Lights out

7

The last time an Australian Labor leader came up with a phrase that was both memorable and of positive benefit to the Party was Ben Chifley’s ‘Light on the Hill’. So good was it, in fact, that the media have deliberately tried to turn it into a joke phrase.

Oddly, the phrase is part of an otherwise forgettable piece of prose:

I try to think of the Labor movement, not as putting an extra sixpence into somebody’s pocket, or making somebody Prime Minister or Premier, but as a movement bringing something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people. We have a great objective – the light on the hill – which we aim to reach by working the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand. If it were not for that, the Labor movement would not be worth fighting for.

Indeed the memorable ‘light’ part bears no obvious relation to the rest of the worthy description, and that in turn, though it is worthy, is totally unclear. ‘Better standards of living’? ‘Greater happiness’? You see what he is trying to get at, but it is no ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’, is it?
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Green parasols

1

‘You have come down here to see an election – eh? Spirited contest, my dear sir, very much so indeed. We have opened all the public-houses in the place. It has left our opponent nothing but the beer-shops — masterly policy, my dear sir, eh?’ The little man smiled complacently, and took a large pinch of snuff.

‘And what is the likely result of the contest?’ inquired Mr. Pickwick.

‘Why, doubtful, my dear sir, rather doubtful as yet,’ replied the little man. ‘Fizkin’s people have got three-and-thirty voters in the lock-up coach-house at the White Hart.’
…Read more

Police Academy 9

18

Here we are 8 days since the election that swept Tony Abbott and his Neanderthals to power (although not quite in the Qld-style landslide they and Rupert Murdoch were hoping for) and they have, astonishingly, not yet rolled into Government House to be sworn in.

For the media, including the ABC, the election seems not to have happened. They (rather like a Japanese soldier still hiding out in the Philipines and following the Emperor’s orders 50 years after the end of the war) are still bashing Labor, stirring up leadership tensions and ignoring policy issues, while Rudd supporters still trot into tv studios to talk about the future of the Party they damaged so badly, Graham Richardson is still billed as a “Labor powerbroker” (the word “power” being wrong), and scum from the RW think tank the IPA, busily planning the Hayekian paradise, are merely identified as “conservative commentators” by the ABC, rather in the way they might identify Genghis Khan as a “Chinese Horseman”.
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Visigoths and Vandals

5

It is August*, and the citizens are aware of the barbarians at the gates of their civilisation. The Visigoths have a bad reputation, but they have been secretly chatting to the slaves and convinced them they are really good guys, big supporters of the Lower Orders in fact. So one night the slaves open the locked gates and in come the Visigoths who then proceed to rape, pillage and generally wreck the joint, just as their reputation had suggested. The slaves, and this will shock you, ended up worse off.

Forty five years go by. Not very long, really, sufficiently short for old codgers like me to have seen the Visigoths in action and to think, oh shit, not again. But yes, this time it is the Vandals at the gates. No shenanigans with slaves this time, no need, all sorts of silly buggers have been played by the rulers of the civilisation, the politics is a mess, and next thing you know “The Vandals are coming, the Vandals are coming”. Who proceed to try to outdo those wimps the Visigoths and thoroughly trash the joint, so thoroughly that the year 455 is generally considered to mark the end of the once mighty 500 year old Roman Empire.
image
Yes, Rome, what did you think? Oh, I see, you thought you could see analogies with the citizens of Australia terrified of the arrival of Coalition barbarians on 7 September? Well, I hadn’t thought of that but now you mention it…
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Change the country

16

This is the 27th Australian federal election in my lifetime. There have also been 17 US Presidential elections and 18 British general elections in that enormous stretch of time.

I can’t remember any of them that were not billed as significant, turning-point, world-changing, most-important-election-in-our-lifetime, events. And yet, with the wisdom of hindsight looking back over nearly seven decades, the number that actually proved of great moment could be counted on two hands. In America the elections of Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan and GW Bush were the biggies. In Britain those of Attlee, Wilson, Thatcher, Blair and Cameron. In Australia the elections of Menzies, Whitlam, Howard, Rudd and Gillard were, in retrospect, significant. The kind of significance Keating meant when, looking down the barrel of defeat by Howard, he said “change the government, change the country”, and he was certainly right about that 1996 election.

And here comes another one in Australia that can honestly be billed as a country-changing moment. Arguably indeed the most significant such election in post-War Australia.
…Read more

Great Expectations

11

Hooray, hooray, The Guardian newspaper now has an Australian edition as of this morning. Glad cries from progressives, more and more perturbed, no, angry, at the increasingly blatant right-wing bias of all the other mainstream media in Australia, not just the 70% of newspapers owned by Murdoch, but the others (mainly Fairfax), the radio talk shows, and the public broadcaster the ABC. Please please, came the cry, come to Australia, oh lovely Guardian newspaper where reality creates a left-wing bias, come and save us. And here, at last, they are.
…Read more

Some Say

10

Journalists with secret sources a cornerstone of our democracy eh? Not so sure. Oh, I know that “I will never reveal the names of my sources” is the Hippocratic Oath of Journalism. And yes, yes, I know all about Watergate. But still, surprisingly, I have me doubts.

Seems hardly an Australian media political story these days, and reflected from there into Twitter, which doesn’t include “senior government sources” “senior ministers” “a number of backbenchers” “Labor insiders” “political observers” “a former power broker”, down to that deepest of Deep Throats the ubiquitous “Some” who frequently appears “saying” things, as a source of stories inevitably damaging to the government.

Now journalists defend this anonymity by arguing that it is an essential part of their trade to protect identity of sources otherwise no whistleblower would ever come forward. In this narrative (for it is just a narrative like all journalism these days) these intrepid journalists find honest insiders willing to lift the lid on some terrible political wrong-doing hidden behind closed doors, and the public must be kept informed.

But it is impossible to think of such a story in recent years. Instead the “whistle blowing” the “leaks from insiders” all have a single theme and purpose – to “reveal” and exacerbate whatever personal tensions exist within the Labor government. Either because it suits the agenda of a media proprietor, or of the Opposition, or of someone who wants to retrieve a Field Marshall’s baton from a knapsack in which, they believe, it was prematurely stored.

That is, this kind of Leak Journalism is not aimed at the public interest but at private interests in the Great Game of politics. The identity of informants, where they do actually exist (and I suggest some are, like the dead body in World War 2 Operation Mincemeat, not real people at all) , is not being protected because of the value of their information to the public, but to hide the nasty political games they are actually playing.

What’s more their anonymity has become a way of journalists inflating the apparent value of sources, of effortlessly increasing them in both numbers and rank to give a totally false impression of the meaning of a story. Pretending that the journalist has 50 whistleblowers, instead of one whistleblower 50 times. And a way of hiding secret agendas, political and business. And of disguising the informant who is a member of a think tanks, pushing a nasty neoconservative economic agenda on behalf of paymasters. And of pretending that “inside information” from the Labor Party isn’t in fact coming from a cunning Liberal troublemaker. And so on.

The media has been completely happy with fake whistleblowers, helping them, for example, to churn out endless fake “Rudd challenge” stories with no more effort than pushing a programmed function key on a keyboard. But the media have treated with contempt those ultimate real whistleblowers Assange and Manning. Their stories needed investigation, work, writing, and, more scarily, would actually involve speaking truth to power. A function once primary for journalists but no longer.

Anyway, think it is time for a change to this “secret informant” business. Some say all informants’ identities should be made public, in the interests of transparency, unless there is an extremely good reason for not doing so.

What do you say?

Happily-ever-aftering

4

Twitter provides so much inspiration for blogging (and vice versa) that you could, given an infinite amount of time and pep pills and typewriter ribbon, blog all day and all night. I thought today I would illustrate some of this, picking up on a number of stories and blogging briefly about them.

Here is the first:

Shoky Joky (@IH8SHOKJOKS)
25/03/13 9:03 AM
#AmAgenda – Fifield says “we never saw anything like a challenge to John Howard”. That’s just a lie which @Kieran_Gilbert accepted. #MSMfail

There are dozens of similar tweets just in my timeline every day, and I don’t want to talk about individuals here, this exchange could represent any Opposition member talking to any journalist. But let’s consider what is going on.

For the benefit of my younger readers (those born after 2007), here is some of John Howard’s political history. From 1983-1993 he was engaged in a life and death acrimonious struggle with Andrew Peacock for Liberal Party Opposition Leadership during the first ten years of Hawke-Keating.

They undermined each other and exchanged places after leadership coups several times, the battle ending only when Peacock lost the 1990 election and resigned but not before supporting John Hewson as his successor and blocking Howard from regaining leadership.

After Hewson lost in 1993, the almost comedy team of Downer and Costello took over after deposing Hewson in another bitter coup. Downer eventually resigned in 1995 and Howard got a triple bypass and, Lazarus-like, rose again. With a deal done with Costello that he would accept the Deputy Leadership if Howard agreed to step down within a reasonable period.

It never happened, Costello became more and more aggrieved, was more and more publicly at odds with Howard and determined to replace him. The bad blood between them was obvious, and much remarked on (and the exact parallels with the Hawke-Keating relationship). By 2007 it was also becoming obvious Howard could lose the election, and some of his most senior ministers went to him (in an exact parallel to what would later happen to Rudd) demanding that he resign and hand over to Costello. He refused and went on to lose of course.

Now all of this has happened just in the last 30 years. The bitter Costello challenge of Howard is within the last ten years. This is recent Australian political history. You might not remember the precise sequence involved in Howard-Peacock and so on, but if you have any involvement in Australian politics you would have to know the substance of it.

In short, in 30 years Howard was “challenged” over and over again. The only difference between Hawke-Keating and Howard-Costello, and Howard and Rudd, was that Howard was able to tough out the later challenges (as he had failed to do in the earlier ones) whereas both Hawke and Rudd succumbed to their’s.

And yet here we have an Opposition member apparently flat-out denying the reality of history, never happened, Howard was never challenged, (implying only Labor has challenges). And he in turn is allowed to rewrite history because his statement goes unchallenged. We have, it seems, always been at war with Oceania.

I repeat, this is merely a single example of something that happens daily now. I don’t know whether the Opposition deliberately lies or has fooled itself into its own alternative history reality of a King Howard who lived where:
“The rain may never fall till after sundown.
By eight, the morning fog must disappear.
In short, there’s simply not, a more congenial spot
For happily-ever-aftering than here in Camelot”

And happily-ever-aftering we go.

On the other hand I don’t know whether Australian journalists are operating under instructions never to question even the most blatant untruths; whether they are personally disinclined to; or whether knowledge of Australian political history is no longer a requirement for employment in Australian political journalism. Those who forget political history are doomed to report it badly.

Whatever the reasons, this turning of journalism into merely a matter of holding a microphone for a politician to speak into is extraordinarily damaging to Australian democracy (and elsewhere, much the same seems to be true of the US and UK). The average punter doesn’t retain political memories in the way us political tragics do. Just as he or she doesn’t have expertise in, say, medicine, or plumbing, or car engines, or climate change, and trusts specialists to provide it, so they trust experts to provide background, context, for politics.

If they are told, confidently, that John Howard was never challenged, by someone whose statement itself is unchallenged, then they are likely to accept it as true. History has been successfully rewritten, and, being so, will successfully alter the mindset of the voter to accept that leadership disputes have only taken place in the last year, and only ever take place in an inherently unstable Labor Party. A message that fits with all the similar messages, based on other rewritten histories, already implanted.

Media organisations used to have Fact Checkers, a role which seems to have largely disappeared these days. But in a broader sense the public once saw the media as a whole as a Giant Fact Checker responsible, on their behalf, for keeping the bastards honest. That role has been totally abandoned it seems and now the bastards have no constraints on their dishonesty.

It seems to be increasingly falling to the Social Media, Twitter and Blogs, to take over that vacant media fact checker role. Australia still won’t be Camelot, but we’ll be happier with our politics after that happens.

Or perhaps I am wrong. Check me.

Own Goaaaaaaal!

19

Yesterday in Australia we saw the media in full blown raw and uncut uncamouflaged action as they thought they were witnessing the successful culmination of another year’s hard work in unseating a female Prime Minister. And one reason for their campaign was out in the open, thanks to the magic of twitter.

From the moment the starter’s gun (in the unpredicted form of Wiley E. Crean) went off the journalists were in heaven. Finally they had an actual football match, er, sorry, leadership challenge, in the flesh, to report. It was as if one of those loony tunes evangelists, after years of predicting the end of the world at dates calculated by adding random numbers from hymn books, was suddenly told that a rather large asteroid was heading straight at Earth and would be hitting in a couple of hours.

Off they went, these gangs of football hooligans, sorry, journalists, must stop doing that, to roam parliament house looking for a spot of bovver, er, sorry, looking for some solid news to illuminate the story for the public.

And sure enough, these hard-headed, experienced journalists were soon coming up with real nuggets of KFC, sorry, gold. One bumped into a couple of Rudd supporters who said their man had the numbers. Others were reporting a scorecard produced by Sky which had Gillard narrowly ahead (was it 52-38, I forget) but with “9 undecided”, numbers which seemed to have been generated by a water diviner passing a stick over a list of caucus names.

Others, seeking, perhaps much more scientific psephology were quoting bookies’ odds. Again, I forget the exact figures, but they had Rudd as unbackable as Phar Lapp, and Gillard less likely to win than the Australian cricket team was to win the fourth test in India. The reporters were delighted to report that Kevin Rudd, finally arriving in parliament, was writing things down on a bit of paper. Who knew what, but, obviously, obviously, he was number-crunching, ticking off names as his supporters, water-boarding recalcitrants in the APH car park, advised him through a Protective Services style ear piece, that another former Gillard supporter, poor deluded fool, had come in from the cold.

Still others, uninterested in the boring facts and figures, and searching for human faces to put on the number-crunching faceless men, peered breathlessly down distant corridors where, Swiss clock-like, Stephen Smith was going in this door and out another, while Anthony Albanese moved in another, as different journos reported. Another had several Gillard supporters, probably ashen-faced, in the PM’s Berlin bunker, sorry, Office. Another had “twenty” Rudd supporters in with Kevin. Great heavens, were they holding the 9 undecideds hostage? Still, this “story” was rather spoilt by another intrepid reporter who managed to peep into Rudd’s office and realised that if there were 20 supporters in there they must be very small people indeed.

Anyway, after a lot of this kind of nonsense some journalists bleated, sorry, tweeted, that the Federal Police had, while, surprisingly perhaps, not having kettled the journos, had blocked off their access to the PM’s office and surrounds. And so the main fun was over.

Into the chamber where the next enthralling quarter of football, sorry, politics, was to be played. What were the team line-ups? Great heavens, the coaches were talking to the substitute players, now what? Wow, game on, great tactic from the West Abbott Albions, and totally unexpected, this’ll catch out the Red Devils, a non confidence motion. Wait, what, oh, has to be an SSO first, um, right, dunno much about football, but whatever works. Oh look, the Red Devil subs are playing with the Albion, it’s all over for Full Forward Gillard, she’s lost. What? A technicality means she hasn’t? Boo the umpire, shouldn’t be a woman, hey don’t know nothing about football. What? Game over? But they lost the no confidence … What? There wasn’t? Silly game.

Quick off to the change rooms, see the biffo of the second half.

What? No biffo? No contest? Red Devil wins again without even trying?

How to explain this to the public? Oh, easy, just like we’ve been explaining it last three years. The contest was real, Rudd had the numbers, Abbott wins, Gillard loses. Can just recycle all those earlier fantasy football columns, right? Right.

Who’s for the pub?

Yes Prime Minister

20

I wrote the original version of this piece in July 2011, at a time when Julia Gillard had been PM (and won an election in her own right) for less than a year. Now as we approach three years, and the next election, I thought it was time (also prompted by the excellent recent post by Rodney Lever on the same topic) to re-evaluate, see if my view had changed. And to spell out in more detail my reasoning. See what you think.

In the last 70 years (a period which neatly uses the war years as the start of modern Australia, and allows me to consider only prime ministers serving in my lifetime) Australia has had 13 prime ministers (excluding the temporary Mr Forde, Mr McEwan) just as both the US and UK have had 13 leaders each. You would have to say by any objective measure, and ignoring sniping by people like me, we have been by and large very lucky and very well served by our baker’s dozen. We have avoided having any real dunces (unlike the US with Ford, Reagan, Bush and Bush) or crooks (Nixon). Our 13 also exceed the average quality of 13 British PMs (who avoid the US highs and lows) over that period.

I have, in the past, tried to separate out tops and bottoms. But this would be invidious among a continuous spectrum, and besides I find my opinion alters over time (Fraser up and Keating down for example). So let’s try to assess them over a range of qualities (not including IQ which I reckon averages high and pretty even).

OK, how might we judge the best of these thirteen? Lack of ideology; flexibility of mind; ability to relate to people; difficulty of political circumstances faced; ability to work with colleagues; concern for ordinary people; concern for minorities and the powerless; awareness of the big picture; ability to embody some aspect of the country; hard-working; willingness to take expert advice; someone I can imagine having an intelligent conversation with; someone I could imagine having a beer with; someone who can achieve outcomes; someone who can stand up to vested interests.

Applying those filters quickly begins to whittle down the big thirteen. McMahon, Holt disappear immediately, lightweights who were barely up to ministerial level, let alone PM. The next seven go for different reasons. Rudd and Gorton because of inability to work with colleagues; Howard because of his narrow-minded stubborn ideology; Keating because of his obsession for free markets and against environment; Fraser because of the unprincipled way he seized power, all go out in the first round. Then it gets hard Whitlam and Chifley are reluctantly, because of the magnificent achievements of both, eliminated in the second round. Chifley because of the miner’s strike. Whitlam because his best days were the duumvirate with Lance Barnard. After that he saw himself as the Emperor leaving his cabinet to do their thing, which after 23 years they were mostly not up to in the face of the Murdoch onslaught.

Which leaves just four in the grand final of Australia’s Got Prime Ministerial Talent – Curtin, Menzies, Hawke and Gillard. Now any of those would be a Winner you could argue for, give a standing ovation to, and I reckon you, my fellow judges, might easily disagree with me. Curtin is there because he seems by any measure one of the most decent, and  was the only one faced with stopping Australia being invaded in wartime in face of the self-interest of UK and US. Menzies, not because I think much of him (or his over-rated wit), but because you simply can’t ignore 18 years in The job. Hawke, again not because I think much of him but because, in contrast to Whitlam, he put together an extraordinarily good team, arguably the best in Australian history, and kept the public and media onside 

But, drumroll, my Winner is, on the basis of consistent performance overall – Julia Gillard. Yes, I know, I was surprised too. I fed all the data back into my PM “Difference Engine” (the very latest from Mr Babbage), and waited while the cogs whirred and spun, differences calculated, levers pushed for carries. Yes, it was still Julia by a nose. Do the calculations yourself (and get Ms Lovelace to double check, be analytical) I am sure you will agree.

So, what did the print-out show? That she’s really the only one who has had to deal with complex minority rule (Curtin did briefly in simpler circumstances). That she has had to deal with an Opposition determined to smash parliamentary conventions, and also in extraordinarily unprincipled moves force out two members of parliament to try to destroy the majority.

She has had other problems shared with other PMs, for example family difficulties (eg Hawke, Chifley), a persistent rival (again Hawke, plus Howard, Gorton), virulent press opposition (Whitlam, Keating, but I’ll come back to this), difficult world financial circumstances (Keating, Hawke, Rudd, Chifley), but no one else has faced them all simultaneously. Nor carried them off while remaining calm and pleasant and working well with all her colleagues except her predecessor and several of his supporters, and succeed in passing record amounts of legislation, much of great importance (carbon price, NBN). A number of them have given fine speeches, but none perhaps as significant as Gillard’s now world famous “misogyny speech”, the response to the constant nasty misogyny from the Opposition, outraged that a woman dared to be in charge.

Oh, look, I am no longer the starry-eyed boy who has political heroes like I once did (Jim Cairns, JFK). Julia Gillard is no Chifley or Whitlam in terms of Labor values. Her lack of interest in environmental matters is stunning. Her approach to asylum seekers leaves Fraser gasping. Her hard line on unemployed and single parents would have had her thrown out of Chifley’s cabinet. Her unconscionable pursuit of the Religious Right, in such matters as same sex marriage and school chaplains must have Whitlam and Hawke shaking heads. And so on and so on. Some of that has been forced on her by circumstances, some seems to be flaws in her thinking. But then all of them have had flaws of various kinds. If there is to be the perfect PM we haven’t quite found him or her yet.

So, best PM in 70 years, but there is another unique feature that distinguishes Ms Gillard from all her predecessors. No, not the size of her ear lobes, her hair colour, her clothes, her voice, her glasses. Give in? She has been subject to more personal abuse, vilification, hatred, death threats, than all of her predecessors put together.

At the same time she has been subject to the most one-sided unfair media coverage and constant virulent media attacks we have ever seen. The move by John Howard to not merely “neutralise” the ABC, but move it so far to the Right as to be able to run in harness with News Ltd has been decisive. As has the role of other media barons, their tame shock jocks, and their supportive “think tanks”. Not a government decision goes damningly uncritised, not a move is fairly reported, not a motive nastily unquestioned, not a fake leadership challenge left unturned. At the same time, the most incompetent, secretive, and low target Opposition in our history, has been not only left unchallenged, unquestioned, but praised in glowing terms, given dream runs, soft interviews, prominent soapboxes, on media outlets.

Both media and Opposition are determined to remove a vaguely left wing government and replace it with a hard right one which will undo all the advances Gillard has made and turn Australia into a ground as fertile for big business profit as America. If they succeed, and I reckon the chances are they will, then the baker’s dozen will end with her, a unique sequence come to an end. If Tony Abbott seizes the top job, then we will have not only taken on Tea Party politics from America, but their roller coaster leadership sequence in which some excellent, or at least above average, Presidents, can be succeeded by real dickheads, people who struggle to read a children’s book about a pet goat.

Anyway, over to you. Have I gilded the lily, overegged the pudding?