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.

Advertisements