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Under the gun

October 21, 2016 - 10:40 -- Admin

Tony Abbott is niggling at Malcolm Turnbull again, and much of the press gallery have reported this in terms of its impact on the Turnbull government's agenda. There are three things to consider here, and all of them go to the question of the very point of political reporting and a press gallery.Firstly, the press gallery seems to value process over product. It likes calm, orderly passage of legislation through both houses, with banal and brief set-piece debates and preferably bipartisanship among the majors; if not, a minimum of mystifying horse-trading in the Senate might be tolerable. It would rather describe how legislation passes rather than what might be in it - even when legislation limits journalists in doing their jobs, it will be actual journalists far beyond the gallery who raise the alarums. When you discuss policy, and potential changes to the law that affect real people's lives and work, you run the risk of engaging readers/ listeners/ viewers and having them engage in political debate, and maybe work with others to make changes to deals that have already been done in Canberra. Far better to just sit by and describe the passage of legislation in purely functional terms, the way you might sit beside the Molonglo and observe the trickling water, the bird calls, the wriggling and wafting of nature taking its inexorable course.Note how the press gallery covered the Gillard government. There were more journalists in the press gallery than members of parliament, and yet every one of them agreed that the prevalence of horse-trading in both houses and relative absence of Bipartisanship was Chaotic and the very sort of thing that must not happen again. By contrast, the Abbott government passed very little legislation, but so orderly - when that government's budgets were stymied in the Senate, and passed in the barest terms only to avoid a repeat of 1975, the press gallery couldn't cope with the idea that concerns from outside parliament had somehow made their way in to affect votes in parliament. Instead, they cried chaos, disaster and hoped it would all go away. Government is only either calm or argy-bargy, according to the press gallery, and in the latter state they overestimate their ability to both describe the situation accurately and engage their public. To give one example - when Katharine Murphy gets excited she loses herself in mixed metaphors, as you can see here (a game of chicken in Gethsemane?). Secondly, no government has ever been good at managing internecine conflict. The chaos narrative of the Gillard government was fed by Rudd scowling at the backs of ministers speaking to legislation and answering Question Time questions, not how well or badly those ministers performed. There was no real equivalent to that in the Howard government, but there was in the latter half of 1991 when Paul Keating was a backbencher in the Hawke government, and apparently the last twelve months of Fraser, Whitlam, and McMahon were less than stellar. Press gallery journalists should be able to draw on that history: is the government paralysed? Only Laura Tingle (no link, paywalled) appears to be making the case that it isn't, that in administrative terms (see above) it is starting to hit its straps. Can the government build an administrative exoskeleton to compensate for its obvious weaknesses with personnel and interpersonal issues (if Chris Pyne and Marise Payne are treading on each other's toes, this government truly is finished)? Tingle wisely avoids projection this far out from the likely next election, and my forecasting record speaks for itself. When it comes to Abbott, though, calm and orderly government (or the appearance thereof) leads us to the third issue with recent coverage. Have we forgotten what Abbott was like as Prime Minister? Look at that negotiation with Leyonhjelm (if you can hack through the tangled thickets of Murphy's mixed metaphors above, it's as good an account as any). For starters, Abbott was being sneaky, holding out a promise he had no intention of honouring. Then there's the issue of him implying a staffer in Michael Keenan's office acted independently of Abbott's office; the sheer degree of control exercised from the PM's Office by Peta Credlin should have made anyone with any recollection of the Abbott government (i.e. pretty much the entire press gallery) laugh that notion off the public record. Abbott is overestimating how clever he is by dumping on a staffer, showing the gutlessness and dishonesty that made him unfit to ever be Prime Minister in the first place. The Liberal Party failed itself and the nation by electing such a manifestly unsuitable leader. His behaviour here is consistent with his performance as leader, and believe him when he says (however implicitly) that he will do that again if he were to be brought back up like a bad pizza.Tony Abbott is not some sort of intelligent, reflective person who adapts his ideas of political leadership to prevailing circumstances. Churchill was Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer when the Depression hit in 1929, and saw the age-old economic law of tying the value of currency to gold crumble under him. He spent the 1930s studying Hitler and the Nazis in far more depth than his Daily Mail-reading conservative colleagues, or the pacifist left of the time. Franklin D. Roosevelt had spent the late 1920s in political furlough, considering what government was for and what it might be, before lunging for the Governorship of New York and the Presidency of the United States. Abbott might have some patter about having been humbled, but there is nothing to back it up - and any journalist who merely quotes him is a patsy.If you're going to cover Abbott's niggles, don't simper like Leigh Sales did while Abbott talks over you Trump-like, lying and fudging without challenge. Sales, and every other journalist covering this, should have called him out on his inability to delegate and his blithe disregard for those trying to do the basic transactional work that makes complex government possible. Setting broad parameters for ministers, their staff, and other underlings is the essence of leadership. Its absence with Abbott as Prime Minister meant the country was misgoverned. If Abbott returns as Prime Minister, we will be misgoverned again. Turnbull was right to call him out, wrong to imply such a sound and well-supported policy might be watered down. Shorten is right to finger the dissent within the government, wrong to imply Labor might be above making concessions to gunlosers in pursuit of regional votes. Merely quoting both argy and bargy (which is how the press gallery sees its role) is simply not good enough given the important broader issues of community safety far beyond locked-down Parliament House.The press gallery is obliged to frame its reporting of Abbott in the sickly light of experience - not to lose themselves in slathering at the prospect of argy-bargy, or thinking that his actual record constitutes 'bias'. Start telling the truth, draw upon experience and apply it, and some of your credibility issues might recede. Hopping excitedly from argy to bargy and back again, projecting your own short attention span onto your your audience, can only confirm the decline of journalism from which notions like "24 hour news cycle" never fully detract - let alone fix. We have a right not to be misgoverned, which is more important than any press gallery wish to return to a time and place where they felt more comfortable.