.

This is a minor issue but a solid example of fundamental journalistic failure. Is this application 'appropriate' or 'inappropriate'? Do families not live in multi-dwelling units? These are important questions but Henrietta Cook cannot handle them.

Instead, she insists that Victorian Liberal State MP Elizabeth Miller "has been accused of breaking party ranks after she opposed a proposed development that sits within new state government residential zones". She does not say who has made these accusations; she even quotes the state's Planning Minister, a Liberal often mentioned as a potential leader, endorsing Miller's actions. The reference to the mother-in-law of a former Premier is clumsy.
Ms Miller denied she had defied the party line. She said she had been overwhelmed with residents opposed to the development and had simply taken up their concerns with the council.

"I believe residents' concerns are warranted, so I have written to council. It's an inappropriate development for the area," she said.
This might be a worthy piece for the Glen Eira Bugle but it hardly warrants the state and national prominence Cook and her editors are giving it.

A local MP is representing her constituents' views: does Cook not understand how politics works? Does she assume her readers are equally ignorant or more so? Where are the party control freaks giving Miller a hard time about the way she does her job - or are they all in Cook's imagination - and either way, why do they set the frame through which all policy is reported? Who decided that Cook should be denying someone else - anyone, really - a job as a journalist?

Cook is implying that Miller is not being an effective member of the government. In fact, getting involved in issues like this is Miller's best chance of ensuring her continued place in parliament and government. Her use of the passive voice and avoiding quotes on the key issue of division shows Miller isn't breaking anything or defying anyone. Cook and her editors have, in short, written a bullshit article, dishonestly attempting to blow up a standard suburban planning issue into one with wider importance.

The 'view from nowhere' is an attempt by journalists to insert themselves at the heart of an issue while denying responsibility, both for the issue itself and the way they report it. Journalists should be held to account for their failure to understand issues. They should be culpable for attempting to inject hype, bullshit, or blame where the facts of the matter fail to support the thrust of their offerings to the public.

These failures are far more damaging than internet, or 24-hour news cycle, or imaginary goblins that journalists invent to explain away their professional decline. Hype and slant work against journalists, not just (or even) for them.