The next Turnbullence is only thirty bad Newspolls away

turnbull2It used to be that in order to you change the country, you had to change the government, but these days all you need to do is change prime minister. The incompetent, fear-mongering and doctrinaire Tony Abbott regime already seems like a bad dream the country is quickly awakening from. Just over a week into office Abbott’s replacement Malcolm Turnbull looks relaxed and assured as prime minister having ushered in his new front bench, promising a return to cabinet government with him as “first among equals”. Turnbull is a patrician and the first real born-to-rule prime minister since the previous Malcolm in the job, Fraser.

The overthrow has happened with the minimum of fuss, indeed Turnbull has set the benchmark for future plotters: “30 bad Newspolls” (poll owner Rupert Murdoch will be delighted with the implied compliment, if unhappy at the outcome). Meanwhile Turnbull has attacked the job with gusto, seamlessly riding through the choppy waters of negotiating with his enemies in parliament (mostly Liberals and Nationals) while a hapless Labor struggles to keep up with the new realities.

Bill Shorten’s minimising of difference with the ousted prime minister has now spectacularly backfired: Turnbull is so much better at not being Tony Abbott than he is. Labor’s policy vacuum has left them looking lacklustre and bereft of ideas now that a substantial leader has emerged on the other side. Unlike the Rudd-Gillard stoush which was primarily a battle of personalities, Turnbull represents clear change from the hard right-wing social conservative style beloved of Abbott and his acolytes.

Liberal backers in the media are torn between denouncing the coup and applauding the bounce in the polls. The voters are far less split. They like Malcolm Turnbull. He has made the Liberals electorally competitive again swooping on Australia’s large swinging vote. The party was always capable of getting half the vote, they did so in 2010 and would have won government were it not for Abbott’s obstinate leadership and unpopularity.

Abbott had still not cured that by 2013, so much so that a desperate Labour turned back to a poisoned Kevin Rudd thinking his relative popularity could turn around the election. Abbott annihilated Labor in 2013, though Labor thanked itself it wasn’t worse. In five years Rudd had gone from saving the world to just saving the furniture.

With Gillard gone from parliament too (what Labor could do with her as leader at the moment), the stage was free for Tony Abbott to turn opinion in his favour. He failed miserably. His high point was the immediate handling of the MH17 crash but as that developed in to a lengthy judicial case, there were few shirt-fronting opportunities. His bluster also flopped at home where the Tone needed to be more subtle. He ruled initially with the support of Clive Palmer whose senators celebrated wildly when the carbon tax was repealed. When Palmer’s group disintegrated and Abbott had to corral any six from eight, he was less successful. The end of entitlement budget was the beginning of the end of Abbott’s entitlement giving the party dismal numbers to match the leader.

Remarkably Malcolm Turnbull comes to the top job as a cleanskin, despite his long record as a minister in the Howard and Abbott governments. He managed to always keep his distance from Abbott’s pratfalls though NBN’s failures may yet burn him. His cabinet looks a lot more promising than the fossilised collection of old men that Abbott had around him. Arthur Sinodinos as cabinet secretary and Tony Nutt as “director of transition” will guide the government in a controlled yet consultative way that the obsessive PMOs of Abbott (and his Labor predecessors) could not manage.

Turnbull’s biggest attributes will be to articulately sell a positive message and work with the cross-benches, including the more middle-ground Greens under Richard Di Natale. He has paid off suspicious Nationals with the water portfolio and kept the new darling of the right (Scott Morrison) inside the tent. There will be some tricky tight-rope walking ahead, especially as he delicately disengages from some of Abbott’s more egregious policies without alienating the base. But he will have plenty of goodwill and an energised party, especially when those bad Newspolls disappear. A Liberal election win in 2016 was a prospect that seemed utterly unlikely two weeks ago. Now the Liberals will enter the next election against a muddled Labor Party with renewed vigour and optimism.

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Malcolm Turnbull is Australia’s new prime minister

turnbullThe sixth Australian prime ministerial spill in five years is over, producing the third change of leadership following the coups of Julia Gillard in 2010 and Kevin Rudd in 2013. Outgoing prime minister Tony Abbott fought desperately tonight on the notion that the Liberals were different from Labor and that only the people should change the leader. He proved wrong on both counts. In the end it was 98 men and women who decided 54-44 that Malcolm Turnbull should lead the party, and therefore the country.

The vote brings full circle an even tighter ballot that brought Abbott to the leadership six years ago in 2009, when he prevailed over then leader Turnbull by one vote. But ambitious politicians play a long game and just as Rudd crucially didn’t quit politics and waited three years to gain revenge over Julia Gillard, Turnbull also cemented his position as a popular alternative in waiting, and sat tight until a combination of circumstances made Abbott’s continued rule untenable.

Turnbull put it down to 30 successive bad Newspolls, but in truth Tony Abbott was never a popular prime minister. There is unlikely to be the same public sense of grievance and denial of justice that greeted Labor’s panicky move in 2010. At that point in the electoral cycle, Labor still led. Rudd no longer had the stratospheric positive polls he had a year earlier but surely had the measure of Tony Abbott in an election that would have been called a few months later.

Instead Labor imploded and with the help of Rudd feeding the media, Julia Gillard’s government was undermined from day one. That they hung on to power for another three years was testament to her formidable powers of negotiation but also to the failures of Tony Abbott. The undermining never stopped however and although Rudd succeeded in winning back power, it proved a Pyrrhic victory and Labor was deservedly punished by the electorate in 2013 for putting itself first.

The only problem was that it brought Tony Abbott to power where all his failings were writ large. Abbott was the perennial battler who had no nuance to squeeze the most from power. Ruling as he did from the right of his party, he was out of step with the centre, despite the crude and continuous barracking of Murdoch’s News Ltd empire.

His and Joe Hockey’s first budget announced the end of the age of entitlement but its vindictive nature made it seem that only their enemies were having their incomes docked. They were not helped by fractious Senate cross-bench but their failure to sell their message of economic correction was a totally self-inflicted wound.

Liberal poll numbers never recovered as they never do, and Tony Abbott lost his leadership there and then. The last 12 months have been the prolonged agony of a slowly drowning man refusing to accept his fate and hiding behind a façade of flags and security announcements. An early positive reputation as a strong leader was replaced by a sloganeering, fear-mongering robot.

A Turnbull leadership will change all that and all the smirking tweets today from Labor MPs enjoying the discomfort of their rivals may come back to haunt them. Bill Shorten’s one appearance today was appalling and ill-timed, failing in the old adage of never interrupting your enemy while they are making errors. Shorten was a shoo-in to become next prime minister as long as Tony Abbott was the incumbent. Now Labor have to find a way of giving him substance. Turnbull has many faults, not least his towering ego and impatience, but zingers alone won’t beat him. His victory today may turn the spotlight on Labor’s own recurring leadership woes. Australia’s leadership merry-go-round goes on and on.

The Australian’s laughable war on Twitter

frayIt may be 2015 but Australia’s only national newspaper The Australian remains stuck in the 20th century, raging against the dying of the light. This weekend the ever-pompous broadsheet reached into its grab-bag of perceived enemies and pulled out the one marked “Twitter”. For hundreds of millions of users worldwide, Twitter is a great communications tool that companies, organisations and individuals use to market themselves and find out what is happening in their chosen field. For The Australian, it’s more personal. As its banner headline reads Twitter is “debasing quality journalism”.

No doubt the Oz has themselves in mind when they talk about “quality journalism” and there remains many talented journalists in their ranks. Unfortunately their work is skewed by editorial decisions tied to owner Rupert Murdoch’s increasingly unhinged world view. Was Murdoch debasing quality journalism with his tweetstorm last week, based on his observations after returning to Australia last month? Murdoch called the country “ungovernable” thanks to “extreme greenies”, “corrupt violent unions” and “deadly drugs”. The solution to this odious cocktail according to Murdoch? More of the same – another Abbott government.

The Australian is a faithful servant of His Master’s Voice ranting against environmentalism, unionism, drugs and more. It has long defended its position as the sacred arbiter of the news and its opinion pages are clogged with political analysts mostly to the right of Genghis Khan. The newspaper has been particularly dismissive of “pyjama-clad bloggers” and “under-employed academics” who dare venture into its chosen field with alternative views. Twitter, with its easy facility to talk back to power, has long been a target. But would @rupertmurdoch (now 1500 tweets old and counting, with 608,000 followers) appreciate a full page of this weekend’s Inquirer section devoted to exposing the evils of the 140-character communications mechanism?

The lead story on the page from reporter John Lyons (a talented journalist who seems reluctantly roped into this auto da fé) was about the Border Force debacle in Melbourne last week. The headline “The news, brought to you unedited” is dripping in irony at a company that sacked most of its sub-editors in 2013.

Yet the sub-headline continued to push the house message: “The idea of checking facts and verifying sources is alien to Twitter”.  It is a statement that makes as much sense as saying “the idea of checking facts and verifying sources is alien to paper”. Twitter is a tool used by hundreds of millions of people, with hundreds of millions different reasons. “Twitter” (even in the narrow News Ltd sense as “the people that use Twitter politically”) is made up mostly of individuals, not news organisations and they are not bound by the institutional, and increasingly fraught “rules of journalism”.

Despite calling it a Twitter war, Lyons initially plays a straight bat on the #borderfarce story acknowledging the effect Twitter has on the news cycle. But then it gets judgmental. There is a ritual attack on Fairfax before decrying the lack of filters in Twitter with people “re-tweeting” (his quotation marks, it’s obviously not a real word yet) information that often was wrong. That’s true, but no different to newspapers, and with far less influence. Traditional media says Lyons, “usually” (my quotation marks, it’s getting less and less usual) has several pairs of eyes looking at articles before publication.

The problem says Lyons is that (political) Twitter is skewed towards “the young and the left”, constituencies the Australian has well-nigh abandoned. Lyons quotes social media expert Axel Bruns who denies that simplistic skew saying Twitter was used by all sorts of constituencies for all sorts of reasons. That’s true. I was at an AgForce forum in Roma last week where farmers (hardly young and left) were encouraged to get their personal brand out on Twitter. Lyons attempts to be even handed but the headlines and fact-box “A Friday Afternoon Twitterstorm” push the house line that “Twitter” cannot be trusted.

This point is emphasised in the second story on the page, “When the Twitter tail wags the dog” by deputy editor Peter Fray. Once again, the frame is set by the sub-headline: “Some newsrooms are allowing social media to dictate what constitutes a news story”.  In this context “some newsrooms” is code for the enemies Fairfax and the ABC and Fray mentions them both in the context of the Australian Border Force story. Fray’s lament is not the stupidity or dangers of paramilitary government bodies but that Dutton’s jihadists (Fairfax and the ABC) prefer the “siren song” of social media over “sober tones of fact-checking, empirical evidence, objectivity and plain common sense.” The plea for common sense is a sure signal this is a right-wing rant and Fray does not explain why social media and journalistic practice has to be either/or and not both.

Fray (who tweets @peterfray) has three “truisms” to share about Twitter. It is fast not deep, it is dominated by “media types” and it is both a blessing and a curse for time-poor journalists. I would take issue with all three. To say it is not deep takes no account of hyperlinks; its supposed domination by media takes no account of celebrities or the millions of other non-media users; and it is only a curse to those that allow themselves to be ruled by it. Yes, there are unsubstantiated claims but lies are found out just as quickly. In a social media world where your reputation is everything, it doesn’t pay to muck around with the truth for too long.

But that seems completely lost on the writer of the hilariously awful third article on the page. Margaret Kelly (“who holds a degree in English literature and language”) was angry about lazy language, but inevitably social media comes in the firing line. In a confused rant that pours doubt on climate change and has Orwell disapproving of Facebook, Kelly laid into “groupthink” which “lives today in cyberspace where people want to be unknown”.  Kelly does not define groupthink but she says it leads to terrible things like Trending on Twitter. Kelly does define trending, which she says is “a lot of people saying the same sorts of things, mostly unconsidered… and trending is just what groupthink means.” Though her readers are none the wiser (not least at the ellipses which are in Kelly’s text) after this nonsense, it all leads to one definitive conclusion. “Frankly, in my view,” Kelly says, “only twits tweet.” Take that, all you 2.8 million Australian users of Twitter, you’ve been told. Though frankly, in my view, Ms Kelly ought to be careful about what she says about Rupert Murdoch in one of his papers.