The week the Liberal party died

Monday, 27 August 2018    

David Rowe, AFR

What on earth just happened last week? Here was a government just two points behind the opposition a year away from an election, with the most popular leader they had (OK, not saying much, but certainly preferred over his opponent) – now replaced by someone much less popular, no real change in direction, a by-election that could end their majority, and now being hit by one of the worst Newspolls since they began.

Of course what happened between the two leaders was the intervention of the delusional Liberal right. Having faced set-back after set-back over the last year, and with little support even among LNP voters, let alone anyone else, they found the least appealing candidate they could muster, primarily to save the party’s “soul”, but clearly hoping the electorate would go along.

Yet what was clear through last week was that the delusions of the right were not just confined to them.

Confusions abounded. Over-stating the Dutton challenge, the overwhelming view of the media after the first vote on Tuesday was that Turnbull was obviously finished, buried and cremated – but he wasn’t really. When Fifield, Cash and “numbers man” Mathias Cormann sonorously announced in the Senate courtyard that Turnbull no longer enjoyed the support of the party, it was not true – until they switched sides – those three turning out to be exactly the number needed for Turnbull to survive a 45/40 motion for a spill.

Turnbull clearly believed the hype as well. Thinking all was lost he allowed Bishop and Morrison to start canvassing in his place. But it’s a fair bet that there would have been at least three MPs who would not have voted for a spill if those two weren’t already declared candidates for the second round. No wonder Turnbull was reportedly horrified when he saw how close the spill result was.

But it was not just the Liberals and the media that believed the hype. Labor’s release of legal advice on Dutton’s constitutional ineligibility suggested they were worried about him as well. There were reported concerns that Dutton would whip up law and order and immigration, and play up Howard-esque “values” tapping into Labor’s long-standing insecurities on the issue. The most articulate proponent of those insecurities, Julia Gillard, summed it up when she warned that the convulsions in the Liberals were part of an upsurge of the righty being seen globally.

But Dutton is no Trump. Trump tends to win things for a start. Equating the two comes from the confused view in Australian commentary that what we are seeing overseas is mainly an upsurge of the right. Trump’s banging on about immigration is an attack on the political establishment, Dutton and the Liberal Right are trying to prop it up – or the Liberal part of it at least.

The Liberal right are correct on one thing, Turnbull doesn’t stand for very much. But then what Liberal Prime Minister ever did? Aside from about five minutes of conviction sunshine after 9/11, Howard flipped and flopped so much that his admirers thought it a sign of his foxy genius, whether on petrol excise and the GST in the first few years and practically everything near the end.

The Liberal party was a classic Cold War political organisation such as sprang up in Europe after the war – virulent anti-communism/socialism compensating for a shame-faced right. It created one of the most successful electoral machines in Australian political history, but for twenty years has been struggling with nothing to be against. Last week it all blew open and a party that had always been about taking power made no effort to hide throwing it away.

Morbid symptoms abound. The ideological struggle for the “heart and soul”, what last week was supposed to be about, is nonsense for a party that had been primarily about winning and compromising to do so. As Amanda Vanstone pointed out on The Drum, if anything, Turnbull’s economic and social liberalism, like on same sex marriage, was more in line with typical blue-ribbon voters of Vaucluse, Toorak and Burnside than either Abbott or Dutton.

The media’s influence on what happened last week is another morbid sign. Chris Uhlmann’s attack on News Corp’s intervention in the leadership contest was fair enough – in one sense. Anyone who read the Daily Telegraph or The Australian the last week would know what they think of Turnbull. But any influence media had is only because the party allowed it. Last week saw the party being played around like a ball of wool by a kitten, only comparable to the way the media was used to present the Labor caucus with a fait accompli on 23 June 2010.

But at least then the Sussex St operatives demonstrated their traditional factional finesse. All the softening up by the News Corp media in the run up to last week couldn’t cover up the sheer ineptitude of the parliamentary implementation on the ground – summed up by the hapless attempt to get a petition filled out after having made such a big deal of it – until eventually Turnbull supporters were needed to finish it off. Indeed, the blaming of the media for what is really a chronic political weakness is unfortunately repeating the way media is increasingly being attacked in Europe and the US for what is ultimately a failing political system.

The media feeding off a weakening party was also on display last week with ideological punditry pushing their own agendas and banging on about values and “baseS” over which they, and their Liberal right chums, are totally confused. There is only one “base” the Liberal party has with any meaning – the big business that set up and financed the party to oppose the agenda of the union bureaucracy “base” that set up Labor.

With the union leadership now just comfortable super fund managers, business has little interest in the Liberal party and even less interest in funding it. Unprecedented for the Liberals, they now face a funding crisis while in government, only exacerbated by their loss of two of its biggest fund-raisers, Turnbull and Bishop.

Commentators treated it like yet another of the leader dumpings we’ve seen over the last decade, but it clearly wasn’t. Ultimately all were internally driven, but this time there wasn’t even a pretence of an electoral justification. The contempt the party showed the public was not just in not even bothering to make it about them, but the condescending attempts to “humanise” Dutton as though that was going to somehow compensate. It has continued with Morrison’s blokey pantomime, going on about pies and appearing with photos of his family like anyone cares. Before the Newspoll came out there was almost a relief that they had got away with it. In a sense they did, by backing away from the abyss of a Dutton leadership. That’s nice for the Liberals. The problem is that for everyone else, they now just look like useless idiots.

14 comments

The delusions of the Australian right

Tuesday, 21 August 2018    

David Rowe AFR

Finally, we can stop the pretence. The veneer of electoral rationale that has covered the leadership turmoil of the last decade finally fell away yesterday. Read more …

6 comments

Sinking expectations

Monday, 30 July 2018    

Bill Shorten had what was for him a stunning Saturday night, managing to do what every federal opposition leader has done without fail for a century – hold on to seats in a by-election. Even if regular readers of this blog will recognise this as damnation of faint praise, the same thing repeated all across the media shows how expectations are sinking, fast. Read more …

8 comments

Book review: Katharine Murphy’s On Disruption

Monday, 9 July 2018    

Katharine Murphy’s short, well-written book On Disruption succinctly puts many of the themes that are appearing elsewhere from journalists and ex-politicians and raises some interesting points while it does so.

The first takeaway from the book is how desperately journalists need a union, or some organisation to defend their interests. Like other occupations, journalism has faced technological upheavals from a position of bargaining weakness. Job losses and longer, more stressful, working hours are not confined to journalism. Murphy writes approvingly of the Guardian’s distribution of readership metrics from the digital site to its journalists, but from a weak negotiating position such things can just as easily be management productivity tools.

This is a problem, of course, that goes deeper than just the problems faced by journalists – a case in point being the upheavals faced by car workers mentioned in her book. For years we have been told by unions that they can’t protect interests because we are all terribly middle class and individuated graphic designers. Yet here we had a traditional working-class occupation facing closure where unions were able to do little more than send their leaders to cry outside the factory gates as workers walked out for the last time.

But like most professions, journalism has its particular problems that go beyond merely the sphere of industrial relations. Here the record of Australian journalists in defending their interests in recent years has not been sparkling, often struggling to get over the News Corp/Fairfax/ABC divide.

Freedom of speech may be an empty libertarian abstraction most of the time but for journalists is an operational necessity. It is not just the more blatant examples where it has fallen down, such as the craven response by New Corp journalists (and the Turnbull government) to the ban placed on the ABC by the Nauru government.

Too often there has been a selective attitude by journalists to freedom of speech issues, based on left and right political priorities, more suitable for politicians than the interests of journalists as a profession. This leads to the main point of Murphy’s book, and the one of most interest to this blogger, the relationship between journalists and politics in this period of change.

The uncovering of the Watergate scandal – or the rewriting of it – hangs over political journalism and not always to its benefit. The problem with the Hollywood All the Presidents Men version is that making Redford’s Woodward and Hoffman’s Bernstein into heroes required removing the context in which it was happening. It is taking nothing away from the heroism of Woodward or Bernstein, nor the fortitude of their employers, Katharine Graham and the Washington Post, but the missing player in this is the disarray in the political and government establishment at the time.

Much of that disarray was down to the US losing the war in Indochina that was reverberating back home not just in anti-Vietnam demonstrations but the militancy of the civil rights movements. It forced a red-baiter like Nixon to have to seek entente with Moscow and Beijing to help contain Vietnam, winning him no friends with his traditional backers. It was this establishment in disarray that was leaking to its very core, not just over Watergate but had already given the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times a few years before. The lack of this context leaves the impression that journalism at its best holds power to account and brings down governments.

But in a democracy it is the public that holds power to account, not journalists. Journalists may inform the public to help, but usually such public accountability comes from daily experiences that are readily apparent rather than what journalists can uncover. Indeed, Watergate itself showed the limits to such political journalism. It took Nixon’s resignation for the establishment to start to close ranks, with Nixon’s pardoning within a few months. The Republicans narrowly lost the next election and then came roaring back in a landslide in 1980 with Reagan reviving Nixon’s racial southern strategy from the start with his notorious speech at the Neshoba County Fair, starting a second Cold War and intervening further in the third world, especially Central America.

It is not just that political activism by journalists has a limited effect. Because it is happening usually in the political sphere, and so on politicians’ own terms, it is not good for the health of journalism either.

In Australia, the problems between politicians and journalists really stem from what is supposed to be the Golden Age of this relationship when Hawke and Keating were “educating” journalists, who in turn were “educating” the public on the need for economic reform. This was needed not least because after years of suppression of wages by Labor and the unions, for which employees were rewarded with the Recession We Had to Have at the end of it, Labor’s primary vote and union membership were beginning the terminal decline from which neither have yet to recover. This increasing reliance on the media to mediate the message became a political necessity as the party institutions and their social bases that would have played that role fell away.

Under Howard this relationship turned sour as the government “educated” the media that refugees who risked their lives for a better future for their children would then chuck them in the ocean as a negotiating strategy, while a country that had been bankrupted and starved by decade long sanctions would have at the same time developed weapons that could threaten the world.

This relationship between politicians and journalism was to reach its apogee under Rudd, when a government detached from its own political party, let alone any social base, became reliant on the media to not only communicate policy but also develop it (a role that the media performed with gusto and has had trouble letting go of since). Suitably, that government ended on the night of 23 June 2010 with a media orchestrated dumping that presented a largely stunned and oblivious Caucus with a fait accompli.

Since then there has been malaise and, after a final failure of media hopeful Turnbull, combined with political disruption overseas, questions are now being raised across the profession about that relationship of the type raised in Murphy’s book.

But the response has usually been a call for more political activism from journalists, rather than a rethinking of it, let alone stepping back. If Watergate showed the limitations of political activist journalism, then a look at the US again under the Trump administration suggests its dangers.

At one level the open antagonism between the current US administration and large sections of the media is to be welcomed, not least if it means the exposing of deportation and treatment of immigrant children unreported during the cosy Obama years.

But as would be expected with Trump, he has picked a fight with an opponent he thinks he has a good chance of beating. It is not just that the media is in a weak position and even less popular than Trump, nor even that it is unaware of how weak its position is, but its reaction to Trump’s attacks is to make it even worse.

First, because political activism in journalism naturally focuses on uncovering conspiracies as journalists vie to become the next Woodward/Bernstein/Hersh, such as the Russian conspiracy that so far has produced little result, and may even have led the Democrats down a blind alley. Such conspiracy journalism can even only bolster Trump’s standing with his own supporters, much as Watergate did for Nixon, against the “liberal media” and “Fake News”.

“Fake News” was a term that originally came from the media to describe pro-Trump stories abounding on social media before the election, as an explanation for a win they didn’t see coming. It has rebounded against the media because their reputation, already low, is being further damaged not just with Republicans but even Democrats who think the media deliberately makes stuff up.

What hasn’t helped have been the mistakes made by the media, especially its more authoritative sections, in their battle against Trump. The problem was best summed up by the photograph of a child crying that was put on the front of Time, supposedly being taken from his parents by immigration authorities but which later turned out not to be the case. The problem was not so much the mistake itself, nor even Time’s follow up reporting to the photo that also wasn’t true, anyone can make a mistake, but the reaction by Time to the error, namely that it was secondary to highlighting the issue itself.

This is the political disease. In normal society mistakes matter, and those in a profession or any job are accountable for them – it is the only way things can get done. Dismissing it in the interests of “the bigger picture” is a luxury in the ether of politics, not for anyone doing an actual job.

In Australia, for better or worse, the relationship between press and politicians is more benign. The discussion is more about how the demands of 24 hour digital media are impacting the quality of policy debate within our political parties.

However, seeing the decline in political life as a problem of lack of the grasp of policy has unfortunate resonance right now in the US and UK where arguments have been emerging over the problem of lack of education in political life – presumably not because education standards are declining but because of recent voting results the authors did not like. It is especially prevalent in Britain where the Brexit vote was blamed on voters failing to grasp the complexity of the decision they were making, and ironic this year, being the centenary of granting the vote to women and working class men previously denied on precisely such arguments.

The political problem is one of interests not education. The lack of coherence in political parties’ programs these days is caused by the declining influence of those interests that formed those parties and gave them their programs. Journalists should be far more concerned about their own interests and the impact of the 24 hour news cycle on the declining quality of their own work-life.

That someone like Trump can be President is a product of a hollowed out Republican party that couldn’t stop him and an equally defunct Democrat party that couldn’t defeat him – and looks no closer still. Similarly, the current malaise in Australia is a result of political parties that have had their day but with nothing to replace them. This is up for the public to sort out. It is not up to journalists to step in and fill in the gap left by a failing political profession – even if they could. As Murphy’s book shows, they have their own problems to deal with.

8 comments

Leadership instability over nothing

Saturday, 30 June 2018    

Here’s a question: what program will Labor run to the next election on? If the answer it that it’s too early to tell, they’ll reveal their hand closer to the time, don’t want to make themselves a target etc. etc. etc then here’s another: what program did they run on at the last one? If the answer is as elusive as the name of the current Nationals leader, then it should be noted that this is not usual. Read more …

5 comments

The destructive Tony Abbott

Thursday, 10 May 2018    

Maestro.

The ACMA’s ruling that ABC political editor Andrew Probyn had breached impartiality rules over a report on Tony Abbott was silly. Sure, it was editorialising, but that’s hardly been unknown to the ABC, not least by Probyn’s predecessor. Read more …

5 comments

Two horse race

Monday, 9 April 2018    

Monday’s 30th Newspoll passed with nothing much happening but a reminder as to why Abbott was dumped in the first place. It was media induced of course, but that does mean it is not A Thing. Read more …

Comments Off on Two horse race

Sandbagging

Monday, 19 March 2018    

Like two skilled limbo dancers, the major parties managed to stay on their feet this weekend despite the bar getting lower.

And lower the bar certainly got. Read more …

1 comment

Retail

Sunday, 18 February 2018    

David Rowe AFR

I am not here to moralise.

Turnbull, 15 February 2018

This creeping notion that women need protection from men, that we are weak creatures against men’s rampant desire for sex, is not good for women. It’s regressive.

Gay Alcorn, Guardian

Over the last couple of weeks political journalists have been conducting a debate on the ethics of reporting Joyce’s private life that has perhaps been a little pompous as ultimately the decision of what they write about and get published will depend on the newspapers and media outlets that generally employ them. Read more …

8 comments

Borrowed time

Monday, 5 February 2018    

There has been a growing observation in political commentary so far this year that Turnbull is beginning 2018 in a better shape than he has been in for some time, and even possibly a little better than Shorten, despite lagging him in the polls. While there is some basis to this, the reasons given are vague. Read more …

4 comments

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