09 January 2018

Join the queue

Recent comments by Peter Dutton on Sudanese crime in Melbourne, in support of the Victorian Liberals' attempts to court that old political tart Laura Norder, underline two failures of strategy: in his portfolio, and within the Victoria Liberals in their quest for state government this November.

The end of the line

Immigration policy in Australia was set at the turn of the century by then-Immigration Minister Phillip Ruddock, backed by John Howard and his government and only ever tweaked by successive governments since then.

The first thing to say about immigration to Australia overall is that it has increased significantly this century. Where the crackdown has come, and the headlines, is in the refugee and asylum-seeker intakes.

Ruddock developed the idea of a 'queue' for refugees - yes, the world was full of desperate people fleeing war and persecution, but all that was required for such people to enter Australia was to "join the queue", fill out some forms and applications would be processed in due course. People who paid people-smugglers and arrived in Australia by boat without visas were "queue jumpers", denying places on the small (and successively reduced) quota for refugee intake to those who did all the right things and waited patiently.

Here's where Dutton has torpedoed that policy, and made himself look silly: successive Immigration ministers from Ruddock to Morrison told us there were people waiting patiently in refugee camps in Africa unable to enter Australia because bad people from the Middle East tried to jump the queue by coming here on boats. None of the people on Nauru or Manus are from South Sudan. They are people who have come here through the very vetting systems that Dutton now oversees.

If you agree with Dutton that Sudanese gangs are terrifying Melbourne, then it follows that he has failed to vet these people properly. You can't believe that Dutton, with his inflated powers as Home Affairs Minister, is keeping Australia safe if you also accept that he has waved through the very people apparently causing this mayhem. Say what you will about Daniel Andrews, his government simply has no role in immigration vetting. Why detain people at Nauru, Manus, Woodville or anywhere else when you are clearly so careless? Dutton is undermining his own narrative:
"But the short answer is that, if people haven't integrated, if they are not abiding by our laws, if they don't adhere to our culture, then they are not welcome here."
Bit late for that champ.

No journalist has called him on it. Credulous dickheads like this one simply hung a whole story on a radio transcript. He even took to social media to insist - without evidence, like the gun journalist that he is - that somewhere in Yarraside there is so a homebody who uses fear of Sudanese gangs as an excuse to hide quivering within their dank little abode.

In 2018, we know that a quote - even a direct, exclusive one - is no basis for a story. Politicians say things, in the same way that the sun rises in the east or bears shit in the woods; it is not news in itself. The fact that a press gallery exists as a make-work scheme for journalists gathering and disseminating quotes is actually a reason against supporting the Australian media, at least until they realise what a low-value proposition it is.

Hearts and minds

Victoria isn't the place for a Laura Norder campaign, despite the self-defeating willingness of Matthew Guy to give it his very best shot.

The last three Liberal Premiers to win office by beating Labor - Ted Baillieu, Jeff Kennett, and Henry Bolte - all did so without a heavy focus on Laura Norder (the latter two won because Labor had collapsed internally). The last Coalition government of 2010-14 (in which Matthew Guy was a minister, and many of his frontbenchers were also ministers) reduced police numbers and experienced a decrease in crime overall. Guy might call out Sudanese gang activity, but it isn't clear what he proposes to do about it, or whether those proposals might actually decrease criminal activity to warrant a change of government.

Victoria is the state with both the highest proportion of residents born outside Australia. It also records the lowest aggregate vote for One Nation and its anti-immigration ilk. When Pauline Hanson was setting up in the late 1990s, the only senior politician who really called her out was not Kim Beazley, but then-Premier Jeff Kennett. Racial demonisation is not unknown in Victorian politics, but Matthew Guy is going to have to work harder than he thinks to make it work for him.

If you don't believe in Victorian exceptionalism, consider how Laura Norder failed the Coalition in NSW. In the late 1990s, Labor held office under Bob Carr, and the Coalition under successive leaders was unshakeable in its conviction that Laura Norder could force Carr out. Carr simply never let the Coalition get to the right of him on those issues. Whenever a crime hit the front page of the Murdoch papers, Carr would introduce a new bill to parliament to reiterate opposition to, say, murder or sexual assault, and would happily match the Coalition in lengthening sentences or criticising judicial officers based on little more than half-baked reporting of complex legal cases.

In Queensland, the Newman government retreated into Laura Norder once its election promises for an economic bonanza proved elusive. Again, Labor simply matched them on sentencing or whatever, and where Labor wouldn't match (e.g. the appointment of magistrate Tim Carmody as Chief Justice, or the weird pink jumpsuit thing with bikies) Newman had lost more votes than he won. In Western Australia, the economic performance of the government rendered Laura Norder moot. In the Northern Territory, the CLP ended up with the brutality of Don Dale and nowhere else to go. In South Australia, the ACT, and Tasmania, the Liberals shrieked about Laura Norder for the entire time they'd been out of government, and so what?

Laura Norder is a dead loss as a strategy for the Coalition to win government. In Victoria and elsewhere, it has to be part - a small one - of a wider strategy to highlight Labor's internal political collapse. Getting Labor to collapse internally from the outside can be tricky and waiting for it to happen can be boring, but it happens nonetheless from time to time.

The deaf leading the deaf

So, a tone-deaf federal Coalition government is going all in to help a tone-deaf Coalition opposition in Melbourne execute a dud strategy. Peter Dutton impresses nobody who is not already a rusted-on Liberal, and wins no votes in that state which simply do not exist to the right of the Coalition. The federal government's dumping of Gippsland's Darren Chester from Cabinet makes it perfectly clear how it values Victoria and Victorians.

The fact that he lectures Victorians from far beyond the Murray - further even than Canberra or Sydney - is more of an issue than cosmopolitan Melburnians dare admit. Queensland is where Victorians go for sun and recreation, not for advice on how to run their state. With the restaurants of Melbourne doing a roaring trade, Dutton isn't merely wrong but downright foolish. An authoritarian who looks foolish loses everything.

Dutton, and similar comments from Turnbull, aren't helping bring about a Guy government. Given the precarious numbers of their own government, can they be said to buttress their own government's standing in Victoria? A seat won is a seat won, whether in Queensland or Victoria, yeah?

Maybe Laura Norder will help Jason Wood in La Trobe. But then Wood is a former police officer, and every problem is a nail when your only tool is a hammer. The Coalition seemed happy to drop him in 2010, an election in which La Trobe was one of the few seats Labor won from the Coalition. La Trobe aside, it is hard to see where the federal Coalition government will gain votes in Victoria from its contribution to wooing Laura Norder.

Keep in mind that the Victorian state electoral boundaries are due to be redrawn before the next election. When they were redrawn on the state level in 2013* they disadvantaged the Coalition. This is not because of political bias but geography: Melbourne has expanded to the north and west in recent years. It is likely that new seats will be created there, at the expense of rural seats or those in Melbourne's south-eastern suburbs, once the bulwark of the Liberal Party. The Coalition parties have no base or infrastructure to speak of to the north and west of Melbourne.

Polling trends indicate the Coalition is unlikely to win new seats, and that any new seats will almost certainly be beyond their reach. It will struggle to hold marginals like Chisholm, even if its boundaries change relatively little. It did surprisingly well in Melbourne Ports in 2016, but this is unlikely to be repeated given the government's insensitive handling of same-sex marriage, and given a likely state election campaign going hard on Laura Norder and failing. This will intensify pressure on the party's safest seats for party renewal. Of the safest Coalition seats in Victoria, only one (Kevin Andrews in Menzies) is held by someone aged over 60 with more past than future, and the party can't get rid of him: its battles for party renewal will not be expansionary, they will be internalised, and bloody.

Oh, but scare campaigns sell papers

No they don't. They have no effect at all on relentlessly declining sales. And even if this were true, do Matthew Guy and Peter Dutton have some sort of obligation to help Murdoch sell papers at the expense of winning elections?

There is no such thing as great tabloid journalism, it's all patronising shit. Murdoch has withdrawn his rags from official circulation audits because he's so embarrassed, and because he runs them for reasons other than profit-making business. Here's proof that anyone can do it:
African gang attacks Australia shock
(c) www.thesocialite.co.za

* In searching for information to link to in support of this piece, I searched for Antony Green's detailed commentary on the Victorian redistribution, but it would appear that the ABC has dumped that content.

26 November 2017

The end of Peter Dutton

For much of the past 12 months, the press gallery has agreed that the power of Peter Dutton has grown within the government, possibly to the point where he could challenge Turnbull for the Liberal leadership and hence become Prime Minister. It's time to call bullshit on that, and to point out that the more enthusiastic advocates for Dutton (or those most hungry for stink) aren't helping us understand how the government works.

Dutton solves none of the problems facing the country. Think about the big issues (go on, dare to do so despite our appalling national leadership and inadequate media):
  • Maintaining stable electrical power supplies (and gas for that matter) in the face of changing technologies - that is, to take on the political risk that all state governments but WA and Queensland have shirked;
  • An economy that creates jobs within a sustainable environment;
  • A relationship with Indigenous people that goes beyond the tokenistic, but which does not negate non-Indigenous Australia to the extent we tried to negate them;
  • The ability to encourage people to come to our country, as visitors and migrants, but not to the point where we fear the loss of who we are (see above); and
  • [insert your big issue here].
Dutton offers answers to none of these questions.

Dutton offers no answers to questions of good government, he has fucked up every portfolio he's held (including the current one, see below). He offers no political answers either: he's not more popular than Turnbull, and any regional variations in relative popularity for one is offset elsewhere.

The proof of this is in the Queensland election. Had Dutton been a political go-getter, if he had half the ambition of Howard or Abbott or Turnbull or even Sam Dastyari, Dutton would have been at the side of every LNP candidate in every winnable seat up and down the state. Were he a potent political threat Palaszczuk should be cursing him by name, piling on to the outrage about Manus, but she rightly regards him as irrelevant. Maybe he's raised heaps of money for the LNP behind the scenes, but I doubt it.

Turnbull's main political weakness is his lack of judgment: when to push open a door ajar, and when to walk by it. Dutton has the same weakness. He was right not to throw himself into the 2015 Queensland election, when Campbell Newman threw away one of the biggest majorities ever, and at the next Queensland election it will be too late.

Dutton is too stupid to know Manus has reached its endgame. As a junior policeman he was removed from situations requiring subtlety and deftness, but as a senior politician he has been let loose by a weak leadership and goaded by right-wingers thirsty for some impact (yes, the government of Australia is less well run than the Queensland Police). All cruelty requires prizing toughness over all other considerations, and Dutton has shielded himself from those considerations for too long.

UN and non-government agencies have long criticised Australia's mandatory detention system, and so have journalists from outside the press gallery (recent converts to the idea that the system is appallingly inhumane, like Paul Bongiorno and Michael Gordon, do not count). Dutton assumes that recent criticism, accompanied by video, is more of the same and can either be ignored or fed into culture wars.

When a boatload of asylum-seekers foundered on the rocks at Christmas Island in 2012, with accompanying video, Australians were appalled. The out-of-sight-out-of-mind approach to offshore detention was exposed. So too was the nation's entire political class, which were heavily invested in "strong on border security" and could not easily or deftly change course. Michael Keenan and Joe Hockey shed tears of self-pity and the sheer impossibility of changing course: and so too did the press gallery, which from then until now took the Coalition at its word on these matters.

The solution then largely consisted of media management: restricting access to Christmas Island, redefining what a "boat arrival" meant, harsh words to dwindling media proprietors and threats of outsiderdom to press gallery insiders. The press gallery responded to this not with defiance, as journalists might, but by insisting then-Immigration Minister Scott Morrison was a genius for his ability to bamboozle the press gallery. Morrison is less effective in bamboozling economists outside the press gallery in his current role, but that respect has transferred to Dutton for his continuation and expansion of limits of media access to content sources beyond official statements.

Now we know that official statements are in disgrace, and bear no relation to reality: moving people from one settlement to another violently, cutting off water and medical aid, and doing it all in a media environment that can't be controlled exposes Manus to its Australian sponsors. NZ's offer to take some refugees, denied again, makes it look as though the government doesn't want the problem solved, or is so obstinate that it overlooks obvious solutions (a common feature of all governments nearing their end). The double game of Australia taking credit but blaming the locals is over: all the gallery's faithful stenography to that end was always wasted, but is now irrelevant.

Dutton has batted away politically-correct lefties before, and is doing so again, not realising it's too late for that. The combination of images from Manus going global, combined with the policy being shunned by all but the farthest right (even Trump blanched at it: "you're worse than I am"); along with a reputation for ripping off backpackers, and now being lumped in with human rights abuses in Myanmar in terms of callousness to asylum-seekers, it's too late for cosy chats with Ray Hadley trying to discourage listeners from believing their lying eyes.

With Trump's US and Brexit UK shunning clever and ambitious migrants, we see now that there is no plan for Australia to offer an attractive destination. We see nothing for tourism and education beyond the lazy assumption that more Chinese will ramp up numbers for us. Nobody has any right to assume that the Immigration Minister would even want to play a long game on this front: this government has a vacuous leader, nobody from the press gallery went looking for evidence of long-term national-interest thinking, and the Opposition dares not engage in any product differentiation on this issue. And so, an absurdly inadequate minister is off the hook.

Had Labor been re-elected federally in 2010 to a greater extent than it was, it is entirely likely that Dutton's career would have ended then. Dutton's seat, Dickson, between northern Brisbane and the southern Sunshine Coast, is almost entirely represented by Labor in state parliament. Dutton's mate Dan Purdie won a state seat, but so what? The LNP machine is not exactly the killer outfit it was five years ago, and whatever the answers might be to the LNP's malaise almost none reside in that potato head of his. Contrast that with the way John Howard rebuilt the Liberal Party from the ground up in 1995-96.

When skittish politicians get worried about an unpopular leader, they try to imagine that leader in their local community shaking hands with local worthies and randoms. This is the political equivalent of picturing what your house looks like from the kerb; nobody pretends it's all-important but it isn't unimportant either. Those who were unimpressed with John Howard underestimated his ability to walk among ordinary people, chat with them and appear to be listening; those who love the guy rave about his ability to do that, a quality pretty much absent in your standard political-class drone.

It was hard to imagine gimlet-eyed obsessive Abbott in actual communities with actual voters, but he waddled around the country doing passable imitations of political gladhanding. Then, he spent two years returning to Canberra screwing the people whose hands he'd shaken. Liberals found this dissonance puzzling, until Peta Credlin and the passage of time helped them realise Abbott was really like that. As he became both less popular and less effective, it was easy to imagine Turnbull gladhanding the way back to popularity. No Liberal, not even those in safe seats, wants Dutton anywhere near voters who like their local MP but have their doubts. Again, you'll notice he played scant role in Queensland, and he's not doing much heavy lifting in the success story of immigration that is Bennelong.

Dutton doesn't look like the stereotype of a Queenslander, like Bob Katter does; Abbott looks more like a copper than he does. For all his aggregation of power over federal intelligence and law enforcement capabilities, Dutton has played no role in shaping public debates in the area. He hasn't brought in much experience from his own experience as a police officer (oddly cut short just before he became eligible for considerable benefits). Maybe the guy just doesn't believe in public debate. Maybe he just isn't a leader to anyone outside the Liberal right. He's probably not the right person to dissuade people from their growing inclination to chuck out the incumbent government.

With his bald pate and deadpan features, Dutton looks like a public servant who says no, like a banker foreclosing on busted small businesses. Howard had that look too, but he could do sunny optimism better than Dutton. Dutton goes hard in Question Time, but Labor seem to have his measure after his lacklustre opposition to Nicola Roxon and Catherine King's painstaking work in Health when he was minister (besides, who gives a fuck about Question Time?). He is such a cold fish that this experienced (non-gallery) journalist was moved to tears at a simple display of humanity before some children. He is not a steady hand in an uncertain future. Anyone who thinks leaks and backbench rebellions would cease under a Dutton leadership is kidding themselves.

Shorten will look like a model of calm forward thinking in contrast to the darkly foreboding Dutton. If you were a Liberal MP in a marginal seat, or a Liberal candidate in a Labor one, Peter Dutton is lead in your saddlebags. You'd risk chucking Turnbull for someone with more of the common touch, but you'd no more choose Dutton than Kevin Andrews or Peta Credlin. His biggest fans are the people who also insist we can have lve new coal-fired power stations and no same-sex marriage. He offers empty threats and petty bullying, maybe not even that. Dutton embodies the Liberal predicament - frustration without resolution - but it is wishful thinking to insist he's got what it takes to fix it.

15 November 2017

So close, and yet so far

There was a time when to be the best male Australian tennis player was to be the best at that sport, to be able to beat any man in the world anywhere in the world. Rod Laver, Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, and John Newcombe, along with supporting players like Ken Emmerson or Tony Roche, dominated the sport as it transitioned from an amateur era to a professional one. This dominance lasted over a decade, which hadn't happened in Australian sport before or since: in swimming or cricket there were seasons of Australian dominance in fits and starts, even with uniquely talented individuals like Bradman or Dawn Fraser. Even in women's tennis, Margaret Smith Court was a freak sui generis; Evonne Goolagong Cawley did not breeze past her contemporaries as Smith did. Both those women left tennis to raise families, while Newcombe and Roche in particular tried to keep alight the mystic flame of Australian men's tennis.

John Alexander was fated to be the leading Australian male tennis player behind Newcombe. Later in their careers, Newcombe and Rosewall held off the brash and aggressive American Jimmy Connors, but Alexander in his prime could not. The 1970s saw the Europeans adopt Australian coaching techniques: Ilie Nastase from Romania, Bjorn Borg from Sweden, Guillermo Vilas from Argentina, Connors, and others all showed that there was nothing in our water, nor in Vegemite or Milo, nor in any other way essentially Australian about the skill and focus necessary to win big-time singles tennis tournaments. Alexander was a very good singles tennis player, but not a great one. He wasn't lucky, like Gosford's Mark Edmonson winning the 1976 Australian Open. He didn't have a heart-rending back-story and an oafish foil, like Jelena Dokic. The recent parallel would be Andy Roddick, the US male succeeding Sampras and Agassi and Courier, but fated to be creamed regularly by Nadal and Federer and Djokovic. John Alexander showed us the important lesson that sometimes guts and determination just aren't enough.

Alexander won the Australian Open twice as half of separate doubles pairings. He didn't bond with one other player to form a memorable killer team like like MacNamara/McNamee or Woodforde/Woodbridge, and he had a reputation for being short-tempered. Other tennis players had this reputation too - but in the 1950s and '60s the optics were all of Gentlemanly Behaviour and Good Sportsmanship. Winners are grinners, and the image of Laver or Newcombe grinning so often holding up trophies smoothed any jagged edges in their reputations. In their later years, Connors and Nastase freely admitted to having been pricks, assessments not contradicted by observers at the time. Not so Alexander: when Connors or Nastase threw their racquets around, intimidated ball boys, talked back to umpires, or snarled at interviewers, this Bad Sportsmanship somehow underlined their foreignness. When Alexander did the same, it confirmed him as a sore loser and UnAustralian and Surely There's Another Talented Young Australian We Can All Get Behind?

I was a kid in the 1970s. My Dad's family were all big on tennis, playing and watching. They made it clear to me, my brother, and my cousins, that we were not to carry on like John Alexander. Better to do your best and lose gracefully than to end up like that guy.

I've said before in this blog that I used to live in Bennelong, and that I observed a number of times how awkward he is with actual humans whom he has represented in parliament. He seems to be attentive only to people he knows well, or who are important, or both; seven years representing the community has not defrosted him. One thing the left always underestimated about Howard was his preparedness to engage with locals, to talk sincerely about vandalism in West Ryde or schools in Gladesville at the same time as he was dealing with Iraq or the economy. Alexander still can't fake genuine interest in the small stuff. Alexander is a tall man (I'm 183cm and he's a head taller than me), and often such people have to work hard not to appear aloof - but he always looks pained when approached by randoms, always on the lookout for someone else to talk to or somewhere else to be. He has mastered the ability to turn up to an event just before pictures are taken and leave immediately afterwards, with local papers happy to create the impression of warm engagement on his behalf.

Once he beat Maxine McKew in 2010 the massed dim lights of Australian political journalism went off him, and he seems to like it that way. He increased his margin out of that limelight, confirming his political instincts. In the past two elections he has faced an authentic product of Labor's left-leaning local branches, Lyndal Hewison, a local teacher and a nice person; at the last election she lost the primaries to Alexander 28-51. Yes, that's right: this remote man has increased the Liberal vote in Bennelong to the point where it doesn't go to preferences, back to where it was early in Howard's prime ministership despite the massive demographic changes in the area since. The swing against the Coalition that saw so many Liberals lose their seats last July saw Alexander hold steady.

I kept looking around Bennelong for an example of Alexander's legacy, and I think I found it. Behind Eastwood Library, there's a kids' playground and a public toilet and an oval that shows up in old maps as a lake. In that area is a green, wooden table-tennis table: Alexander had it placed there, a nod to Eastwood's Chinese community, who all seem far too busy to use it. It's also a nod to Alexander's tennis career but he's too busy to use it too. Like the local real estate market, it isn't a level playing field. Only the die-hards come forth with bats and a ball and a cloth to wipe the birdshit; they don't stay for long.

It's almost fitting that Labor have passed over Hewison for the byelection, or promising local mayor Jerome Laxale, in favour of Kristina Keneally. She's warm and engaging where Alexander is aloof and awkward. Like Alexander, she lives in another part of town, and in the 1970s and '80s spent quite a bit of time in the United States. Also like Alexander, she knows what it is to step up just as a winning streak is ending, and to cop the blame for that.

Her media experience counts for nothing. The total audience for Sky News is so small, and perishingly so in Bennelong, that she may as well have spent the past six years getting drunk. Her former co-host Ross Cameron is politically just as dead today as he was in 2004. The idea that she'll be a media darling like former press gallery journalist Maxine McKew - and that this will count for something - is bullshit.

Toward the end of his career, John Watkins was Deputy Premier and State MP for Ryde (the state electorate that takes up much of Bennelong). When Watkins retired in 2008 Ryde swung heavily to the Liberals. That byelection may have been the last time Keneally set foot in the electorate until the last day or so. That byelection was a precursor for the 2011 state election, and so too Federal Labor is hoping for a dramatic result that works against the incumbent government. Like it or not, Keneally is associated with a flailing and failed government, one that casts a shadow over a government that is yet to come.

What are the possibilities for this byelection, and what are the consequences more broadly?
  • Alexander wins handsomely, like he has at the past two general elections. This (along with the likely re-election of Barnaby Joyce in New England) would confirm Turnbull and the government and they will blunder on. Surely the performance of the government will give rise to a protest vote.
  • Keneally wins Bennelong. This is unlikely but it would panic the Liberals into wounding Turnbull and generally running around with their hair on fire while trying to convince Sharkie and McGowan that they really are a stable and responsible government.
  • Keneally gets a swing toward Labor but doesn't win. This will be the kind of result that anyone can read anything into, producing the kind of inconclusive and fatuous jabber that is "political debate" and "insider commentary" in the Australian media. This is the most likely result.
Keneally will wander the streets saying "你 好" to people and getting "G'day" in return. Alexander will be out and about wincing at people for the cameras and it will make no difference at all. Turnbull will condescend to petty locals in their petty lives and people will vote for him with gritted teeth. Shorten will turn up and create surprise at being a regular guy, who may be up for consideration next time. Labor's NSW head office will be confirmed in its view that the best way to win in Bennelong is to override the local branches.

It will be quite the blessing that the press gallery will mostly be on holidays, and that The Daily Telly won't lose one of its few presenters who doesn't just nod along with Paul Murray or Chris Kenny. The sheer witlessness of Australian political journalism will not be affected in any way by this byelection. The Australian media has in its archives all of that stuff about Alexander's sporting and political career, and Keneally's: and yet the sheer wasteland of drivel on this topic (no I won't link to it) stretches out before us once again, with no useful information and no respite.

05 November 2017

The choice of Joyce

But look, oh look, the Gothic tree’s on fire
with blown galahs, and fuming with wild wings.
The hard inquiring wind strikes to the bone and whines division.

- Judith Wright For New England
The press gallery seems to be of one mind that Barnaby Joyce will win the New England byelection handily on December 2. Tony Windsor isn't running, PHON and ShooFiFa aren't running, therefore Joyce will win it in a canter, won't he?

Joyce has an excellent ground operation, the envy of any party. At the last election we saw money was no object; Joyce started his political career as the champion of Cubbie Station, and ever since he's had more sympathy for those who breach their water allocations than you might expect from the leader of the farmers' party. He's cultivated a beautiful friendship with Gina Rinehart. Those who say Joyce will win easily have a point: surely on the night of December 2 they'll simply weigh Nationals votes rather than count them, and that he's good for at least 70 percent of first preferences, surely?

I'm not so sure. Joyce is no longer a fresh face in a promising government. He is not a powerful member of a stable government that is racking up substantial achievements. Election campaigns often end differently to the way they start, and experienced press gallery journalists should know this.

This isn't simple contrariness against the gallery. To be fair to them, I'm not exactly the go-to guy for political predictions - but then again, when I said Tony Abbott would never be Prime Minister, I was closer to the mark than those who assumed he was good enough to become Prime Minister. On the same basis, I reckon any victory Joyce wins in New England will be pyrrhic.

Strong and stable

Joyce's central offering to the people of New England is that he is Deputy Prime Minister in a stable Coalition government. He spent the first couple of days of the byelection campaign sledging unnamed detractors from within that same government; strong people do not do this, they dismiss their detractors. Since then we've seen the President of the Senate and the Minister for Energy experience similar doubts over their nationality as that which put Joyce into the position he is in now.

Electricity infrastructure in New England has not been gold-plated. Coal-fired power still comes from the Hunter and from Queensland, and its cost to New England customers is rising as it is for the rest of us. It isn't only hippies who are installing solar in the hope of boosting reliability and cutting costs over time. If you don't blame Joyce for making the price and reliability of power worse, then you can't claim that he is doing much to make things better.

The position in Manus now, under this government, is similar to that point in the Gillard government where boatloads of asylum seekers were crashing against the rocks of Christmas Island. Remember Michael Keenan and Joe Hockey coming over all teary at that? They are the same people pooh-poohing the men on Manus Island digging for water while coming down off anti-depressants. It goes way beyond a bad look. A policy has failed when it ends up at this point, and so have the ministers responsible for it - and Barnaby Joyce has been one of those ministers.

This isn't to say Manus is a hot-button issue in New England right now, but it does go to the competence of the government and Joyce's place within it. It does mean that other political actors have scope to exploit the gap between what good government should look like, and what Barnaby's offering. The status quo, steady-as-she-goes approach isn't the elixir that the lazy press gallery thinks it is.

Old-fashioned journalism

He's the last of the backslappin', have-a-beer politicians - well, the last you'll find above municipal level. Some journalists have to hunt for their stories, but the press gallery love nothing better than dusting off a cliche, painting by numbers and then flicking it at the public. They'll be looking forward to writing those same stories from the pubs of New England - particularly where Joyce is the main act and not a sideshow in a multi-faceted, continental general election. It will be interesting to see if Joyce gets sick of them, or if he discloses some tidbit too tempting not to share.

Another cliche is the idea that people - rustics, particularly - are so bedazzled by promises of public largesse that they auction their vote the highest bidder. It's hard to imagine more largesse than that promised by Shenhua in its various explorations into the Liverpool Plains, or the similar proposals for the Pilliga. It doesn't quite work out like that. Joyce is stuck between those locals who like both places as they are, and the whiny drone of the economic vandal: "business confidence". NSW Mineral Resources Minister Don Harwin has almost nobbled the Liverpool Plains proposal, but any decision (including none) would have put Joyce in a difficult position. Mining companies were all very well when they were lobbying for non-farming land, but now that they're after the prime stuff it's all a bit Faustian for everyone's mate Barnaby.

The advent of social media and the weaponisation of polling this century saw the end of taxi-driver journalism. Journalists would hire taxis and represent the driver's patter as The Voice Of The Common Man, warping all coverage of political and social issues around half-baked impressions gained from reading tabloids and listening to gruntback radio. If you have ever wondered how Ray Hadley got to be like that, look back at taxi-driver journalism and wonder no more. When you hear journalists praising old-fashioned shoe-leather journalism, part of what they mean is plonking their arses in the back of Ray Hadley's taxi, switching on the tape recorder, and letting their stories write themselves. The only practitioners of taxi-driver journalism these days are press gallery journalists, long cut off from - dare one describe it thus - the mainstream of traditional media offices.

They'll miss the stories that are both more interesting and more telling. You don't have to pretend that warmed-over cliches are valuable and worth supporting.

Tamworth, Tamworth, Tamworth

Tamworth's airport is over-engineered for a town of its size. The airport was designed half a century ago to accept the biggest aircraft of that time, the Boeing 727. The idea was not to facilitate junkets from Canberra, or even the annual spike in tourism for the Country Music Festival. Tamworth airport was designed to support high-value agricultural exports by aircraft, where food could depart New England in the morning and then be consumed that evening in Asian cities.

Despite several free trade agreements endorsed by the Cabinet of which Joyce was a member, that dream is no closer to reality than it was in the 1970s, when Joyce and I were growing up in that area. Contrast this with the Wellcamp airport west of Toowoomba, which went from conception to execution within the past decade and which handles the sort of cargo (including from northern NSW) promised but rarely delivered from Tamworth airport.

If you ask Barnaby Joyce about Tamworth airport and its potential, he will offer a generous helping of word-salad that the equally ignorant press gallery will accept and pass on without demur or examination. It will also show how disconnected government policy is from actual economic development in this area, not to mention the value-free and valueless practice of press gallery stenography.

During byelections, press gallery journalists gingerly venture forth beyond those concentric roads around the building from which they operate and afflict the people beset by the candidates and flyers in those communities that in Canberra are just are names on maps. In the New England byelection, taxi-driver journalism is concentrated on Tamworth. Tamworth is the biggest town in New England, with regular air connections to Sydney (not many 727s on that route any more, but never mind). It's easy to blow in to Tamworth, squawking and flapping with the tape recorder, and get back to the city without having to bunk down in a local motel. However, there are two main problems with this as quality information: 1) towns within New England like Quirindi, Uralla, or Inverell aren't suburbs of Tamworth, with distinctions that matter for those who understand the subtleties of rural communities; and 2) a review of voting records shows that Tamworth's polling booths are particularly strong for the Country/NCP/Nationals.

If you want to reinforce your preconceived notion that Barnaby is returning to Canberra as a formality, go to Tamworth and get a full dose of it. Senior press gallery journos have done exactly this, from almost every media outlet represented in the gallery, which again utterly defeats laws and other measures designed to foster media diversity. Every gallery outlet but the ABC has closed its regional and suburban outlets, making coverage of this community with nuance and depth impossible. As I've said, you don't have to pretend that warmed-over cliches are valuable and worth supporting.

For a short time, Tamworth turned away from the Nationals to send Tony Windsor to state and federal parliament. The Gillard government's abrupt ban of live cattle exports to Indonesia hit Tamworth's meatworks hard. Tamworth did not get the benefit from the NBN that Armidale got. Then again, when Tony Abbott became Prime Minister, Windsor's difficult choice became understandable. The vote against Windsor in 2016 was a vote against this difficult and aberrant part of Tamworth's history and a return to the National status quo; it may negate his ability to shift the Nationals vote in future contests. His absence from this byelection hardly negates Tamworth's history as strong Nationals turf.

A careless man

Barnaby Joyce once drove a government vehicle through floodwater, barely escaping with his life and writing off the vehicle. Most rural people, and some in the cities, rightly regard people who drive through floodwaters as idiots.

There is no evidence Joyce has learned anything from that. He spent more than $600,000 on refitting offices in New England. He toyed with the lives of public servants and the effectiveness of an agency vital to Australian agriculture by shifting its offices. He promised a white paper (a comprehensive policy document) on Australian agriculture that shows no evidence of in-depth, long-term consideration, and which failed to even consider that changes to the climate might affect agriculture. His blustering approach to his own citizenship has forced a byelection on his electorate that need not have been necessary: when Jackie Kelly did something similar in Lindsay in 1996, the press gallery lectured her for foolishness and the waste of public money arising from it.

Joyce is careless with matters of public trust, and with public moneys. People recognise this and will vote accordingly. The survival of the Turnbull government, however, depends upon the foregoing not being the case, or being overlooked.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Both Joyce and the government of which he's part are on the nose. The press gallery believe both that a) Joyce has some sort of magic on the campaign trail, and b) the government has been behind in the polls; but they have not concluded and dare not consider that c) New England voters will mark Joyce and the government down on December 2.

Having blithely assumed that Joyce would return to Canberra, reinforced with a quick fly-by through Tamworth, press gallery journos will be at a loss to explain why Joyce will not be returning to Canberra with a thumping majority. They will assert their expertise in matters political nonetheless.

13 August 2017

Marriage Equality 1: Accepting our way of life

We search for leaders on our hands and knees

- Richard Clapton Best years of our lives
Marriage equality will happen, sooner or later, by any one of what seem now like a variety of political means. 

There were only seven members of this government prepared to stick their necks out and bring on marriage equality. I leave them aside here, and also the jihadists like Abbott or Abetz or The Jack Man, and say: most of the others must realise it is inevitable.

One day, a vote on marriage equality will come before the parliament. Coalition MPs may vote for it, or they may not. People who weren't able to get married will do so. As in other countries, the institution of marriage will be strengthened rather than diminished. The Prime Minister of New Zealand, Bill English, had voted against it but came to change his mind, and so too will they.

When that day comes, most current Coalition MPs will simply anticipate that they can shrug, concede they were wrong and expect to simply move on. Malcolm Turnbull will, I suspect, be in this number.

LGBTIQ people have done everything right in lobbying to change the Marriage Act: they have patiently petitioned MPs, joined political parties and engaged in polite public events. The fact that they have not yet achieved their aim is an indictment of our democratic processes, especially when you consider the 2004 change that made this change necessary came about within hours after underhanded lobbying from the Exclusive Brethren.

Those responsible for seeing this campaign through should be recognised as among the most capable organisers and representatives our society has. It will be interesting to see if they continue in politics by other means. The 1999 republic referendum not only gave us Turnbull and Abbott, but also Sophie Mirabella and David Elliott on the monarchist side, as well as Greg Barns and Jason Yat-Sen Li on the republicans. The monarchists made more of their people than the republicans did; you can blame Howard for wrong-footing the republicans if you will, but the fact is no promising politician arose from that movement to revive and sustain it. Lyle Shelton was a failed LNP candidate for Queensland state parliament, and people like Sally Rugg may yet switch to broader political engagement.

As Paul Karp notes, Turnbull has sought to justify the rights of LGBTIQ people in terms of whether or not a majority might accept them. This government has diminished rather than expanded our rights as citizens; they are awkward when reversing themselves. What's genuinely appalling is that LGBTIQ Australians are being treated like non-citizens.

Majoritarianism is the same basis on which our immigration policy is conducted: new immigrant groups cop hazing and are accorded few if any rights, until some ill-defined process occurs after many years whereby they are granted the status of True Blue Aussies, and another group of migrants cops the hazing. It should surprise nobody that the Immigration Minister was one of the main proponents of the mail poll, with its exorbitant cost, its lack of rigour, and its disdain for the people most affected. Never mind Liberal Party rhetoric about the freedom and dignity of the individual: Australian citizens must now petition the government for rights, rather than demand them and vote accordingly for representatives who share them.

Even if you agree with the Prime Minister and don't regard LGBTIQ rights as one of the most pressing issues of our time, consider those that are. Consider climate change, or economic stagnation (including, but not limited to, employee shares of corporate incomes), telecommunications and data security, education or healthcare, or changing geopolitical balances of power. In each case, this government has no real answers, and demonstrates no real ability to engage with complex, multi-faceted issues. In each case, for 15 of the past 21 years, Coalition MPs faff around, shrug, and change course - all with the clear expectation that whatever they do will and must be rewarded with perpetual electoral success.

The democratic measures by which we keep politicians in check have been blunted. That's the worst thing about this debate: a ferociously democratic people have been played into negation and acquiescence by unprofessional professionals who cannot be dealt out of the game by the usual means. It's a problem for our politics, and that includes the way politics is reported by those with press gallery access - but don't even get me started on that.

12 July 2017

Submission to the Senate Select Committee on the Future of Public Interest Journalism

The Senate established a select committee to investigate the future of public interest journalism. Its terms of reference are here. I was concerned that it would cleave too closely to the Federal Government's proposed regulatory changes to help prop up traditional media, and the recurring bludge identified most recently on Media Watch that Google and Facebook have some sort of responsibility to maintain journalists and their managers in the style to which they've become accustomed.

Here's my submission to the committee (the subheadings refer to the committee's terms of reference):

(a) the current state of public interest journalism in Australia

What is public interest journalism?

A pithy and useful definition is supplied here (http://www.mediahelpingmedia.org/training-resources/journalism-basics/360-applying-the-public-interest-test-to-journalism):
The public interest is in having a safe, healthy and fully-functioning society. In a democracy, journalism plays a central role in that. It gives people the information they need to take part in the democratic process.
I’ll use this definition when I refer to ‘public interest journalism’ in this submission.

Why public interest journalism goes beyond the products offered by media companies represented in the press gallery

The media organisations represented in the federal parliamentary press gallery have employed journalists to report on the activities of politicians in federal parliament – mostly the activities of the government of the day in executing policy, but also the activities of the opposition (as a potential alternative government), and politicians outside both the government and official opposition (in shaping policy and legislative outcomes and contributing to longer-term debates).

There is more to the public interest than what traditional media organisations deign to cover. The public interest transcends the reach, the abilities, and the wit of particular management teams of traditional media organisations. Press gallery journalists cannot offer the breadth of coverage required for public interest journalism. There are a number of reasons for this.

The weaknesses of the fourth estate

Romantic notions of “the fourth estate” aside, the press gallery is not accountable to the public as are members of parliament. The public has no role in appointing or removing members of the press gallery. Remonstrations with them have no discernible or consistent impact. The geographic and demographic composition of the press gallery is unrepresentative of the broader Australian public. Any idea that “public interest journalism” begins and ends with the press gallery is nonsense.

Most news output from the press gallery concerns government announcements – activities of government and interpretations thereof that responsible ministers are more than happy to announce, and which the press gallery transcribes and broadcasts in terms broadly similar to those announced.

There is a public interest in activities of government that are not announced, which go to questions of maladministration, incompetence, or even corruption. It can be tempting to see these non-announcements as a game one plays with journalists, rather than misinformation to the public at large; this is a mistake, one that public interest journalism should work to redress.

Media organisations represented in the press gallery rarely do the investigation necessary to bring these activities to light for the public, and almost never from within the press gallery. They sometimes did when they were better resourced than they are today.
There is no real link between any increase in funding those organisations may experience and any increase in the frequency, breadth, or complexity of investigative journalism they may deign to undertake. Investigative journalism resources required for properly effective public interest journalism does, and will continue to come from beyond traditional media organisations. Laws and policy outcomes should recognise and accommodate this.

The need for such journalism does not ebb and flow with fads or commercial decisions of traditional media organisations. The public has a right to know what its government is doing, and what the options are politically; this public interest exists independently of media operational strategy.

Are you a smart-alec?

As an engaged citizen and media consumer, I want to see, hear, and read what’s going on: preferably from those who understand what’s going on rather than merely physically present at a staged announcement, and who are simply relaying information supplied to them.
Apparently it is not reasonable to expect traditional media organisations to engage a variety of policy experts on an expanding range of topics. It is certainly not reasonable to expect that a press gallery journalist can adequately cover any and all of the complex policy issues covered by Australia’s federal government.

While the quality of online content can vary considerably, I have learned through wide and careful reading that there is no such thing as a dull subject, only dull writing and unappealing presentation of important facts. Throughout the community, there are people with deep and broad experience in many complex and important issues; it is important that we hear from them directly rather than awaiting the traditional media spotlight to fall on them.

One important example is the rise of science journalism. Fairfax, NewsCorp and the ABC recently had small numbers of specialist journalists with scientific training and the ability to explain complex, cutting-edge concepts to mainstream audiences. In recent years those organisations have downsized or abolished science reporting teams, despite the urgency in public debates for greater scientific understanding by decisions-makers and the community as a whole. Public interest journalists who focus on science provide a vital service, and raise questions about traditional media avowals of quality journalism.

The value of “insider knowledge” on complex, far-reaching public issues is often vastly overrated by politicians and traditional media. It is lazy and inadequate, as so often happens, to present a policy debate as “argy-bargy” within a party or across parties. It is irresponsible to abandon an important issue with the cop-out “the devil is in the detail”. Public interest journalism opens the possibility that complex policy issues might be engaged with and explained by knowledgeable, experienced people, who may help us all (including politicians and press gallery journalists) better understand and engage with the issues in public debate.

Statistical knowledge – not just the data and the presentation of it, but the understanding of how data may be manipulated – has never been more important in public debate. From their earliest days, newspapers carried voluminous data on shipping movements, racing form guides, and stock market movements. Popular television coverage of sporting events includes voluminous statistical information. So do popular weather reports, financial advice, and opinion poll coverage. Public interest journalists are more likely to gather and present in-depth statistical information than traditional press gallery journalists, who feel pushed for time and unable to digest official reports with rich statistical information that might inform key current debates.

The Australian community is better educated than it was. “Beer, cigs up” is not sufficient commentary on the budget. The Treasurer is scrutinised more than any other minister is because of the plethora of economics and business journalists who cover his portfolio, not all of whom are fulltime, salaried employees. Public interest journalism promises to apply similar scrutiny across all portfolios of government, far more than is possible from press gallery journalists limited to manoeuvering.

The contraction of traditional news resources goes against a growing need for more and better knowledge about how we are (and might be) governed. Salaried journalists in traditional media organisations might insist on exclusive rights and privileges over access to and dissemination of official information, and the structure of the press gallery institutionalises that view. This paradox will most likely be resolved against the interests of traditional media, as independently-operating public interest journalists will come to offer greater breadth and credibility of coverage than enfeebled traditional media. Allowance must be made for such people to come and go from places where public interest information is available, and that they may not be fulltime employees of a few large organisations.

The only way of ensuring viable, independent and diverse services would be to provide high-quality information to as many people as might want it, given appropriate safeguards for privacy and other forms of justice. Commercial organisations may worry about demand; the real question for regulators is and should be the supply of accurate and relevant information.

(b) Laws, market powers and practices

Do you really want diversity? The proposals put forward by the Minister for Communications seem to call for mergers and other anti-competitive measures in aid of traditional media organisations. Which is it: viability through competition and diversification, or by minimising them?

Consumer law and practice have little impact on media output on public issues. One regular media practice that defeats regulation of ownership is press gallery herding around One Big Story, told from much the same angle with almost identical inputs, at any given time. This practice defeats media diversity and inhibits the amount of information broadcast to voters and taxpayers about how we are (and might be) governed. I don’t know how you regulate that out of existence: a combination of public ridicule and corporate downsizing might work.

Public interest journalists know that the story is probably wherever they aren’t. They are more likely to fan out and find it, rather than timidly follow the herd. Competition and consumer laws seem somewhat beside the point. Instead, here are some laws that might be changed to foster more and better public interest journalism:

Parliamentary standing orders

There is no good reason why members of the public viewing the operations of the House and the Senate should be denied the ability to take recording devices such as notepads or cameras into the press gallery.

Public interest journalists should be able to take notes and pictures as freely as the press gallery can. Press gallery journalists are allowed into areas of the Parliament from which members of the public are denied access. There are predictable objections which may be dealt with as follows:

Media organisations have commercial interests that are protected by removing recording devices from members of the public
Would these be the same media organisations who recently sacked their photographers? Why are public resources protecting private interests?
Media organisations comply with rules about parliamentary decorum
Do they? Would they be rules that help, or hinder, public understanding of how we are governed?
Random members of the public might create security risks
Parliament represents members of the public, and public access to parliamentary proceedings are an essential part of the parliament’s operations. Security issues are for security professionals.

Parliament has its own very sophisticated systems for recording official proceedings. The idea that public interest journalism might interfere with them is absurd. Standing orders that inhibit members of the public to take recording devices into the public galleries should be amended as soon as possible, as a sign of commitment to public interest journalism.

Fair use as a defence under copyright, freedom of information, and defamation laws

Public interest journalism should not be inhibited by restrictions arising from copyright. The Public Interest Journalism Foundation has called for ‘fair use’ provisions to cover public interest journalists, similar to those covering other researchers; you should look into this.

Freedom of information laws should only apply where there are violations of personal privacy, national security, or to police operations and judicial proceedings.

Public interest journalism should be a defence against defamation, similar to the principles in the High Court’s Lange case.

Open Government and Government 2.0 initiatives

The Australian government should be an impartial provider of high-quality, relevant data. That data should be readily available online, with appropriate safeguards for privacy, justice, and national security. The Australian Bureau of Statistics should be a leader in collecting and providing this data openly but securely (including in ways that resist spoofing), so that users can be sure Australian government data can be trusted.

Government agencies, politicians, and private providers (including the media and public interest journalists) may create value from that data by presenting it as information or even commercially-appealing content. It should not be the role of politicians to second-guess how certain data may or may not be used, and to restrict access according to short-term and half-baked tactical calculations.
I wish that the principles set out in the Open Government Partnership National Action Plan were applied, so that we could see fair and appropriate use of government data applied to public benefit. The Australian government’s commitment to the themes ii. Open data and digital transformation and iii. Access to government information should be a matter for close and ongoing scrutiny, for public interest journalists and parliamentarians alike.

Whatever resources government is committing to public data provision initiatives, it isn’t enough. The fate of the 2016 census (and, perhaps, the quality of ongoing government decisions based on that data) shows it cannot be done on the cheap. Readily available data enables creation of quality public interest journalism, and enables checking of news as to whether or not it might be fake.

The Public Interest Journalism Foundation

I support calls by the Public Interest Journalism Foundation to promote a culture of philanthropy to support public interest journalism, and to review legal restrictions (such as those described above) that inhibit it.

Calls to ensure diversity through reviews, legislation or public funds are problematic. In recent years we have seen cuts to legal aid and public broadcasting, and expansions of police powers over freedoms of the public in the name of security; the very idea that scope might be opened to public interest journalism against a trend of diminishing these important and related issues is questionable.

The terms of reference specifically refer to competition and consumer law, thank you very much. Your suggestions are outside our terms of reference

Are you serious about public interest journalism or not? You could work to reform those laws if you wanted.

(c) and (e) Fake news, propaganda, search engines

“Fake news” and propaganda are not new. Two persistent examples of fake news arose from Russia:
  • 19th century Tsarist secret police fabricated a book called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which purported to provide documentary proof of a global Jewish conspiracy. Even though it has been extensively discredited, the book was a key text in Nazi Germany and is still disseminated among far-right groups today; and
  • In 1945 Soviet troops discovered that Hitler had died. Stalin had his skull brought to Moscow. Yet, Soviet propaganda held that US and British forces had allowed Hitler to escape war-torn Berlin, and that he was living in South America, plotting his return.
This is not to say that Russia is somehow prone to “fake news” and propaganda, or that information from there is unreliable. Note that both of those examples pre-date the internet. It should surprise nobody, in government or outside it, that those who place a premium on information being fast and conveniently available run the risk of that information being untrue and unreliable.

For media organisations, the pressure on journalists to produce “content” to tight and shifting deadlines exposes them to the risk of unreliable information. By broadcasting it they risk damaging their credibility as their financial position worsens – but that’s their choice, not yours. I agree with New York University academic Jay Rosen when he urges media organisations to create value by focusing on truth and reliability over the traditional media imperative to be “first with the latest”, a battle that cannot be won against free internet-based providers.

Given that most press gallery coverage of politics simply involves relaying announcements and splicing together press releases, little of value is lost when online aggregators take these stories and promulgate them with no return to the media organisations originating that coverage. Media outlets who would have writers work for little or no reward get “a taste of their own medicine” when that work in turn is freely aggregated and distributed.

(d) Public interest journalism in underserviced markets: regional areas, culturally and linguistically diverse markets

Public interest journalism has a role in extrapolating high-level activities of government (e.g. millions of dollars spent in a particular area) and exploring how they affect a particular community, whether or not a particular affect has been included in a formal announcement. Whether or not traditional media organisations regard these communities as commercially appealing markets is beside the point of public interest journalism.

The more people there are engaged in public interest journalism, the higher the chances that local communities will be better informed on matters that affect them. Communities need not be geographically defined, but by language or other specialist interest.

“All politics is local”: this is a truism known to politicians, journalists, and to members of the public. While politics might operate on that level, the practice of Australian political journalism largely doesn’t.

The weakness of centralised traditional media is evident during and after election campaigns. In NSW and Australian elections, we see facile coverage of western Sydney that is resented by those who live there, and uninformative to those who don’t. Something similar is happening in the US after last year’s election, where centralised media descends on communities in Appalachia and the Midwest that have few media resources of their own, and which are poorly served by centralised national media. By creating room for public interest journalism, you relieve pressure of traditional media that simply isn’t coping with the demands placed upon it.

Again, there are two main ways that the Australian government can boost public interest journalism to these communities:
  • The provision of reliable and relevant data online as an exemplar of, and expression of faith in, high quantity and high quality public information to inform public debate; and
  • The removal of petty and self-defeating rules restricting access to quality data and information, and the privileging of other concerns less important than public interest journalism ahead of it.
I question whether public broadcasters should maintain correspondents in media-saturated locations like the UK and the US. In theory, an Australian voice from those places provides a uniquely different perspective on events from those places. In practice it is hard to see what that difference is, and whether resources might be diverted to improve reporting in the public interest.

I hope that members of those communities will rise to these and other related challenges of the information age.

10 July 2017

Distressed assets, part 2

Following on from yesterday on Bernardi's political bottom-feeding:

What becomes of the broken-hearted

Bernardi has some capacity to make inroads into the Coalition, particularly the Liberal Party, but only after the Turnbull government has gone. Nobody, not even George Christensen, wants to do to the extant government what Jack Beasley or Vince Gair did to Labor back in the day. Bernardi may be able to lord it over the churchmice who run Family First, but there are limits to his political reach and skill.

In South Australia, losses at state and federal level will see out the Liberals. Pyne and Marshall are not strong enough to hold out for long against a concerted movement by both Bernardi and Xenophon, not even if Pyne shakes down defence contractors for campaign funds. Say what you will about Xenophon, but he's tougher, smarter, and more deft at both policy and tactics than Pyne. Every step Pyne took to the right to maintain his place under Abbott and survive all that sniping from Minchin is erased by Bernardi.

The Liberals in WA (the most right-wing division of the party) are in disarray, discredited after so long in state government and little to show for the boom but debt. WA's normally strident business community is weakened and cannot afford to antagonise the new state Labor government, nor discount the prospect of a federal one. Once Cormann is gone, and Dame Rachel Cleland dies, who will block Liberal ears to the siren call of AusCons?

Michael Kroger has almost succeeded in his life's work of ridding the Victorian Liberals of Hamerite moderates. Liberal preselections are beset by such dire candidates they make Sophie's Choice look straighforward. Whatever doubts Daniel Andrews may have are surely allayed by the unshakeable commitment by Kroger, Matthew Guy and Inga Peulich to douse their party in voter repellent. Once they lose three or four federal seats and get belted on Spring Street, they will embrace Bernardi like the old VFL used to snaffle Magarey Medallists - especially if Bernardi gets Bolt on board.

The ACT Liberals are pretty much Bernardi people anyway. Zed is one good lunch away from throwing in his lot with Bernardi, or he'll lose to the Greens and the party structure will switch to AusCons bag and baggage. The NT's CLP might take a detour via Hanson but they will end up in his camp sooner or later.

All of the above scenarios, and the ones in the preceding post, show the one thing required for Bernardi to succeed politically: a vacuum.

In Tasmania, Abetz and Lambie will see off Bernardi. As the Hodgman government fades, a conservative may appear who doesn't like Abetz and won't play second-fiddle to Lambie, and may turn to Bernardi: there are too many variables for that to even postulate now.

The Queensland LNP was formed to secure state government, keeping control in gnarled rustic hands while presenting a civil face to the urban south-east. They only succeeded once. Once. What happens if they get smashed, not just by a Labor government but one led by women! Two of them! Re-establishing the Liberal Party's Qld division and the non-national Nationals won't be an option.

Queensland is a long way from South Australia, but Bernardi can speak slowly and it isn't like he's from Sydney or Melbourne. Some LNPers may drift to AusCons if the scenarios with Katter and Hanson come off, but again there are too many variables.

This leaves NSW.

There are two factors operating in NSW. First, the Coalition is running a functioning, popular government, that is getting stuff done and solving problems. There are some right-wingers, but not enough to destroy the government with dogmatic focus on issues that don't matter and neglect of those that do. Right-wingers like Dominic Perrottet and Anthony Roberts are on a sweet wicket, and nothing Bernardi says or does will entice them away from their current roles.

The second is the current federal member for Warringah. Abbott was never a factional leader, but he's had to become a figurehead because the Liberal right in NSW are such monkeys. He can't sit around Canberra or go jogging or do whatever else he does with any confidence that his homeboys are minding the shop.

Whenever you see the press gallery insisting that Abbott is lunging for his old job, know that he's flat out securing his own preselection. Preselection (the process by which a party endorses a candidate to run for a parliamentary seat) is basic political competence, one of those fundamental skills upon which higher-order operations depend. Even the newest, lowliest backbencher has won preselection.

Murdoch TV personality Ross Cameron was the little brother Abbott never had. He spent eight years as MP for Parramatta on Abbott, like those betas who trail around behind school bullies. Cameron should be one of Abbott's chief lieutenants within the NSW Liberals, but instead he has fallen foul of a basic rule that has seen him suspended from the party for five years. Quite why Murdoch TV regard him as some sort of sage is unclear to me. Another of Abbott's posse, Jokus Ludicrous, is facing similar disciplinary action because of similarly basic stupidity. Abbott's bestie, David Gillespie, is under threat of losing his seat over yet another basic act of dumbness.

Those guys should be supporting Abbott, not putting themselves in need of support. After 23 years in Parliament, he should have a tight-knit band of professionals who head off any threat to his political survival and keep the home fires burning. Abbott fans will tell you what a great guy he is, and how his staff love him, but if the guy can't keep preselection in Warringah then he's fundamentally weak and probably even more of a prick than I think he is. Canberra is brutal at exposing and homing in on political weakness, and no weakness is more fundamental than preselection: the result of building a team in your local branches that is both loyal and effective.

Here is where the idea that Turnbull is worse than Abbott falls down. For all his limitations, Turnbull can hold his preselection against all comers. He has a loyal and effective base within his local branches. Whatever travails he may have with Dutton or Shorten or Trump, his base is sufficiently solid so that he can act on the national stage.

The idea that the government are going to elect a leader who can't be sure his own branches are behind him is stupid, an idea advanced only by people who don't understand politics and have no business reporting on it. Abbott might feel more at home in a party that consisted only of conservatives - but it wouldn't be a governing party. He fancies his chances at winning a wider constituency, and to do that you need to be in an established party with a track record of being in government - like, say, the Liberal Party as it is currently constituted.

If Bernardi offered Abbott a role within AusCons it would be a comedown for both men. Bernardi can lord it over Gichuhi or Carling-Jenkins, but Abbott is a different beast. Would Abbott be a net gain to the AusCons?

If Turnbull and Berejiklian lost office then the right would be out for revenge - but they are so stupid they would fuck that up too, and activate the party's "let's not be hasty" mindset that saw them lose state government for 16 years. There might be a few individuals and even a few Liberal branches that might defect to AusCons, but so what? The defection of, say, Walter Villatora might not be the coup Bernardi's people might want the press gallery to believe.

Follow the money

Bernardi was unsuccessful in securing money from the US right, such as the Koch brothers (the real reason for his trip to New York last year, to the point where questions should be asked about his publicly-funded trip and its impact on Australia's representation at the UN). He might be more successful if the Republicans lose Congress in 2018 and the White House in 2020, and those donors spread more of their funding internationally.

Bernardi won't be able to conduct fundraising and parliamentary business simultaneously, but who would he trust to raise the money? Where is his Santamaria? Where, apart from his wife is his sounding board?

Any liquidator will want to make sure his party's financial management is even tighter than his message discipline. Even the whiff of impropriety will repel potential and current members, and will invalidate any of the prospects described here for Bernardi's and AusCons' future. The Liberal Party will not take kindly to having its money switch with members to AusCons.

Why Bernardi can't win in the long term

When you're a liquidator/administrator, you don't have a long-term stake in the business you're taking over. The dream that inspired the business and motivated those within it is over: those people may weep as you take their security passes and send them home. You stop the bleeding and focus on the short-to-medium term interests of the stakeholders, who all have unequal importance when dividing what's left of the loot.

Bernardi's wish for an equal-but-opposite broad social base for conservatism is doomed:
  • Workers join unions to secure better wages and working conditions; there is no countervailing broad movement for less and worse, especially as the Reserve Bank and the Business Council realise the economic impacts of consumers withholding spending.
  • Progressive social movements seek to force change on politicians often unwilling to grant it; few will work as hard or as long to retain stasis.
  • Even conservative women bristle at being patronised, denied opportunities open to male counterparts, and/or subjected to violence. Countervailing forces to feminism are weak and yield when pushed or even exposed.
  • And while there is countervailing force to same-sex marriage, there appears to be no fallback option should it ever come to a vote and pass the parliament. It's hard enough to maintain one's own marriage let alone interfere in those of others.
Assuming you can't just outlaw GetUp! and the ACTU, what would happen with a broad-based activist left and a broad-based activist right? There are two possibilities:
  1. Centrist stasis, moderate liberals in ever more pointless set-piece quadrilles with Centre Unity Labor, achieving little of real import; or
  2. A hopelessly riven polity that talks past one another, as we see in the US; or
  3. There is no third option. Conservatives do black/white only. As Tony Abbott shows us, nuance is for sissies and losers.
Where is the left-wing Alan Jones? Probably arguing with the right-wing Van Badham. This kind of shit is where Bernardi's head is at. As a liquidator, and then as a politician, Bernardi's focus is short-to-medium, which is a problem for any conservative.

We live in an age of great upheaval, and conservatives are people looking for timeless continuities when everything seems nasty, brutish, and short. Bernardi says he's a conservative, and for all I know he may live a traditional life in Adelaide's more sylvan glades, but it isn't enough. As per the dot-points above, he doesn't have a long-term agenda. Where are the institutions that might buttress enduring human interests: the church? Government? Western Civ expressed through arts institutions?

Thanks to publicly-subsidised education at Sydney and Oxford, Tony Abbott can drop Western Civ references from Augustine to Zwingli - but he doesn't live those values. He can't show conservative voters how to do so, nor persuade non-conservatives why it's desirable (remember his proposal for hard-to-dissolve covenant marriages?). Bernardi can't just do old-school scolding, hoping tradition will back him up. If he gets Abbott in the tent, he cedes control, but without Abbott he runs a boutique operation beneath his ambition.

Once he assembles a ramshackle gang (with or without Abbott), Bernardi will have to keep them together and focused on some long-term goal that's bigger than all of them. There is no proof Bernardi has leadership skills. There is no proof he has a strong team outside parliament offering depth of perspective and a sounding board, as the major parties do with their executives. I've explained his lack of a long-term agenda. What he's doing is clearly working for some in the current, transitory environment; but to use a phrase much used by hippies, it's just not sustainable.