26 March 2015

Two good stories today

I might be 'a formulaic takedown artist' but I promised to be better at recognising good examples of political commentary. There were two examples today.

The first was Jason Wilson's description of Abbott and the way he is reported. Journalists will stop at Wilson's description of what a weirdo Abbott is, and stop short of considering their own role in persuading a sceptical public that whatever you didn't like about Gillard/Rudd, Abbott was the better choice. In a country where most people were biased against Abbott, and had those biases reaffirmed since September 2013, what even does it mean to be 'balanced' in covering Abbott? What does it mean to note that he did something that attracted criticism when you can't assess or even distinguish different types of criticism? Wilson has written a cut-out-and-keep article on traditional media failure, well worth reading right now. See you when you get back.

The other masterful piece of commentary today came from Peter Greste, in his address to the National Press Club. He was effusive in praising Julie Bishop for her work, and that of the Department of Foreign Affairs, in gaining his release from prison in Egypt. His warm thanks of others, and detailed explanations of their tireless behind-the-scenes work, truly shows the benefits of living a generous life and receiving generosity in turn. Toward the end of the speech he effectively rounded on Bishop and the government: Greste criticised data collection for its impact on journalism, and successive cutbacks (by all recent governments, and by traditional media) of Australia's engagement with the modern world.

Strangely, the NPC's fearless camera put Bishop out of shot at the point where the government and the media copped some well-earned stick. The questions from journalists were inane, as they usually are at such events. One of Australia's most respected press gallery journalists twat actually wasted his opportunity by waving around a post-it note. Greste pandered to them by describing journalists as cantankerous and competitive and difficult to organise. The press gallery are the exception: they are eager to please, fearful of imagined consequences of not being so; they are herd animals who all report only one story a day, and from pretty much the same angle. Part of the reason why Greste is so highly regarded as a journalist must be because he puts out stories under conditions that would reduce almost all of the press gallery to shrieking wrecks. He played the press gallery masterfully. He had that Abbott ability to make them utterly suspend what feeble powers of scrutiny they have, by giving it more praise than it deserves.

It will be interesting to see how traditional media report that speech. They'll be all over the Bishop-praise, and Peter Hartcher lapped up that twaddle about journalists being cantankerous and competitive. They are unlikely to report that speech for the boomerang that it was, whirring off forcefully at the start only to smack them in the backs of their heads at the end. But hey, maybe this time will be different.

13 March 2015

New South Wales twenty-fifteen

This NSW election is a bizarre one for me, on a number of levels. My Young Liberal contemporaries are in positions of power. Labor have sprung back with a series of positions that simply don't stand up to scrutiny. They are complaining about dodgy donations, particularly as none are coming to them. It's becoming increasingly clear what a politics that transcends the governing parties looks like, one with sufficient depth and ballast to pull the majors into line rather than the reverse - and the Greens play a smaller part of that (and Fred Nile a greater one) than I thought. This election is more important than the inevitable last one or the weird, tentative one before that.


Mike Baird and the Liberals have been blindsided by the idea that 'asset recycling' is unconvincing. They should have developed a narrative that explains and defends it (and why asset sales are to be preferred over debt in an era of low interest rates and investment capital seeking solid projects. They should have foreseen that Labor would do well in Victoria and Queensland opposing asset sales per se, and that the same magic would work in NSW (particularly as business is all but ignoring Labor).

Just as the party had cauterised the bleeding from those self-inflicted wounds at ICAC, up pops Joe Hockey suing Fairfax and reminding everyone about the big-money donations flowing into the Liberal Party. Nice one Joe! Even if you do have any money for no-hopers in seats like Oatley, they won't thank you.

There are a number of reasons why they didn't. Their membership base is so small that they don't represent a large cross-section of the community any more. Like any dysfunctional organisation, they equate questioning, challenging individuals with fifth columnists and incompetents and manage them out accordingly. To engage with an idea for the purposes of probing its weaknesses, stealing or concealing its strengths, and overcoming its advocates, is no longer seen as useful work; far easier and quicker to assemble dirt files and background the more gullible remnants of the press gallery, who can't cope with policy anyway.


The NSW electricity grid is ageing and almost entirely energised by burning coal. There have been several attempts to privatise it over the past two decades, depreciating in value each time. It is likely that households will be powered by solar or other small-scale power-generation systems, backed up by large-scale distribution systems that will depend less and less on burning coal, poles, wires, and all that nineteenth-century crap on the auction block right now. To flog it off now would see private industry bear the risks of transition that can only be borne by the public; and there will be public 'sweeteners' to mitigate that risk, which is what I'm worried about.

The relevant minister, Anthony Roberts, isn't a policy innovator like Gladys Berejiklian or Adrian Piccoli are, and the wide boys from the merchant banks will pull the wool over his eyes and pick his pockets before he has worked out what's happened. He thinks he's being clever by downplaying renewables, but history won't be kind to his dithering.

I'm not being hard on Robbo, I'm just holding him to standards he could never meet. Sometimes when you set the bar really high, people like him do the limbo under it and laugh at you: that's politics, baby.

The NSW electricity grid is a depreciating asset. There is a significant element in Labor (probably the majority of its remaining members) who regard it as 'sacred' or 'iconic' - but if they really believed that they would never have let it deteriorate to this extent. They let it deteriorate because they know it's a depreciating asset, and that the jobs are all in renewables - and that those workers won't be easily herded into union membership like employees of the old Electricity Commission were.

I agree with Peter Wicks when he says:
If Mike Baird wins the election on the 28th and the electricity sell off occurs, I predict that within a few years the boardroom of whatever corporation ends up running our power network will not only be made up of greedy profiteering businessmen, it will also be loaded with former Liberal Ministers.
Yep - and if Labor are in government then, one or two old hands who can pull the young pups into line.

If ever there was a time to hedge your bets until the future becomes clearer, now is that time. Such a choice flies in the face of that great political imperative, Being Seen To Be Doing Something. All the soft options in this area have been whittled away, leaving only cynical and empty group exercises that political-class smarties regard as the only role for mass participation in modern politics.

I just don't believe NSW Labor

Luke Foley was up to his eyeballs in the rise and fall of the last three Labor Premiers, just as John Robertson was. Labor's framing of him as a cleanskin is bullshit. Labor's insistence that he is to be taken at his word, just like Tony Abbott was before the last federal election, is bullshit. I don't trust Foley to avoid some sort of Damascene conversion to tollroads or coal-seam gas or selling poles-and-wires or banning all abortions.

NSW Labor has reformed itself considerably in the last four years, except when it comes to policy. I don't believe that Labor has learned the lessons ICAC and the voters tried to teach it, in the same way that the federal Coalition under Abbott avoided learning the lessons that Howard's failure was trying to teach them. It's all stunt work: handing back Goat Island to Aboriginal communities with bigger priorities, demountable classrooms, penny-ante stuff worthy of Bob Carr at his most diffident.

Art and culture

Yes, art and culture. I wish there were more evidence of local community art projects, embassies and training-grounds from the cultural powerhouses of the inner city: not just repositories of local kids' paintings from three years ago, nor seniors' crochet work, nor half-baked productions of Oh What A Lovely War!. Neither of the majors deserve the benefit of the doubt on this.

The Powerhouse Museum should be relocated to what is now an abandoned school site by O'Connell Street, Parramatta, on the northern side of the river. It should be much, much better than it is - better than this, dream big! - hopefully without being some glistering mockery of deindustrialised western Sydney.


This is what all election analysis should be like: the focus on state and community and what it needs, not fluffing aimed at keeping up press gallery relationships. Penny Sharpe has received more publicity than almost anyone on Labor's frontbench, as you might expect from someone who learned their politics at the National Union of Students, but once again NUS has thrown up another hack who succeeds at nothing but attracting publicity for its own sake. Sharpe was up against one of Baird's better ministers - you can see why, on election night 2011, Barry O'Farrell wanted to talk only to Gladys - but that's no excuse. Sharpe concentrated on nitpicking current transport policy and couldn't even do that convincingly. If the Greens get up in Newtown they may have done Foley a favour.

The Newcastle rail line, the Pacific and Princes Highways, Westconnex - there are other issues, of course, but Labor are pretty much absent from them all. The Coalition is doing or has done all it intends to do. Few independents are out there galvanising those issues, which is a pity.


While Federal Labor deserve praise for their commitment to Gonski's school resourcing proposals, state Labor don't deserve to insinuate themselves into voter assumptions that they would support those proposals. Adrian Piccoli is the country's best education minister and he wears the crown of thorns bestowed by Pyne and Abbott for showing up those arseclowns in Canberra. He seems to have learnt from a debacle like this, the sort of thing that pole-axes governments elsewhere and which gives some indication of what a future in participatory politics looks like.

Disclosure: While TAFE is a huge issue in this election, and I have lots of opinions and feels about vocational education, there won't be any comment on it in this blog. I've worked for TAFE NSW, and sometimes knowledge and insight comes with a determination not to make a tough job harder for those who remain. Plenty of other avenues for you to read up and comment about that.


When Jillian Skinner beat off the independent forces of Ted Mack and restored the Liberals to the lower north shore, she focused on health policy and was (eventually) rewarded with the ministry. When Labor was wiped out in 2011 its only remaining member who knew anything about health, Andrew McDonald, became shadow minister. There have been a few changes and a few blow-ups but no real shift in emphasis. There have been no big epochal debates despite being a huge, politically sensitive, fast-moving and interesting area; again, political-class smarties regard this as a sign of success, but fuck those people. McDonald is quitting at the next election and apart from some Victoria-style union stunts by and for nurses and ambos, there is no real alternative policy.

Aged care and disability services

Baird was stupid and wrong to outsource these services to the private sector, and I note that Labor won't restore the status quo ante; maybe that's why Linda Burney was a non-starter to replace Robertson. But no, since you asked, I don't have a better idea in my back pocket either.

Policing, Justice, Law and Order, Gaming, Alcohol licensing, Drugs, Indigenous people in detention, ...

(covers face with hands, groans as though gut-punched)

Prognostication time

Read on at your own risk. Regular readers of this blog know that I am rubbish at forecasts, going on feels rather than polls and underestimating the extent to which people are taken in by press gallery coverage.

The upper house

The lower house might propose but the upper house disposes, and frankly one of the glaring weaknesses of political coverage (state or federal) is its lack of understanding and reporting of what goes on in the upper house.

First, read this. Antony Green is the master psephologist but he hates minor parties, they always blindside his software on ABC election night coverage. He is right to say that NSW has limited the impact of minor parties to a greater extent than in federal elections, but this election will see a stronger showing from parties other than the majors. This isn't only because there are so many candidates and minor parties.

If the Coalition was going into this election with the same sort of momentum that they had in 2011, they might win 11 of the 21 seats on offer in the Legislative Council and hence control the upper house - but they aren't. They will need to control both houses of state parliament to sell off the electricity grid - but they won't. So much for that.

The Shooters and Fishers have overplayed their hand with free-fire zones in National Parks and with their support of this government's less popular measures. They may yet attract conservative voters who think Baird's too moderate but Nile's too preachy and anti-Muslim, but S+F aren't doing much to hold those voters.

Nile hasn't gone forward or backward, he will remain in place like a little pebble.

While the anti-CSG forces won't win any seats in the lower house, they will coalesce in the upper house - and it is almost impossible to to believe that someone opposing coal-seam gas won't also oppose selling the electricity grid. This person may or may not be Green, but they won't be the inner-city denizen thrown up by that party on the mainland. They may be someone who's clearly rural and working-class and defiantly anti-political-class, like Ricky Muir.

Prediction: the majors 8 each, Nile, at least one Green - and, uh, another three not to the major parties.

The lower house

There are 93 seats of the Legislative Assembly (the lower house), so you need 47 to get a majority in that house to form government. See, I'm not totally innumerate.

Again, read Mr Green. Go to the list of Coalition seats on the left-hand side and scroll from the top down to The Entrance: that's 20 seats. Give them all to Labor, except Coogee and Kiama. Give Labor Port Stephens too.

Too hard to call from this angle:
  • Blue Mountains
  • Mulgoa
  • Parramatta
The Nats may retain Tamworth, and they may hold political-class girner Steve Whan out of Monaro if Barilaro has kept up his local-boy-done-good schtick. Or not.

It looks like independents have missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to punt the Nats from Upper Hunter. Thy are, however, starting to rattle the Nats along the north coast, learning lessons that will do for Hartsuyker and Gillespie at the next federal election.

That gives the Coalition 45-50 seats out of 93, a kick in the teeth but most likely still in government. Abbott is gone no matter what.

08 March 2015

What changed

All of the weak points of the Abbott government - except the deference shown to it by the press gallery - were on display a month ago, after the Queensland election. The press gallery has rallied to cover up those weak points once again, the co-dependency is back on and we are governed no better than we were a month ago.

The reason why the Queensland election mattered is not just because the swing was so large - had that happened in Tasmania, it would be academic. Queensland is where government is won and lost in this country's elections. Queensland provides the second-largest delegation to the Coalition's party room. The Coalition MPs most willing to criticise Abbott in early February were Warren Entsch (from Queensland), Andrew Laming (from Queensland), and so when Abbott was searching for a new Chief Whip he lit upon a Queenslander (Scott Buchholz). In the lead-up to that election the consensus was that the LNP would lose some seats but not lose altogether; that consensus turned out to be bullshit, with real-life consequences that are still being worked out.

Most of the work of the press gallery consists of building a simplistic consensus to describe complex issues. All too rarely is a consensus busted so comprehensively as it was over the 2015 Queensland election; the question about who might lead the LNP should Newman lose his seat preoccupied reporters and editors alike, and was the wrong question. Soon after a consensus is busted there is an outbreak of truth in reporting, much as there was in the few days after September 11, before a consensus congeals and the traditional media returns to business as usual.

There are always backbench MPs disgruntled with any leader. Some of them will hang around the press gallery and grizzle. Every PM (back to and including Barton) had a few disaffected members on their back and front benches, and Abbott is no exception. The key is the attitude of the press gallery: they think they're pretty special when they wave away elected representatives like they don't matter, which is what they do most of the time. Some of the time, however, the disaffected hit prime time, as happened last month (or in the case of Gillard, every day).

There are all sorts of journo protocols about when anonymous sources should be used, etc., which never seem to apply to the actual practice of journalism - particularly not in the press gallery, where they use anonymous quotes whenever they want and their editors think it's part of the deal. Peter Hartcher's career rests largely on anonymous quotes. In early February there was a plethora, a veritable spate, of stories that relied entirely upon this or that Senior Liberal Source. Those stories did not end with the 39-61 vote for Anyone but Tony Abbott. They ended with the ferocious assault on Gillian Triggs.

Everybody knew that Triggs was big enough to look after herself, that she had her facts straight and that her knowledge of the various laws was unimpeachable. Her trouble - and Abbott et al made it her trouble - was that she spoke out of turn. There is a tightly controlled schedule for releasing announceables, and Triggs' report was not on the schedule. Brandis was miffed, having let her know that he didn't want to work with her any more, that she didn't just go; she regarded his disfavour as irrelevant, rather than the potent career limitation Brandis had intended. The ferocity of the government response revealed them as people who know they've stuffed up but can't bear to accept responsibility. The anonymous-leaky stories stopped dead: which was the main thing for the government, a correlation that went unnoticed by the press gallery.

Abbott became PM in the first place because the press gallery didn't seriously examine what he and his team might be like in the job. Australians have never liked the guy, but the press gallery effusively assured us he was OK. The Liberal Party bears some responsibility for not screening him out earlier, but the press gallery - having not examined Rudd closely enough before his ascent - has foisted a bad government on us through insufficient scrutiny.

In early February they started to seriously examine things like the GP co-payment, and the fact that the Budget hasn't been passed, and blow me down if he got flustered and his popularity began to tank. Now the press gallery has backed off - led by the Murdoch press, which was happy to pile on Abbott but not to the point where it forced his long-fostered career to an end. Here a Murdoch organ blames everybody but themselves, and the Liberal Party, for the government wilting under scrutiny.

By stopping all those anon-source stories and once again confusing stunts with serious policy, the press gallery has reverted to the toxic and docile condition that made Abbott possible in the first place. That's why this blog's official bunny can express his relief that all those years of sucking up to Abbott haven't been wasted, and contrast that against Niki Savva's gall at blaming Abbott for her embarrassment at having touted him a capable leader.

The press gallery started to ask hard questions about when it started to go wrong for Abbott - and when it turned out that Abbott's major liabilities had always been there, not only back to last year's Budget but before, it gave rise to uncomfortable questions about the (lack of) scrutiny applied to this government. Were we sold a dog of a government? Who did the selling - the Liberals are entitled to talk themselves up, but then the media ... flinched. Dear reader, the media flinched before the question of self-examination, and flinch they shall all the way to the next rounds of redundancies.

But to truly examine all that's awful about the press gallery's decision to ease off Abbott, it's necessary to turn once again to Michael Gordon.

The first seven paragraphs are just humbug. If you make it to paragraph eight you get this:
In the Parliament, the atmosphere of crisis and a PM under siege was tempered by forces beyond partisan politics – forces that could be detected on four fronts.

First came the push for a more comprehensive, practical and urgent response to the national scourge of family violence, one that has galvanised MPs across the political divide, especially among the more recent arrivals.

As one of the new guard, Labor's Tim Watts, expressed it, Wednesday's debate on the issue had revealed "Parliament at its best". Almost invariably, the passion of those who spoke was sparked by personal interaction with those who have suffered.

Having campaigned for the Labor leadership on the promise of action on this issue, Shorten produced his own policy, proposing a national crisis summit of Commonwealth, state and territory governments "to agree to urgently implement coordinated judicial and social services reform within their areas of responsibility to better deal with family violence".

In question time on Wednesday, Shorten asked if Abbott would be willing to meet him privately to discuss the idea.

Immediately after last month's party-room vote, Abbott's instinct might have been to decline. After all, the Prime Minister had already placed the issue on the agenda for the next meeting of the Council of Australian Governments.

Instead, to his credit, Abbott told Shorten: "This is a big issue … it is an issue that could easily unite, and should unite, this Parliament. I am very happy to agree to sit down with the Leader of the Opposition to discuss what both of us, and what all of us, can do to ensure that we get better outcomes on this issue."
The Abbott government has cut millions from programs that actually assist people with domestic violence. It might deserve the benefit of the doubt if it had consulted closely with people who live and work with domestic violence issues and funded other, possibly more effective measures instead. Instead, people who work in this area are devastated that the Sisyphean nature of their work has been made harder still by the Abbott government.

The government does not come to this issue with goodwill, and Gordon is wrong to extend it to them. Talking about an issue while doing nothing to help, and indeed cutting back what little help is rendered, is not "Parliament at its best". Parliament is discredited by this disconnect between the facade of bipartisan goodwill and the reality of cutting support to frontline services such as legal aid and policy advocacy.

Gordon has no excuse not to know this and point it out. Instead, he's a sucker for bipartisan happy-talk, and expects his readers will be satisfied with that too.

Consider this and that, about which Gordon must surely have been aware. It is noteworthy, if not ironic, that two men who have been under police investigation for sexual assault are going to sit down behind closed doors - and apparently come up with a solution to a wide-ranging and complex policy and social issue.
Then there was the backdrop of the impending executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, where the Parliament has spoken with one eloquent voice in pleading to Indonesia to, in Abbott's phrase, "step back from the brink".

There is no more potent antidote to partisan rancour and petty point scoring than shared sadness and foreboding. In this case, the sadness and foreboding are all the greater because of what we have learnt of the rehabilitation of these two young men and the likelihood that international pressure will ultimately prompt Indonesia to restore its moratorium on the death penalty.
The Bali 9 were first arrested in 2006, and governments since have done little to forestall a fatal outcome for Chan and Sukumaran. For someone who promised a Jakarta-centred foreign policy, Abbott has stuffed up diplomacy with Indonesia in general and on this issue in particular. His linkage of tsunami aid in 2005 to their fate prompted fury in Indonesia, not only from Jakarta officials but from ordinary people who doubt our sincerity in having a close and mutually supportive relationship. Gordon should have pointed out that, whatever Bishop is doing to help Chan and Sukumaran, Abbott has made their job harder rather than easier. Indonesia's politics are different to Australia's, but Abbott should have understood that his comments would have made it harder for President Widodo to commute their sentences and kept his trap shut.

Again, Gordon has no excuse not to know this and point it out. Instead, he's a sucker for bipartisan happy-talk, and expects his readers will be satisfied with that too.
The third area is more one of potential than real bipartisan action: the Intergenerational Report released by Treasurer Hockey, and the picture it paints of a nation where the number of people aged 65 and over is projected to double over the next four decades.
Given that "bipartisan action" is a contradiction in terms, the Intergenerational Report is a partisan joke. It made no projections on the basis of climate change and carried forward no economic studies on infrastructure projects. It has avoided serious debates on immigration, education, jobs, and closing the gap in living standards between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia. Apart from that has sunk without trace already; the idea that such an inadequate effort will propel the Treasurer and his message through to May is sheer rubbish, an again Gordon has no excuse for missing that.

You'll note all those quotes on the issue from Ryan and Westacott talk past the IGR rather than engage with it - a testament to the sheer poverty of what should have been an important document within and beyond the government.

Gordon has no excuse not to know this, too.
A final cause for optimism could be found in the Senate chamber late on Thursday, when Ricky Muir delivered his "first speech", some eight months after he was elected and began by apologising in advance "in case I don't deliver".

Deliver he did, revealing himself as a commonsense person of principle and offering some advice the Coalition would be well advised to take as it prepares this budget.
Muir has been in Parliament for eight months now, and has a voting record that is traceable through Hansard. Rather than compare a politician's words against his actions, like a journalist would, Gordon instead went the Annabel Crabb route of treating Parliament as a theatrical performance put on for his entertainment. All politicians say they'll vote for good policy and against bad. Note how Gordon skipped over Muir's comments about Mike Willessee and journalistic ethics.

If bipartisan politics really is "more constructive", it is not at all clear what will be constructed - and that, not bipartisanship in itself, is the real point here. The fact is Abbott's ministers are too busy making up for Abbott's mistakes rather than achieving anything. They wanted the media to back off and the media have complied. We are no better governed, nor better informed about how we are governed.

Gordon's promise that the press gallery will get around to scrutinising Shorten is a joke - Rudd and Abbott got a clear run and Shorten is entitled to expect the same. With three or four exceptions (not including Gordon, or doyens like Oakes) the press gallery has no ability to scrutinise policy anyway. Gordon's lust for bipartisanship above all other political considerations is stupid and shows how easy it is for partisans to neuter what little reporting and analytical skill Gordon has.

Consider that however few voters directly sent Ricky Muir to Parliament, more people want him there than appointed Michael Gordon to the position he holds, or want him to continue in it. Both enjoy considerable perks in public office, but only one gets serious scrutiny.

But enough about Gordon. To what extent is he a symptom of a wider problem?

"Politician makes announcement" is not news - it is up there with 'sun rises in east' or 'Pope attends Mass'. It is not even journalism. Journalism only occurs when a statement is tested against objective facts reliable information which the person making the statement does not control. Thus, statements by the Treasurer about the economy need to be checked against economic data - this is where the journalism happens.

Since the last time I went after Gordon he actually applied some journalism to political matters, but now that he has taken his masthead to the journalistic dogs once more it falls to me to put him in the spotlight he would apply to Shorten.

Shorten is the press gallery's guilty conscience: they can't give him the same easy ride they gave Abbott, but they look like hypocrites if they go him too hard. They simply can't tell when he's right to distinguish himself from Abbott or when he's right to agree with him, or whether the provisos matter. Same with Muir - the press gallery dog him but avoid equally inexperienced major-party Senators (unless there's a spill on, see above), and condescend to him for speaking plainly.

The press have backed off Abbott, and thus lent a "Prime Ministerial" air of a detachment to a clown digging himself out of his own hole. If Mark Latham had become Prime Minister in 2004, his ministry would be doing what Abbott's is doing now - 'clarifying' his mistakes (e.g. Bishop, Ley) or compounding them (Brandis, Andrews). Rather than report what's going on, the press gallery are clustering behind the dirty and broken frames of bipartisanship. All they are doing is reiterating their own redundancy.

When neither party has much of a clue and people can sense this, despite a lousy press gallery clogging up the traditional media - bipartisanship has no future. It certainly has no future as a career choice for journalists who want to be sought out for their experience and judgment.

03 March 2015

Julie Bishop is not running for Prime Minister,

No, she isn't.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

23 February 2015

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

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

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

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

Why Turnbull is appealing as a potential Prime Minister

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Turnbull failed as leader in 2009

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

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

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

Can Malcolm Turnbull get over himself?

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

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

Hope for a liberal approach

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

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

Grech and Utegate?

Both were put-up jobs by Eric Abetz.

Moral of those stories: stop listening to Eric Abetz.

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

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

Yeah, never mind Abetz. What about Grech?

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

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

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

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

Other nobodies

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

Administrative competence

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Shirtfronting public broadcasting

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

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

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

Not even his party

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

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

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

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

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

Turnbull could be the first genuinely dapper PM since Keating


His wife is very impressive

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

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

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

Any specific issues you'd like to explore?

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

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

19 February 2015

The challenge is on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13 February 2015

Black Friday's reminder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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