“They are a Strange Cattle Here, Bob” – A Katterclysm at the Sydney Writers’ Festival

With each passing year of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, I attend less and less. Possibly this is because I get a chance to read fewer novels and longer form tomes; perhaps it is that I really don’t like queuing around the chaotic mess that is the set of wharves at Walsh Bay; maybe it is that I don’t like being trapped in a room for an hour when the discussion doesn’t interest me.  I don’t begrudge the pleasure people gain from such events – there are wall to wall earnest, funny and warm conversations about books, held in quiet and respectful settings. The event clearly nourishes many minds.

This year, however, we saw two outsiders take the event by storm – well, for an hour anyway.  Kevin Rudd interviewed Independent MP Bob Katter about his new book – An Incredible Race of People. Rudd set the tone early by making a point about their Queensland origins – this was framed as a way for Sydney people to try to understand how Queensland thinks.  Due to this framing, it seemed as though Rudd shepherded Katter through the experience as to not make him angry and confused, as being in Sydney seemed to be unsettling him.  As Rudd was explaining the questions from the audience in the last part of the event, one could see Rudd’s personalised diplomatic skills clearly in evidence. The line “they are a strange cattle here, Bob” from Rudd after a couple of strange grandstanding moments from the floor (including one from a man who resembles Rudd) summarised how Rudd was contextualising the event for Katter.

As the audience was taken through the history of Australia through the eyes of Bob Katter, it was a fascinating way of packaging it.  For one, there are no areas of grey for Katter. It is a history of Big Men doing Big Things. This is why we got tales of Men Who Built the Gold Coast and the tale of old political heroes such as former Queensland Treasurer, AWU Powerhouse and Scullin Government Tresurer “Red Ted” Theodore building mining infrastructure, free health care, sugar cane refineries, abattoirs and all sorts of wonderful nation building things. Our Roosevelt, Katter asserted – asserting that history was just this single narrative is the key to Katterhistory, or Katterstory.  That’s why he claimed at one stage that Robert Hughes’ seriously flawed and histrionic history of the early days of Australia, The Fatal Shore, was the best history ever written. It also explains why he liked to talk about the heroic actions of the AWU in the 1890s in terms of getting better conditions for miners and various other forces to get better conditions for shearers.

Katterstory is a history of Australia funnelled through North Queensland.  Katter’s family started as staunch supporters of the ALP.  Katter himself still sounds like a time machine of old ALP values.  That is why the story of the DLP / ALP split was told through the prism of how it came to be disengaged with the people of North Queensland. In a moment that Katter would probably align to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, he spoke of being in the room in Cloncurry where the split between the ALP and DLP occurred, with his father being a major player. In Katter’s eyes, it was at that point that the communists “who had taken over the unions” and the decent men of the old ALP split – causing a drift of “all the voters of North Queensland” away from the ALP and towards the Country Party.

This is the reason that Katter’s love for Edward Theodore, John Curtin and Ben Chifley is there, but also why he doesn’t show much love for Southerners who have taken the ALP away from the “big nation building” concepts of the past.  It also makes his liking for protectionism and increased funding for public infrastructure fit into the Katter profile. His sympathy for the DLP and B.A. Santamaria also explains his social conservatism, which because the topic for discussion towards the end of the session.

The flaws in Katterstory were exposed pretty easily by Rudd the friendly inquisitor – that his vision of “The Incredible Race of People” seemed to exclude indigenous people. Katter denied this, blaming his editor for suggesting that pieces about Aboriginal land title claims be excised. It did seem, though, that Katter’s “Incredible Race of People” included every Australian willing to work hard to build the country – no matter where you came from. In that vision, the First Australians made a big, influential and positive part. Indeed, Katter was glowing with praise for the First Australians he knew in North Queensland as well as migrants – like him – who made good. Indeed, he refers to himself as a part of the “Curry People” – non-white Australians who went to Australia to seek prosperity – the ones who fit the narrative that Big People Built a Big Australia. Though, these Big People, as Katter was at pains to point out, unassuming “regular” blokes.  In case you have noticed the preponderance of “men” in this version of history, Rudd also made mention of the blokeyness of it.

Those excluded from this Katterstory made their voices heard in the later part of the event, where Rudd raised the issue of ads aired as a part of the Bob Katter Australian Party campaign in the Queensland election. Such as one that showed millions of Chinese people invading Australia and this one about gay marriage.

Katter seemed genuinely disconnected from his own “party” at that point, saying with pride that North Queensland had a lot of people of Chinese background – and had indeed disciplined a party candidate about discrimination against those of Chinese heritage.  He hadn’t made the ads – they were his party organisation, who seem quite separate from him. He also said the ads were a political mistake he would live with for the rest of his life. Political life, mind you.  He also made light of the “ridiculous” line that he would walk backwards to Brisbane if there was a gay person in his electorate.

I suspected from today’s event that gay people – especially his half brother, Carl – confuse a man like Bob Katter, as they confuse a number of people from his generation.  My father was one such man – indeed, I see much in common between my father, who worked in North Queensland for a while, and Katter. The modern world confuses them a bit and both like to be their own men, pioneering and working. Main difference was that my father didn’t rage against the dying of the perceived light like Katter seems to do.

The event ended with a range of questions from the floor – and most of them were fairly useless at getting a good, well considered answer. That is because most of them showed that the questioners hadn’t read his book and were using the chance to ask questions more about his political activities and agendas.  This included Simon Sheikh from GetUp – who at least phrased his question in a polite and non-confrontational manner.  It did not get anywhere and made Katter more confused and angry. This happened especially when asked about his view towards gay marriage – to which he answered that people dying down mines and other issues relating to people in his electorate were more important than gay marriage.  What would have been more effective and respectful was to have read his book and then look for a part of it that would have fed into a question relating to whatever issue the people wanted to raise. I suspect, though, that for many activists, grandstanding is quicker and easier to achieve than reading a book.

It is easy to forget that this current position of Katter came about only because of the current oddball Federal political situation.  Katter was just the nutty local member for Kennedy for many years, uninterviewed, virtually unheard until this situation reared its head.  I said as much when it was clear we would have a hung parliament – I knew one of the most fascinating parts of it would be Katter’s rise to prominence.  This is why one cold night I started the #bobkatterfacts hashtag, the best examples of which were made into a poster by my partner.

We took that poster along to the book signing after the event for him to sign. We got into a conversation, where I talked to him about my father and the fact that the 18 months he spent at Gove in the Northern Territory had a greater impact on him than the 16 years he spent in Melbourne.  Katter was a gentle, friendly conversationalist. He was more than happy to sign it – despite the tag being mentioned on the front page of his party’s website, he had no idea about it.  He was fascinated by it and wanted a copy of the poster. His signature now makes it complete.

Today’s event confirmed for me my view that Katter is a time capsule of what many Australians thought and acted like before and after World War 2, as well as being from a hard place that most of the audience at the Sydney Writers’ Festival would never visit, except on holiday and only then in a resort.  His popularity in FNQ reflects more a belief amongst many that Australians should own Australia and that fashionable social “trends” like gay marriage aren’t particularly relevant to them. It also shows an ages old Queensland trend of believing in the cult of personality. They’ve had Joh, Peter Beattie and now Campbell Newman. And, of course, Bob.

This is not to say that Bob Katter should not be criticised, especially for his inability to walk in the shoes of others and see the shades of grey that are in contemporary society. Society has never really been as black and white and filled with heroic pioneers as Katter likes to say. Historically, he’s completely offbeam. For a start, John Hirst’s work on early Australia shows that Hughes is little more than a movie script researcher – and Katter should read Richard Waterhouse’s work on 19th Century Australia for a more accurate view of the events of the 1890s.  In terms of modern social policy, Katter is dangerous in giving approval for darker homophobic forces to take control of his name and image for their purposes.  It is also instructive how he contrasts with another independent minded politician, Tony Windsor, who has been able to better understand the nuances of the modern political and social structure.

It isn’t helpful to simply write Katter off and not respect him for his views and life experience. The people who were slow hand clapping and hissing him in the SWF audience should instead read his book to get a handle on how he thinks and see his worldview. They certainly weren’t lining up to have him sign his book. They would not probably agree with that worldview, but it makes us better people if we show respect to those who work hard for their community and care deeply for communities and individuals in the way Katter clearly does.  He is no absurd obsequious syphon like a Christopher Pyne or Eric Abetz, mindlessly churning out views about people they don’t seem to care much for.  Bob Katter is a fascinating character worth listening to and learning from.

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The Triumph of the Bogans – Penbo Using the Working Class as a Weapon against Sneering Hipsters

Penbo Doesn’t Have Soft Hands – He’s a Champion of the Working Class.

Those folks down at News Limited have had their fun over the last few weeks, prognosticating on why the ALP is doomed and why they will be beheaded in an election some eighteen months away. The latest to reply to the “stacks on” call is David Penberthy, letting loose on The Punch. His piece on the weekend whipping up a bit of confected class warfare, pretending to be a man of the suburbs is worth a look. As ever, his words are in italics.

Cashed-up bogans will have the lethal last laugh on Labor

The origin of the excellent Australian term “bogan” has been the subject of intense debate but its definition has always been clear – a blue collar person, usually from an outer suburb, who earns little money and has a limited education. The more conceited uni-educated types have laughed smugly at the bogan, tut-tutting at his love of the parmigiana, Cold Chisel, bourbon in a can and trackie-dacks, things which for many of us are the makings of a pretty good night.

Already the simplistic battle lines are drawn. Uni-educated “types” with a smug laugh. I’m assuming this “type” excludes Mr. Penberthy himself, who studied at a university. His definition of “bogan” is a bit questionable, but it suits his purpose to characterise such a group as poor, working class and hence the victim of the “smug” people who studied at university. A simple, clean straw man. He sides himself with these people through declaring his love for bourbon and coke in a can and parmigianas – clearly we are about to see him pop up at Penrith Panthers or the Settlement Pub in Cranbourne soon. Of course, this is coupled with an image from one of Paul Fenech’s unwatchable, terrible SBS programs which did nothing more than highlight how out of touch Paul Fenech is.

There's a lot to celebrate…

The bogan has also been derided by the trendies as an ugly blight on the social landscape, someone who refuses to tread lightly on mother earth, spending the baby bonus on a second-hand speedboat, an Acca Dacca box-set or the biggest plasma screen they can find, generating a distressingly large carbon footprint in their McMansion with their 12-speaker home cinema, eight-burner barbie and three cars in the driveway.

The trendies. Another easy term to throw about. Accompanying it, a range of expressions I have never heard or seen written anywhere. I don’t know many “trendies” who don’t like ACDC or don’t own a large screen TV. Besides, 12 speaker home cinemas and eight burner barbies aren’t particularly damaging to the environment if used sparingly, which they are. As for the three cars, I have heard some criticise the dependence on cars in outer suburban areas – but when it is explained to people living in the inner city that public transport is non-existent in outer suburbs, there has been, for almost all I have spoken to, greater understanding of the situation. Penberthy is also showing little tolerance for those who may question how we use our finite resources. In Penberthy’s world, it seems questioning lifestyle choices should be forbidden.

It’s time to stop sneering, hipsters. Something remarkable has happened in Australia. The bogans have won. They are officially and seriously cashed-up. There is now a stronger link between having a university education and earning lower wages, than being skilled in a high-demand trade and handsomely rewarded in the blue-collar sector.

Sneering. Penberthy should know about sneering, because that is what we get for the rest of the article. First, he is addressing these “hipsters” who have dared to question the way we do things, telling them that the “bogans” earn more money than them – therefore they have won. Apparently, money is the measurement of happiness and success in this equation. Also, he is triumphantly declaring that a university education is virtually a waste of time – why bother when it earns you less money. I take it Mr. Penberthy isn’t referring to his own education.

It is true that many have written negatively about “bogans” – me included. These comments, though, are not mainstream and are generally limited to sections of the internet and Twitter. In the case of the people involved with Things Bogans Like, they are fading to an extent in any case. But my comment – and the comments of others – about these “bogans” has been more about an entitlement culture and an intolerance towards unemployed and disability welfare recipients and refugees than anything else. Not about the working class or a lack of a university education. I’ve met many people who hate the carbon tax, love middle class welfare and believe refugees should go home who have had a university education. Personally, I am still looking for a better expression to define this attitude of selfishness, entitlement and intolerance that was sung about succinctly by TISM in their Phillip Ruddock Blues. Maybe I should call them Ruddocks. But back to Penbo.

The rise of the affluent blue collar sector has been a nation-changing transformation. It has only taken about 15 years. And it has turned politics on its head, as these were the people who were once uniformly loyal to the Australian Labor Party but are now anything but that. If anything, they are more likely to be individualists who have an intense dislike of taxation and welfare, believe passionately in reward for effort, have an in-principle problem with punishing people for getting ahead, and want government to limit itself largely keeping the budget in the black and interest rates down.

This paragraph is one of the more outstandingly silly in an article with many competitors for that title. “Blue collar workers” were not uniformly loyal to the ALP for many years – electoral results in the 1990s were proof of that. If it wasn’t for the GST in 1993, blue collar workers would have punished Keating for interest rates and various other concerns then. Throughout the Howard years, these “individualists who have an intense dislike of taxation” who “believe passionately in reward for effort” were delivered a range of welfare benefits, such as family tax benefits, un means tested baby bonuses, private health care rebates, increased support for independent schools. These “rewards” were paid to everyone, whether they worked hard or not. These payments helped make the rugged “individualists” dependent on the welfare as well as hardened supporters of the Liberal Party. So much so that the current government is too scared to do anything more than tinker around the edges of these unnecessary drains on taxation receipts. To exclude reference to this middle class welfare demonstrates a wilfulness on Penberthy’s part to paint the loss of these “blue collar workers” to the ALP as purely the ALP’s fault – an ALP that presumably contains these “sneerers” of which he speaks.

It is also an odd logic where Penberthy claims that the ALP “lost” those blue collar workers who run successful businesses because they want governments to keep the budget in the black and keep interest rates down. Interest rates, that constantly present boogie man, are lower now than they were in 2007. The budget was put into deficit in order to stimulate the economy during the GFC. That move has been praised by the World Bank, that group of sneering hipsters. In addition, the ALP have not been sneering at the bogan / blue collar / working class person with their policies. Keeping most of middle class welfare is one example, as is their increased funding of schooling, sporting clubs, roads, whatever things that Penberthy’s “bogans” like. If anything, this group are more prosperous now than they had been during the Howard government. That isn’t the perception, though – and that can be sheeted home to a variety of reasons.

Just in case you missed the data I’m basing this on, I’ll recap here at some length, as it’s quite incredible. This week saw the release of official figures showing blue collar workers have overtaken white collar workers as the highest-paid people in Australia. Not just in the obvious sector of mining but almost across the board, with tradies, utility and construction workers taking home more money on average than those with soft hands.

More sneering at those with “soft hands” – I take it Mr. Penberthy’s hands are rugged and he uses Solvol to wash them. This assertion that a university education and a professional career is somehow a bad thing is curious – in that I can’t imagine that most university educated people would sneer at those from the working class. He perhaps should sit next to me whenever I have conversations with a variety of people near my workplace and home – no sneering on my part there, despite my university education. Or when I go to Giants games with these blue collar people. Perhaps I should start sneering at them in order to conform to the terms of this article.

The Suncorp Bank Wages Report showed that blue-collar workers earn an average $1229 a week, which is $144 a week more than those who sit behind a desk, with six of the 10 highest-paying industries are now blue collar. In order, this is how weekly salaries now stack up: mining $2173, utilities $1597, finance $1375, media $1365, science $1353, construction $1307, public safety $1270, wholesale trade $1252, transport $1219 and manufacturing $1145. The lowest three industries were the female-dominated hospitality, arts and retail sector, earning less than $500 a week.

Figures like this are out of place in terms of the social argument Penberthy is making – that somehow blue collar workers deserve to be taken seriously because they are earning more money. A quick examination of the ALP’s policies and actions would show that they take the working class very seriously. But Penberthy, I think, is confusing the ALP with a smattering of people at inner city dinner parties he attends and those who go up to Joe Hildebrand in the street and tell him he’s a wanker.

Another interesting side point to the salary stats is that highly unionised industries such as transport and warehousing experienced the lowest wages growth, up 60 per cent in the past 15 years, compared to the 177 per cent increase in utilities and 102 per cent increase in mining, sectors where workers are more likely to operate as independent contractors or on non-union agreements.

This is there to show that there is good blue collar and bad blue collar in Penberthy’s estimation. Bad blue collar are in “highly unionised” industries – where wages growth is slower. Perhaps this more shows how effective unions have been in working with their employers to control wages growth to within reasonable boundaries. The good blue collar are on individual contracts. I can almost see an argument for Work Choices creeping back in (perhaps he is getting ready to start spruiking it for after the 2013 election). He also makes reference to mining, which is at odds with his general argument about “bogans” in the outer suburbs. Miners make up a very small proportion of Australia’s workforce and are less likely to live in these outer suburbs of which Penberthy speaks.

Now, start thinking about all these employment statistics in the context of the mountain of polls forecasting the wipe-out of the Gillard Government. Reflect on the election results in suburban Brisbane and Sydney at the Queensland and NSW state elections this year and last, where blue-collar seats which were only ever held by the ALP are now comfortably in conservative hands.

This excludes the chance that outer suburban seats are big swinging seats. State Labor were lucky to hang onto power in 2007, where Work Choices and Peter Debnam conspired to keep a struggling government in power. Same in Queensland, where a weak opposition helped them in the past. This was borne out with the incredible turn around in poll numbers that occurred with Campbell Newman took over as opposition leader. It is also sloppy political analysis to draw lock step parallels between the performance of parties at a state and federal level. The fact that through the Howard and Carr years, the Federal Liberals held Hughes (in the “Shire”) while the state ALP held Menai – in the very same area – undermines Penberthy’s presumption to an extent. It doesn’t always follow.

What it all suggests is that the event which sounded the death-knell for Labor in 1996, when it lost the emblematic western Sydney seat of Lindsay to John Howard not once but twice in a subsequent by-election, was in no way an aberration but the beginning of a nation-altering trend. What was once the safest of Labor seats fell to knockabout suburban mum Jackie Kelly, derided by smart-asses as “Trackie Dacky Jackie” for her love of leisure wear and her daggy demeanour. When Labor knocked her off on a narky constitutional technicality and forced a by-election, Kelly ran again and smashed the ALP to bits. She held the seat at the 1998 GST election, at the 2001 national security election, the 2004 Latham v Howard election.

Most discussions about “bogans” and “blue collar” and the rest seems to settle on Lindsay – the electorate in which I lived for a long time and still live near. In many ways, it an emblematic seat to journalists seeking a narrative for the Howard era. It is, however, also an aberration. As a person who had swapped in 1994 from supporting the Liberal Party to the Democrats, I was moderately surprised by the victory of Jackie Kelly – but not as surprised as Kelly herself. Hence the fact she didn’t resign from her government job before running. That victory, though, was more a reflection of a vast dissatisfaction with Keating as PM (as Kelly herself said to me once – “voters were in a dark mood – they marched in just to vote Keating out”) than any kind of social shift. It also reflected the virtual invisibility of the MP who was voted out, Ross Free. To people in Lindsay, visibility and approachability is important. Free didn’t have that, Jackie Kelly did. She really was one of the people and had no ambitions for higher positions, unlike Free, who was a member of the NSW Right faction.

The ALP continued to misunderstand the Kelly factor and ran a sequence of poor candidates against her – friendly, local but dull Labor machine people. Kelly had a considerable personal magnetism that helped her stay in, even in 1998 – an election Kelly herself considered an impossible one to win (that three hours I spent next to her outside an electoral booth last year was very instructive). Those who disliked Kelly from other areas would dislike many from the west – I know Ed Husic and Michelle Rowland are similarly laid back and “westie” like Kelly. In addition, it’s curious for Penberthy to focus on her dress sense. Kelly knew how to dress for parliament and elsewhere. I never once heard her being called “Trackie Dacky Jackie” by anyone – I do, however, remember her love of yellow jackets, though. It an example of Penberthy pigeonholing outer suburban people as much as these “hipsters” of which he speaks. On a wider scale, though, Penberthy’s argument lacks the context that is required in order to understand the factors that kept Kelly in the seat through the period.

In NSW Labor circles there was a wildly hopeful view post-1996 that Lindsay was a one-off, the last venting of voter anger at the Keating era. If it was a one-off, it was a one-off that kept happening.

John Howard was always of the view that the Lindsay victories were not an accident and that blue collar voters were up for grabs. He wanted to make those people his own, and he supported Kelly because he regarded her as being genuinely of the area, someone who epitomised local aspirations (or to use that over-worked term, the local “aspirationists”). Kelly became a bit of a vain and loose-lipped liability towards the end of her career, and lost her seat against the vile if comic backdrop of a fabricated pamphlet campaign against a non-existent mosque, but she was an immovable force for more than 10 years. As Howard always said, Kelly’s many victories, and those of other conservatives in blue-collar seats, showed that voters these days are less tribal, less rusted on, and will certainly not cop what he called “head office identikit candidates” being parachuted into suburbs which were 20km way from the inner city share house they called home while doing their Bachelor of Arts.

There is a grain of good sense in these comments, but only a grain. The sneering about the Bachelor of Arts is needlessly harsh. As I pointed out earlier, it is true the ALP’s strategy in Lindsay was poorly formed – and I believe it still is the case. David Bradbury, I think, was entirely the wrong candidate for Lindsay. But not because he is a stereotyped “inner city share house resident” – the ALP have rarely had those in outer suburban seats as far as I can recall. I think, however, the seat needs a local person that is willing to be visible in the electorate, as well as a warm presence, in order to be successful. An Ed Husic type, rather than a Ross Free type, trying to climb the ladder. When the ALP lose Lindsay, it won’t just be because of the cocktail of toxicity that swirls around the government. I would say, however, that the “head office identikit candidates” aren’t the entire preserve of the ALP. Though it is telling that a local resident and daughter of the owner of a local motor parts company – Fiona Scott – was preselected before 2010, if a little hastily. It shows that the Liberals were looking for another Jackie Kelly. Though Scott is quite different from Kelly in manner, background and approach.

Lindsay was won back by Labor in 2007, and held narrowly in 2010 due to the indefatigable and workaholic ways of the local member David Bradbury. But it will never be a safe Labor seat again, even though it is by definition a blue-collar seat.

I really don’t know how many times Penberthy visited Lindsay during the campaign, or how many people he had on the ground in the electorate. His comments show to me that he didn’t visit and didn’t have many people telling him what happened. Bradbury was fortunate to hang onto a seat in which he wasn’t seen. Even ALP people I know commented on his lack of visibility before the campaign. He also managed to lose Green preferences – one of the few Federal ALP candidates to do so. The swing across NSW did not indicate that Lindsay would go in 2010 – and it has been said by many that the late preselection of Scott was a crucial error. In addition, Scott herself, despite being friendly and approachable, was an ineffective campaigner – not appearing at community forums and the like – and the campaign material that ran in a stream through my letter box in Lindsay focused more on Abbott than it did on Scott. It is also inaccurate to characterise Lindsay as an entirely “blue collar seat” when it includes suburbs like Emu Plains and Lapstone / Glenbrook in the Blue Mountains. It is a bellwether seat because it’s a mixed seat. There are people are work for unionised factories, university graduates, business owners, tradies, doctors.

This is the nightmare scenario for Labor, where the next election becomes a nationwide collection of Lindsays as the party is no longer seen as representing the fluoro-vested interests of a so-called working class that earns more than the middle class.

There the article ends, with its argument that the ALP are sneering at the working class made good and that Lindsay represents the whole country. It leaves out chunks of the truth. The people of Lindsay are annoyed not because of people sneering at them. There is a lack of services, public transport, a decent road taking them into the city, a perception of people getting more than them. None of these things are mentioned in the article, because Penberthy is being just as patronising towards the people of Penrith and surrounds as those “sneering hipsters” of which he speaks. He sets up the idea that Penrith is Jackie Kelly. That it’s all blue collar workers who made good. That only tells a section of the story of a place with a symphony orchestra, a university, art gallery and people living in share houses studying Bachelor of Arts degrees.

To say that the “bogan” is winning against sneering university graduates says a lot about the agendas and style of David Penberthy and other writers for the tabloid newspapers. It is an act, an artifice, designed to position them as one of the “people”, out there fighting against a constructed “elite” who sneer at the ordinary man. “Penbo” likes his JB and Coke, Chicken Parma and ACDC – therefore he’s an ordinary bloke (though someone needs to tell him that the people of Penrith tend to prefer schnitzel over parma – parmas are more a Melbourne thing). That he goes to inner city parties and hears people sneer about blue collar bogans – and then adopts the position that this represents the views of everyone who doesn’t live in the outer suburbs. Hildebrand adopts the same pose. There are those of us who actually live in the said outer suburbs can see the artifice.

Ultimately, this is not an article designed for the people so neatly boxed up by “Penbo” – people in the outer suburbs without a university education know they are doing pretty well, better than university educated people, who work largely for the public sector. But these same blue collar workers are good mates with public servants, nurses, teachers and other uni grads who live in the same street. They don’t feel this artificial divide that writers like Penbo create and conflate. Articles like that are designed to sneer at the sneerers. It’s a crude trolling exercise, hoping for the sneerers to sneer in comments about the article.

That manner and style speaks volume for a media that seems to revel in such negativity, rather than constructive commentary. It is a good thing that there is a fluidity of social groupings. That hard working people who own their own business can be a success. As the son of a working class man who made his money hiring plants to banks, I think it’s a wonderful thing. But it is another thing entirely to then say that they are “better” than university educated people just so a journalist can use them as a weapon against people in his social environment.

It is true to an extent that people from the working class who have made good have the ear of political parties. Maybe more of an ear because they swing their votes more. It can’t be said, however, that that ALP are “sneering” at these “bogans” and therefore losing their votes because of that reason. Nor can it be said that these “bogans” are Liberal Party forever – especially if Joe Hockey ever wants to dismantle the middle class welfare state that John Howard built.

Jokin’ Joe – Applying the McDonald’s Approach to Political Commentary

Turn on various televisions these days and Joe Hildebrand appears – as the self deprecating scruffy man crackin’ jokes and being self-deprecating. Plus, making jokes about the Greens being all about the inner city. This from a man who lives in the inner west. In the last week, however, Joe is starting up that pitch of his to be a heavy hitter.  A Federal Politics Commentator. In it, he manages to blame Victoria and Gillard’s childless status for the current political malaise. Plus the fact they didn’t give Twiggy respect.  Stay tuned for those points.

Curiously enough, he seems at times to be casting himself as a Labor sympathiser that has seen the once great party disappear.   First we had this rant about Twiggy Forrest, the great philanthropist, being nice to Rudd and that because the government didn’t do a deal with Forrest, it went on a downward spiral from there. In that rant, Joe is taking the ingredients and attempting to smoosh them together into an easily consumed burger.  The McDonalds of political commentaries.

Now, he has transferred this new recasting activity into writing for The Punch.  Here it is – with his words in italics.

A Hildebrand guide: how Labor destroyed itself

Nice referring to himself in the third person. He could be a sportsman with that schtick.

People looking for reasons for the ongoing implosion of the federal government are, it is fair to say, spoiled for choice. There is a phalanx of reasons lined up ready to drag Labor into electoral and political oblivion.

Going downnnnnnnnn. Illustration: Warren Brown

These include the assassination of Kevin Rudd, the carbon tax, the mining tax, the pokies cap, the second Rudd showdown and subsequent recruitment of Bob Carr and the Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper scandals.

These events are fairly self evident and he right that they aren’t particularly good for the government. Hildebrand, though, provides his reasons as to why they are there – hence revealing his startling narrative of What Has Happened.

However at the core of them all is one common element. One fundamental characteristic of the current Labor leadership which will prevent it ever again winning government in this country until it is expunged.

It is nothing short of extraordinary that in every case Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her attendant ministers managed to not just appallingly mishandle each issue but do so in a way that upset or disappointed both sides of each debate and left itself positionless. How has this been able to happen?

It’s all Julia and her ministers’ fault. Hildebrand wants to make that clear. Every single problem. It is from there Joe issues his reasons why, with that streamlined, McDonalds Hamburger kind of way Joe does.

Let us consider the facts.

FACTS. (According to Joe)

In relation to carbon, Gillard forced Rudd to let go of his own emissions trading scheme after it was blocked in the Senate by the extremist stonewalling of the Greens. The result of this was a freefall in Rudd’s popularity – albeit to levels still far greater than Gillard has enjoyed since forming government. This judgement call by her and Wayne Swan should have set off deafening alarm bells about the political instincts of them both but instead of pulling their heads in they blamed the whole thing on Rudd and assassinated a first term prime minister and the party, to its shame, fell in behind them.

Extremist. That must be in a guidebook somewhere, to couple “extremist” with “Greens” somewhere.  That is, apparently, a “fact” that the Greens indulged in extremist stonewalling.  Plus, Gillard alone forced Rudd to let go of the ETS. To this day, it is still supposition that she was part of a group that did such a thing – a supposition built on a leak. The Hildebrand Guide doesn’t allow for such grey areas.  Rudd’s popularity levels fall was caused in part by his position on the ETS, but that wasn’t the only reason – something the Hildebrand Guide also doesn’t allow for. Hildebrand then says in this paragraph that it was the ETS issue that caused Gillard and Swan to “assassinate” Rudd.

In the aftermath of this bloody execution, an ill-prepared and ill-disciplined Wayne Swan unequivocally ruled out a carbon tax while being quizzed on the 7.30 Report on August 12, 2010. Caught in the headlights by this policy on the run, Gillard was forced to fall in behind her deputy prime minister days later on August 17 and make her now infamous statement: “There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead”.

This critical miscalculation of backing herself into a corner was again a base political error. Even a wild animal knows not to let itself get cornered. However this now-active time bomb went largely unnoticed at the time because the government was waist-deep in the quagmire of its “citizens’ assembly” proposal – an idea so pathetically pointless, ill-conceived and undergraduate that in retrospect it could only have come from the new Labor order.

I tend to agree with Hildebrand here – it wasn’t a good idea to make such a promise. Though, I do wonder if Hildebrand has ever pointed out that both sides made promises on the run in 2010. Politics is filled with mistakes.  Gillard’s biggest mistake was to not say “as a result of the Greens’ balance of power position, it has been decided that a fixed price period will start, but then this will stop. This means that we will have to change our position on this”. Actually, she did say that. Not that we ever get told that.  However, after this fairly reasonable analysis, Hildebrand goes back to his attempted humour.

As of course we know, Gillard has since spectacularly reversed her position on the carbon tax, and so having exposed herself as a climate change atheist is now trying to convince the exodus of enviro-lefties flocking to the Greens that she is a true believer. Meanwhile double that number of middle-of-the-road voters have written her off as bullshit artist and are declaring themselves for a Liberal leader they largely hate because anything is better than a leader you simply cannot believe.

“Spectacularly” – a true conflation word. So is saying that she exposed herself as a “climate change atheist”.  She did no such thing – again we return to the leak and the supposition.  Even if she did suggest a backing down, that doesn’t make her a “climate change atheist”.  It is also, according to Hildebrand logic, only “lefties” who care about the environment – and that people supported the Greens only because of the environment. That is false on both counts. Many conservative people are concerned about the environment – and vote for the Greens – plus many support the Greens for their support for issues outside climate change and the environment.  To write off the Greens as a fringe left wing “enviro” party is again from the playbook that likes to characterise the Greens as “extreme”. Hildebrand should know better than to try to be Chris Kenny.  Hildebrand also makes blanket claims about reasons for people to support “a Liberal Leader they hate”. That is not a “fact” either. Abbott is not as hated as people like to believe.  However, grey areas are not allowed in Hildebrand World.

As I said, it would have been impossible to imagine an issue being handled so catastrophically prior to this but in fact it became the template for things to come.

In fact both the citizens’ assembly proposal and the carbon backflip are significant clues to Labor’s terminal pathology. Answers at the end.

The mining tax is another. Again, Swan lumped this policy onto Rudd and then hung the PM when it turned out to be a dog. In fact Rudd had been about to win over Australia’s only remotely popular mining magnate – and a genuine champion of indigenous advancement – in Andrew Forrest but by that stage Swan was already imagining the words “Deputy Prime Minister” painted on his office door and so instead cut a deal with BHP, Rio Tinto and Xstrata.

The breathtaking logical leaps being made here are extraordinary. Hildebrand is pinning his Twiggy Forrest poster to his wall and saluting it while suggesting that Swan changed a tax policy basically to become Deputy Prime Minister.  If I swear I didn’t see the phrase “remotely popular mining magnate” in the paragraph, I would have though Clive Palmer, the King of Conspiracy Theories, wrote this paragraph. This isn’t political analysis, it’s a script and monologue for an episode of the West Wing Hildebrand believes he is writing.

I do not believe, as some do, that these three giants had given Swan his riding orders in the lead up to the Rudd coup – it happened too fast and was too ill-thought out for that – but having dispatched his old nemesis, he jumped into their beds with unbecoming haste and effectively sold them the family farm to the point where there are reports now that they will pay scarcely any more tax at all. Either way a democratically elected Prime Minister was killed off by Swan in the interests of three multinational corporations trying to avoid paying tax. And this from a bloke who calls himself a Labor man.

If you remember, Hildebrand claimed earlier it was the ETS that caused Gillard and Rudd to “assassinate” Rudd. Now it’s the mining tax. It’s a touch confusing. He also repeats the oft repeated (but rarely given currency) conspiracy theory that it was the evil multinational mining companies that conspired against Rudd.  All very “the CIA brought down Whitlam, you know” that has been echoing for decades.  It’s also a curious leap to claim that the Mining Tax will “pay scarcely any more tax at all” – not backed up with any “facts” on this occasion.  It is raising more tax than was the situation before – and I agree, it’s not satisfactory, though it did come as a result of a compromise, which seems to be the way of either side of politics.  Hildebrand here is in fact showing himself to be a supporter of the Greens’ platform – that the original tax was good and that we shouldn’t be “selling the family farm” without our fair share of tax.  But Hildebrand thinks the Greens are extreme enivro-lefties. That is another bit of confusion there.

The pokies cap is another. Having turned a blind eye to the pokies blight before it was forced to by the newly-enlightened political journeyman Andrew Wilkie, the government suddenly swung a sledgehammer into its own political heartland in the outer suburbs and regions of NSW and Queensland. A morally dubious and corrupted heartland to be sure – anything funded by poker machines is – but a vital heartland for Labor nonetheless.

A pokies heartland that funds, through various means, many advertisements and features in Hildebrand’s own paper. The breathless “dubious and corrupted” is a disingenuous attempt by Hildebrand to still cast himself as a concerned citizen, despite his job working for a paper that is mired in that pokie world.

Then, having been caught blindsided by the clubs’ response (despite this being a carbon copy of their anti-pokies tax campaign in NSW of just a few years’ earlier), the government weathered all the political pain only to dump the policy and lose A) the holier-than-thou inner-city voters already heading towards the Greens; B) the equally holier-than-thou Hillsong/Christian anti-gambling brigade and C) Andrew Wilkie’s vital vote in the parliament.

I agree with the first part of this paragraph, where he criticises the government for squibbing on the poker machine deal. Then, however, he goes back into his shoddy categorising of opponents to poker machines being “holier than thou”.  This from a man who just the previous paragraph talked of poker machine land being “dubious and corrupted”. He can’t have it both ways.  Note that he went with the “inner city” Green stereotype. He needs to see some voting figures. But that would mean that he would have to undertake serious, reasoned analysis. He seems incapable of that. Too complex for the two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, tomato on a sesame seed bun style of journalism Joe is practicing here.

And will punters or the club movement come back to a government that spent a year in a war against them? Of course not. Again, they have taken an issue and managed to lose every single vote on every single side of it. It really is breathtaking.

I tend to agree with Hildebrand here. It is one of their worst mistakes.

Offered a second chance at salvation in the form of the Rudd comeback, the government’s instincts were at least, it has to be said, consistent and they chose the course of action that would guarantee their own destruction. Even in the days afterwards the botched recruitment of Bob Carr demonstrated how little they had learnt. Giving the former premier foreign affairs was a brilliant idea and perfect – if insufficient – circuit breaker, but then of course the PM panics and pulls the offer, thus putting Carr offside. When the debacle leaks, the PM tries to deny the story, then attacks the media, then buckles under public pressure and makes the decision that, had she simply made in the first place, would have been an exquisitely rare victory in a sea of defeat.

Hildebrand is trotting out the Australian’s take on the situation regarding the Carr ascendency – journalists will never admit any possibility that they were blindsided – but that wouldn’t fit into Hildebrand’s neat package.

(It is interesting to note that since then Carr almost seems to have become infected by the government’s incompetence, making a couple of uncharacteristic stumbles in his first weeks. Having said that, he remains by far the most standout performer and mind in the government and its only chance of seeing reason.)

A writer for the Daily Telegraph likes Bob Carr.  Press officers for Bob Carr must chortle every time they see one of the Telegraph crew praising Carr.

The Carr debacle was a ship-in-a-bottle version of the Titanic problems that are now sinking the government in the form of Slipper and Thomson. Once more under crippling public pressure, the PM has too late made the decision she should have made immediately upon these scandals coming to light. As a result she has lost the moral high ground and her own dignity by letting them contaminate the government for so long, but now also appears weak for finally yielding to overwhelming public sentiment. Again, the PM and her government have managed to lose all sides of the argument.

While it is easy to agree with Hildebrand here, he doesn’t entertain the “facts” from past governments that similar situations were treated fairly similarly in the past. What has made these bigger issues is the precarious number situation in the HOR.

All this is a harsh analysis but, sadly, it is also true. So why? Why does the government routinely destroy itself so?

The answer is at face value that greatest (and most effective) of political clichés: It is out of touch. But what does that really mean?

And here we see Hildebrand riding in on his noble steed to suggest why the ALP has fallen down so.

What we are seeing here is a government run by a political class, a team of professional politicians whose life experience is limited almost entirely to working for either the party or a trade union. Prior to entering parliament Gillard’s whole career was spent as an industrial lawyer for activist law firm Slater and Gordon, which is effectively a union outpost. Slugs and Bugs does a lot of great work but an office full of left-wing lawyers is not a broad enough background for a future PM. The watercooler issues there are not the same ones that everyone else in the country is talking about.

While this can be seen as a reasonable point about Gillard, there is something missing here. Hildebrand was earlier extolling the virtues of Kevin Rudd, who is hardly a “watercooler” man himself. Nor is former political staffer Tony Abbott or the phalanx of lawyers and staffers who are MPs in the Liberal and Labor parties.

Likewise Swan was briefly an academic (lecturing in public administration) before becoming a political staffer from 1978 onwards and of course the wunderkind factional boss Bill Shorten was a union official and industrial lawyer before entering parliament. Again, there is nothing wrong with these jobs but they do not expose you to the full spectrum of political views. Indeed, in all of these positions anyone you encounter who disagrees with you is likely to be the enemy you’re fighting in the court or the parliament.

This discounts the possibility that there are others in a party – but this is not an issue isolated only to the Labor Party. It’s a “fact” left out of Hildebrand’s thesis.

This mindset still permeates today, and so the humble swinging voter who’s had enough is seen not as a disenchanted citizen who needs to be wooed back to Labor but either a dirty Lib or a victim of right-wing manipulation.

And I thought there were all inner city enviro lefties leaving the party. Plus, to suggest that Labor people think that swinging voters are “dirty Libs or victims of right wing manipulation” is a curious call – without any kind of supporting evidence.  Next, however, comes the kicker.

The dominance of Victoria in federal politics is also shielding the ALP from mainstream Australia. Melbourne is not at all representative of the rest of the country; in fact it is often counter-representative, as poll after poll continues to show. Issues do not play out the same way there, or have the same bite. The pokies debate is the perfect of example of this. There is no major clubs industry to speak of in Victoria, nor is its football code manacled to the success of leagues clubs. Gillard and the minister left to carry it, fellow Melburnian Jenny Macklin, had no understanding of the level of antipathy among punters or the power of the clubs and NRL lobby.

For a long time a number of journalists have talked of the “Sussex Street Disease” or the “NSW Disease” – as in, focus groups and the pragmatism of the NSW branch was killing off the ALP. No, it’s Joe’s old home town of Melbourne that’s to blame.  That “counter representative” city that doesn’t have a major clubs industry – a breathtaking thing to say, especially in the light of the work of Tom Cummings.  It isn’t as big as NSW and Queensland’s, but that doesn’t make it just a minor problem in Victoria. It is true to say that Gillard and Macklin might not know as much first hand about the pokie machine industry as Chris Bowen and Ed Husic would have, but Hildebrand is eliminating the complicator that Gillard and Macklin may have actually talked to their MPs in those states. It is here I think we also see Hildebrand’s view that the NRL and clubs lobby really shouldn’t have been taken on at all – despite being “dubious and corrupt”. Phew. The Tele can continue to accept ads from the clubs again. And print odds for games. And promote the NRL and its licensed clubs.

Victoria’s local political operators are also appalling. On an internal level the split in the Right faction became so bitter and toxic it led to the HSU corruption scandal spiralling into a national outrage that may yet consume the government. On a macro level, head office managed to lose the unlosable election in 2010. And yet instead of being punished for being the architect of this debacle, the state secretary was appointed one of the Prime Minister’s senior advisers. This violates every law of politics.

“Unlosable election”. People still use that terminology? Could it have been that the Brumby Government was beginning to pall in the way the NSW government did in 2007, before Work Choices and Peter Debnam combined to help Labor win?  Such an idea doesn’t fit into the neat hamburger shape that Hildebrand has constructed. That it’s Victoria’s fault.

And, to be frank, the fact that Gillard has no children perhaps also limits her exposure to what’s happening in the world outside the rarefied corridors of Canberra or the Melbourne dinner party set. If the PM moved in broader circles or had better political instincts then this would not be an issue but it seems as though she needs every avenue to the outside world she can get and kids can be a great – if often unwelcome – conduit to what’s really going on. Having said that, this is of course a deeply personal matter and entirely one for her. It merely presents as one reason why she may be so insulated from popular opinion.

Gillard has no children. That is a problem for her. Another “fact”. That is what politics comes down to for Hildebrand. You have to be a father or mother to be a politician. Otherwise, you are out of touch. The weak qualification at the end of the paragraph doesn’t excuse the first bit.

There are countless other factors and examples that even the internet doesn’t allow space for but the nub of it is that we have a government that is neither grounded in nor has significant exposure to the full breadth of the electorate and the mass of antipathy, frustration and disbelief that lies therein. It almost defies belief to think that it was only after she got off a plane on the weekend that Gillard realised the true public hostility towards the government’s defence of Slipper and Thomson but this is what she said with a straight face on Sunday.

From here, Hildebrand can’t be bothered to give more examples – the previous ones being so reasoned and well thought out.

And it actually makes sense. Every time the government has been criticised or attacked, it has deluded itself to think that it is just the work of Tony Abbott or the Murdoch press or some other sinister force seeking to destroy all that is good and light. Not once does the party seriously consider the possibility that the public has turned on them because they knifed a popularly elected prime minister, lied twice about “the greatest moral challenge of our time”, and sought to defend two alleged rorters caught – almost literally – with their pants down.

We expect Hildebrand to defend his employer – that’s par for the course. So is the “popularly elected Prime Minister” line, which shows ignorance of the Westminster System.  It is a big pity that Costello didn’t have the courage to topple John Howard – then that false line couldn’t continually roll out. Nor does Hildebrand entertain the idea that governments obfuscate and squib – “non core promises” is a phrase that has disappeared into the mists of time.  What hasn’t disappeared is Jokin’ Joe, with his “caught with their pants down” line – with cases that haven’t been proved.

The ALP simply no longer knows what people are thinking. It is so consumed by parlour house politics – such as the “masterstroke” of recruiting Slipper – or patching together piecemeal and unpopular policies to appeal to tiny vested interests such as Wilkie and the Greens that it has completely lost sight of how these issues are playing out in the wider electorate. Then when they do hear the negative feedback they are so simultaneously arrogant and paranoid that they simply shoot the messenger.

I agree with the parlour house politics line in regards Slipper – it was a misstep, when they could have taken on the clubs and NRL over poker machine reform. It’s a vast piece of mendacity for Hildebrand to suggest people supporting a carbon price and poker machine reform are “tiny”. It’s downright offensive.  The carbon price was ALP policy – and it will cease to be a fixed price “tax” in time, which was also ALP policy before 2007. This fact escapes Hildebrand’s simplistic picture. The damage poker machines do to families across most of Australia is, to the likes of Hildebrand, “tiny”. As well as a “holier than thou” issue.  It is also laughable that Hildebrand casts himself as someone who knows about the “wider electorate” when his main job at the Telegraph is to write “humour” pieces about travelling on public transport and going to celebrity parties as the scruffy outsider. He’s as streetwise as the other Jokin’ Joe – the Honourable Member for North Sydney.  In addition, it’s not the messenger the Government are “shooting” – it’s inaccurate media reporting. That’s not the whole media that are being shot there. Just the ones with openly biased agendas.

And no doubt again when they read this piece the same bunch of ostriches will ignore its contents and accuse me of being yet another agent of evil attempting to destroy the party. They will rant and rail and stick their heads in the sand.

And most tragically of all they will not stop to ask themselves why someone trying to destroy the Labor Party would spend 2,000 words explaining how to save it.

The final part of the article shows that Joe really is trying to ride in on his steed, saving the Labor Party from the Childless Victorian Out of Touch Lawyers Tied to Tiny Extremists. Not sure what’s he suggesting, though, as a way forward – other than suggesting Gillard gets knocked up and the ALP stop having to do deals in two houses that have minority numbers.  I don’t think Joe is trying to destroy the ALP.  I think he genuinely believes himself to be master of cut through, the purveyor of non-spin.  He is nothing of the sort. He is spinning his own narrative from a set of logical leaps that wouldn’t look out of place in a Matthew Reilly novel. Making a complex set of political ingredients never seen in Australian politics before into a simple Maccas dinner bought from the drive thru.