… things of real interest have been happening.
It appears that Tony Abbott’s ‘jetlag’ gaffe, and the faux outrage manufactured by his Parliamentary colleagues, has paid off. The media have zeroed in on this issue, barely examining the dissension in Coalition ranks over industrial relations. Meanwhile, Julia Gillard’s comment that foreign affairs was ‘not her passion’, nor the reason she got into politics in the first place, has been analysed and dissected to an incredible extent.
Neither of these comments are big news. Abbott, perhaps inadvertently, made an insensitive remark. Gillard – again, perhaps without much thought beforehand – came off sounding naive. In neither case, though, did we see any kind of significant revelation.
Sky News is the big winner here in terms of trying to beat up stories. Virtually every one of their political programs this week raised the non-issues with their guests. Party strategists, MPs, former leaders and independent analysts were all called upon to explain exactly what the two leaders might have meant by their words. The ABC is not far behind, though. The programs The Drum spent a considerable amount of time on both, even after panellists dismissed the comments as perhaps silly, but otherwise insignificant. The 7.30 Report also took a few shots.
Uncharacteristically, The Australian excoriated both leaders. They reserved their harshest criticism for Gillard, though, somehow divining that what she really meant was that she had no interest at all in foreign affairs, and that her comments damaged Australia’s standing in the eyes of the world. Abbott, by contrast, was only ‘monstrously stupid’.
And the list goes on.
It fell to Tony Wright of The Age to put it into perspective. Neither Gillard nor Abbott behaved in ways that might be considered unusual for travelling Prime Ministers. Australia has a long – and embarrassing – tradition of foot-in-mouth disease when it comes to foreign affairs.
The crucial difference between them is in how their own parties handled the questions that came afterwards in that desperate media scramble to make something out of potentially juicy comments. Labor’s approach was simple – stress that Gillard had been talking about why she got into politics in the first place, and that she had immediately committed to giving foreign affairs her full attention. The Coalition, on the other hand, embarked on a confused and ultimately self-defeating campaign. First they attacked Labor, then switched tactics to proclaim that Abbott had already arranged to travel to Afghanistan before he received the invitation to accompany Gillard. As I wrote here, they managed to give the impression that there was a story behind Abbott’s gaffe. And the media were all over it.
They still are – and while these ridiculous non-issues dominate the political commentary, this is what is not being reported about both leaders:
* Gillard has signalled her intent to open research and development treaty negotiations with the European Union. You’d think this would have garnered more attention than it did; after all, one of the criticisms leveled at Kevin Rudd was that he neglected our relations with Europe in favour of the Asia-Pacific region. It also has great potential for Australia to regain some of its lost standing in terms of scientific innovation, and perhaps stop the ‘brain-drain’ that has seen many of our scientists relocate offshore because they cannot get funding here.
* Gillard stopped off to bolster Australia’s bid for the World Cup soccer tournament. If successful, this could see a huge influx of tourist dollars, boosting the economy.
* Gillard met with Japan’s representative and plans to follow up with a State visit. This is another area where the former Rudd government came in for a great deal of criticism; some experts even claim that our relations with Japan were badly damaged by Australia’s stance on whaling and apparent preference for establishing ties with China.
* Abbott attended the Tory party conference in London, using the occasion to comment at length on how he intended to learn from the English conservative example how to effectively repair the damage from ‘profligate Labor government’ spending. It didn’t matter that Australia and Great Britain are worlds apart, economically speaking; nor that there is a wide policy gap between Australia’s Liberal party and the Tories (who are socially liberal, and believers in action on climate change); what was important was to be seen as establishing ties with a comrade across the pond. In this, Abbott was stepping outside his role as Opposition Leader and positioning himself as an alternative Prime Minister – a clear signal that he has not abandoned the belief that he is one by-election away from power.
* After talking with British Prime Minister David Cameron, Abbott said he was pleased to report that Britain had decided to ‘no longer neglect’ Australia. Even without noting the patronising colonial overtones, it’s easy to see the agenda at work here. Again, Abbott is not acting as an Opposition Leader. He has no authority to negotiate on Australia’s behalf – but a chat between like-minded individuals is a good way to establish foreign policy credentials. Abbott’s also signalling to the Liberal Party base that – unlike Labor – the Coalition acknowledges and embraces Australia’s historical loyalty to its nominal Head of State. It’s a position worthy of former Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies, who once waxed lyrical about the Queen; ‘I did but see her passing by, and yet I love her till I die’.
* Perhaps serendipitously, Abbott has also been able to effectively bury the news that nine Coalition MPs (four on the record) have been grumbling about industrial relations; they want a policy supporting individual workplace agreements and exemptions for small business from unfair dismissal laws. Labor spokespeople may sound the ‘WorkChoices is back!’ alarm, but it seems no one is listening.
* Today the Murray-Darling Basin Authority will release its draft report into water allocations. Rumours already abound suggesting its recommendations will be damaging to farmers, and thankfully, the media are starting to look at this issue. Hopefully, when the report is made public, it will knock the ‘jetlag’ and ‘not my passion’ non-stories right out of the news cycle.
Amazing, isn’t it? Who would have thought so much might be happening in a week where every second political story seemed to be about whether Tony Abbott really was an ‘Iron Man’ or Julia Gillard was embarrassing us on the world stage?
And wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to wade through 779 articles about Gillard’s ‘lack of passion’ to find out what else our Prime Minister was doing while representing Australia to the world?