Politicians, privacy and the Canberra class war 'ballyhoo'

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The Press Gallery won't like us using this meme

According to senior Press Gallery journalists, Bill Shorten is guilty of class war for exposing Malcolm Turnbull’s unearned wealth. Political editor Dr Martin Hirst disagrees and argues public figures are legitimate targets when they duck for cover.

HOW SEPARATE are the public and private actions of politicians and their high-profile staffers? Is it “class war” when the Left exposes the hypocrisy of the conservatives, but not when the Right wants to attack workers and welfare recipients?

We have cause to consider these questions this week, because several examples are presented to us from the White House and from our own domestic politics.

Let’s take the American cases first. They involve high profile staff in the Trump White House — staff who are controversial and who were in the spotlight this week for having aspects of their private lives exposed.

First, consider Stephen Miller, a speech writer and confidant of the President, who was profiled recently in The Atlantic as “Trump’s Right-Hand Troll”. The kindest thing one might say about Miller is that he’s a very well-dressed White Nationalist. He’s widely known as the architect of Trump’s infamous “Muslim ban” and the policy of separating families at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Miller was apparently trying to keep a low profile this week, but to no avail. First he was heckled in a Washington DC restaurant – a Mexican restaurant, would you believe – and then protestors started texting him after his mobile phone number was published on news website Splinter.

Following the publication of Miller’s phone number in a number of places a reporter for The Nation, David Klion posted it to Twitter. Twitter’s response was to suspend the journalist for a violation of the rule prohibiting the posting of private information.

Klion defended his actions in an interview with The Wrap; it’s worth considering his justification.

“This is war,” said Klion. “I think that what is happening right now at the border is child abuse. It is systematic child abuse. It is racist child abuse. It is being carried out for cynical political purposes.”

Klion also said that Miller’s status as a high public official made him fair game in a way which was different from the many right-wing doxxing campaigns against journalists.“Power differentials matter here and Stephen Miller is one of the most powerful people in the country. He is the architect of these inhumane policies. There is a power imbalance,” said Klion. “Anything that allows us to speak directly to the most powerful people behind this is something I would support. Doxxing a random person or a journalist is not something I would support.”

I must admit I have some sympathy for this position. Miller’s role in the White House must mean that his actions should be open to public scrutiny, but they are too often shrouded in secrecy. Pulling back that veil is sometimes necessary in order to make a point.

Let them eat in peace?

But what about harassing White House officials in restaurants? Well, it’s become something of a “thing” it seems in the United States. Not only was Stephen Miller confronted by a fellow diner calling him a “Fascist,” other Trump staffers have also been targeted in this way.

Earlier this month, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who has vociferously defended the family separations policy several times on Trump’s behalf, was reportedly “chased out” of a restaurant – again, ironically a Mexican eatery – by members and supporters of the Democratic Socialists’ party.

Most recently, Trump’s powerful press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was asked to leave a restaurant by the owner after staff complained they didn’t want to server her. It was this incident that has attracted the most attention and prompted some conservatives – helped out by the pro-Trump media – to complain that there is a lack of “civility” emerging in American politics.

Well, the exchange between Red Hen owner Stephanie Wilkinson and Sanders was very civil. The Sanders group was already eating entrees when Wilkinson was alerted by her staff and arrived at the restaurant.

It seems to me that this is an example of workers taking control of their workplace and enforcing a collective decision based on political considerations. Isn’t that a very civilised way to fight the class war?

Here’s how Stephanie Wilkinson explained it to the Washington Post.

Several Red Hen employees are gay, she said. They knew Sanders had defended Trump’s desire to bar transgender people from the military. This month, they had all watched her evade questions and defend a Trump policy that caused migrant children to be separated from their parents.

“Tell me what you want me to do. I can ask her to leave,” Wilkinson told her staff, she said. “They said ‘yes.’”

It was important to Wilkinson, she said, that Sanders had already been served — that her staff had not simply refused her on sight. And it was important to her that Sanders was a public official, not just a customer with whom she disagreed, many of whom were included in her regular clientele.

Nevertheless, Sanders later used her White House official Twitter account to expose the Red Hen and its owner to her followers.

As you can imagine, the Trump deplorables went feral and began harassing any business with the name Red Hen. None of them had any association with the Lexington, Virginia, restaurant that had politely asked Sanders to leave.

Wilkinson’s restaurant has temporarily closed and handfuls of pro-Trump protestors have held small vigils outside in the past few days.

And, I’m sure you’re not surprised, the Tangerine Fascist weighed in with a tweet of his own.

Like many of Trump’s unhinged tweets, this one backfired on him within hours when it was pointed out that his casino had actually killed a diner with a salmonella-infested mousse.

Anyway, the point is that some bleeding-heart liberals are saying that the doxxing of Miller and kicking Sanders out of a restaurant have crossed the line, and are somehow uncivil and wrong.

On the other hand, I was cheering wildly at the news of Sanders’ cuisinus interruptus.

I agree with Tom Scocca writing in the Washington Post. He argues that chasing White House officials out of restaurants is the right thing to do. For private citizens and even business owners, expressing a political opinion by protesting, or asking someone to leave your premises is a low-level action, but it is worthwhile.

What happened at the Red Hen in Lexington, Va., was not a contest between political parties, or between designated proxies of political parties. It was a private citizen telling a presidential administration official to go away, out of disgust with the fact that the administration is seizing children from their parents and locking them in cages and barring transgender people from military service. Likewise, the protesters who yelled at Nielsen were not aiming to be part of a normal political process, but to respond to extraordinary events with extraordinary actions.

It’s also very strange how conservatives are now bleating like offended snowflakes over this issue, when only a few months ago they were busily defending pizza shop owners and bakers who didn’t want to serve gays.

As Scocca writes, these are not normal times and expecting normal behaviour from the public while normalising the President’s atrocious behaviour shows just how out of touch Establishment Journalism is.

The self-appointed civility police, the voices of respectable political journalism, are unable to understand this. To the extent that they grasp that there is a crisis, the crisis is that somehow, regrettably, the nation has stopped engaging in politics as usual — and so the answer must be to insist that everyone work together and act as if things are normal, which will restore the old standards of behavior.

One of the telling features of this political moment is that the president — the lying, slandering, raging, insulting president — constantly whines about how nastily and unfairly other people treat him. It justifies everything. When analysts warn against sinking to Trump’s level, they are missing that point: Complaining about bad manners is, itself, Trump’s level. Trump would desperately rather talk about his staff being mistreated than about children in cages. To fret about it along with him, to echo the notion that some fundamental rule was violated by not serving Sanders a fancy dinner, is to take an active part in his performance of victimhood. 

Meanwhile – and closer to home – snowflake Truffles Turnbull is getting upset at Bill Shorten and the ALP making a point about the Prime Minister’s largely hidden, but vast, wealth.

According to some reporters, this is unfair and an example of Labor ramping up the class war. Let me be clear. The class war is real and it’s about workers defending things like penalty rates, the minimum wage and union access to workplaces. If workers didn’t fight to defend themselves, children would still be going down mines for tuppence a day.

The conservatives have commandeered the term “class warfare” to attack workers who fight back, but they never label the bosses attacks on workers the same way.

In this situation, we’re confronted with a stenographic political press that panders to the Government and flails the Opposition for actually opposing

It’s my money and I’ll lie if I have to

Just this week the Labor Party released a 30 second advertisement targeting the coalition’s tax cuts for the rich and company tax cuts for “the top end of town”. In the short ad, the voice over refers to Turnbull’s private wealth and investment income.

The prime minister “has millions invested in funds which hold shares in dozens of big businesses that would benefit from the tax cuts.

Why is former banker Malcolm Turnbull so keen to give big business a tax cut instead of properly funding our schools and hospitals?

A good question and the answer is yes. Screenshot from ALP advert

Of course, Turnbull doesn’t like any sort of scrutiny of his wealth. He hates being known as the richest person ever to be Prime Minister and he hates being reminded that he spent $1.75 million (loose change to him) on buying the job from Tony Abbott.

So, as you might expect, Turnbull complained that Bill Shorten was getting personal attacking him and wife Lucy for “having a quid”. Note how he tries to use the vernacular when he wants to seem less arrogant.

Conveniently, Turnbull photobombed some unsuspecting Canberra locals at a café with a large media posse in tow. He used the photo op to bleat some well-rehearsed lines about how he’s just a poor boy from a poor family who made good.

"They want to attack me for having a quid. They want to attack me and Lucy for working hard, investing, having a go, making money, paying tax - plenty of tax," he told reporters at a Canberra cafe on Monday morning.

"[Labor] used to be a party that supported aspiration, people getting ahead, people aspiring to build businesses ... if you make a buck, pay your tax, all that. Luce and I have done that all our lives. Absolutely all our lives. Now they want to attack that."

Turnbull’s lines were dutifully reported across the political media, without irony and without any real analysis.

A couple days later, Turnbull used his favourite tame news outlet to drop a story about how he “donates” all of his $500,000 salary to “charity”. Again, the heavyweights of the political media began to pigeon coo their support and admiration for this bootstrap battler who could now afford to be generous to the less well-off.

Talk about fake news. As IA managing editor Dave Donovan has brilliantly pointed out, it is more than likely that the Turnbull Foundation is no more than a sophisticated tax dodge.

There is no paper trail and all we have to go on is the selective tidbits doled out to Sharri Markson in the Daily Telegraph. We have no proof of Turnbull’s alleged philanthropy.

However, this didn’t stop senior Gallery correspondents, who should know better, from reviving the old NewsCorpse dead horse of so-called “class warfare" over Labor’s opposition to the government’s reckless and un-costed company tax cuts.

Fairfax correspondent Phil Coorey has been a strong advocate for the company tax cuts and continues to rely on the disproven argument of trickledown to erroneously claim that workers will benefit from company tax cuts just as much as Truffles will. He also loves the “class war” cliché.

This week he described Labor’s anti-Turnbull commercial as propaganda designed to 'foster resentment against success'. This is just one of a series of Liberal talking points that has been laundered in Coorey’s Australian Financial Review column.

There’s a consistent theme among the elites of political journalism, whether in the USA or here. It involves selective moral outrage about uncovering details of a politician’s private affairs and financial matters.

At the core is an unhealthy relationship between politicians and senior reporters who crave insider status — and get to be on Insiders regularly, unlike outsiders like us here at IA.

When a political figure is seen to be in the ascendency, to be powerful or to be someone who drops information that can be turned into an exclusive (how do you think Sharri Markson got wind of Turnbull’s philanthropy?) they are treated with kid gloves.

Insider journos are part of the Establishment and they want to keep it that way, hence their almost unanimous support for the status quo.

Just think back to the Barnaby Beetrorter scandal. IA readers had known about it for months, but it wasn’t until Sharri Markson got the go ahead from Turnbull’s office to unleash on Joyce that the story made the mainstream.

Then it took a week for the maestros of political journalism to work out how they should react. If you remember, they were initially skittish about the story, and hid behind mumbles of privacy and personal matters.

Only after it was clear that the Beetrorter was dead in the water did the carrion-feeding sharks of the Press Gallery join in the frenzied reporting.

Just look at how Julie Bishop is allowed to get away with the numerous travel rorts she pulls to have her well-upholstered man-bag travel with her and the contortions she goes through to claim he’s a “family member” for travel purposes, but not for the purpose of the required financial disclosure rules.

It’s one rule for them and another for the working class. It’s been pointed out often enough the preferential treatment that Bishop gets compared to women on welfare who are subject to the sheet-sniffing intrusion of Centrelink.

It’s class war alright, Phil, but just remember, it’s the rich and powerful who start these things and when we fight back, it’s justified self-defence.

You can follow political editor Dr Martin Hirst on Twitter @ethicalmartini.

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