The media should not be the message

February 2, 2013

Sometimes I despair of our media, I really do.

Today Attorney-General Nicola Roxon and Tertiary Education Minister Chris Evans announced their resignations from the Ministry and the Parliament. Evans will stay on until a replacement can be found for him, and Roxon will step down at the next election. Both said they’d discussed their plans with the Prime Minister a year ago, and decided that their family obligations (and in the case of Evans, the long commute from Perth) were the major factors in their decisions. They stressed their decisions were not due to a lack of confidence. The Prime Minister added that she’d decided to make the announcement now, after the election date was set and before Parliament sits again next Tuesday.

Cue the wild speculation. Cue the hyperbole. Cue a mainstream media frenzy, hurriedly written scream-sheet stories, and any number of pundits dragged from their Saturday brunches to give us their ‘expert’ analysis.

This is probably my favourite headline: Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s Campaign In Disarray As Chris Evans Resigns And Robert McLelland May Vacate His Seat. Really, all it needs are four or five exclamation marks.

The campaign – you know, the one that hasn’t commenced, except in the minds of headline writers – is ‘stuttering’. The resignations are ‘shock’. The carefully chosen photo of the PM blowing her nose is captioned as ‘an emotional PM’. The government is ‘in chaos’. It’s triggered a ‘major reshuffle in Cabinet’ (affecting four out of over thirty Ministers is major, it seems). These resignations are a vote of no confidence in Labor. No less than seven – count ’em, seven – Labor Parliamentarians are about to resign. Oh, and these resignations are ‘really’ about punishing Kevin Rudd’s supporters. (The niggling detail that Roxon was one of Rudd’s most vicious critics when he challenged for the Prime Ministership last year seems to have escaped some reporters.)

Never mind that seven Liberal Parliamentarians have also announced their intention to resign. Most of them gave similar reasons – family commitments, felt they’d served their electorate well but wanted to move on, etc. Judi Moylan is one of those. She’s well known for crossing the floor on asylum seeker issues to oppose the Coalition’s draconian measures, and being a vocal critic of the Pacific Solution. Strangely, no reporter’s suggested that she was ‘invited’ to resign because of this.

And how about Mal Washer? He’s gone head to head with Abbott himself. His was one of the loudest voices arguing that Abbott should not have the right to veto the abortifacient drug RU486, and opposed Abbott’s proposal to make teens’ medical records accessible to parents. Again, no one has ever speculated on whether he’s being pushed.

I guess ‘personal reasons’ only apply to Coalition members when leaving Parliament. No Labor politician would do that – there must be a hidden (or not-so-hidden) agenda. At least as far as our media is concerned.

One reporter even helpfully suggested to Shadow Education spokesperson Christopher Pyne, in a media conference today, that it was a case of ‘rats leaving a sinking ship’. Well done, that journalist. Your cheque from Peta Credlin is in the mail.

Parliamentarians leaving before an election is nothing new, and the degree to which their departure might cause problems for their party varies. For example, before 2007’s election, 16 Coalition members resigned – including two who were under scrutiny for links to a convicted fraudster and for failing to make proper financial disclosures. Arguably, for Roxon and Evans to go now serves the government well; it allows time for the new appointees to settle into their roles and prove themselves. Not that you’d hear that from the media.

Then there’s the matter of the election date announcement. Senator George Brandis, Shadow Attorney-General, all but called the Prime Minister a liar in his appearance on Lateline, suggesting that had an ulterior motive. How curious, he said, that this happened just the day before former Labor, now Independent MP Craig Thomson was arrested and charged with fraud. Not that he’s saying anything, oh no, but isn’t it curious?

Pyne took up that theme today, but – as usual – went one step further. The PM had announced the election when she did simply so that she could avoid a by-election in Thomson’s electorate, he asserted.

For reasons passing understanding, these statements went entirely unchallenged.

For a start, it’s a ridiculous notion. If Thomson is convicted of fraud and sentenced to 12 months or more in jail, he will have to step down, and that will trigger a by-election. Announcing the date of the national poll does nothing to change that, and any political journalist would know it. So why did no one go after him?

Secondly, this is the third time in as many days that the Coalition has either implied or outright said that the PM is lying. There is no Parliamentary privilege here to protect them, yet they’re getting away with it. There’s not even a token ‘Mr Pyne, are you really accusing the PM or lying’ soft question.

And while we’re at it, what about the media and the circumstances surrounding Thomson’s arrest? Very interesting, those. Someone tipped off the media that the arrest was about to take place, and as a result some very tasty footage of Thomson being escorted out of his office by no less than six burly detectives was obtained. Remember, this man was arrested on suspicion of fraud – he was not considered violent, or known to be armed. But oh, what a lovely circus that was. And of course, no one employed by a news organisation who was there is going to ask questions about just where they got their information. Even though they should.

I know it’s an old and tired drum, but I’m going to keep beating it. News media exists for a number of reasons – but feeding soft questions to politicians and letting them get away with rehearsed answers that amount to mere noise is not one of them. We have a right to expect that if a politician makes unsubstantiated accusations, investigative reporters will uncover the truth and present it without fear or favour. We have a right to expect that a news organisation will attempt to be objective – or at least not show outright partisanship in its reportage. Op-ed columns (or more commonly, these days, blogs) are almost always going to display some leaning towards left or right, but there’s no excuse for the Daily Telegraph article mentioned above. That’s not news. It’s a Coalition media release dressed up in respectable clothing.

So often, mainstream organisations direct sneers towards independent and citizen media. This usually takes the form of accusations that bloggers, etc., are (a) not bound by journalistic ethics, (b) not properly trained (and therefore don’t know what they’re writing about), or (c) biased.

Insert obvious declaration of self-interest here. I’m not going to pretend that such accusations don’t infuriate me, and that’s at least partly because some blogs are little more than mouthpieces for a party line. But the rise of independent media isn’t just about having access to the internet, especially where politics is concerned. It’s born of frustration.

When the media people pay for is blatantly partisan … when the reporters appear to be either too lazy to ask hard questions or too oblivious to realise they’re being managed … when they don’t seem able to do even a little research into the claims of politicians … sooner or later, we’ll start to speak up for ourselves.

Maybe we don’t have access to the politicians (and I hereby invite any politician who’d like to be interviewed by independent media to step right up, leave your email address in the comments; I’d love to sit down with you), but we can ask the questions. We can challenge the message and demand answers instead of evasions and slogans. We can be aware that we have the power to shape the message, and the responsibility to do so in a way that relies on facts, not spin or outright fabrication.

In other words, we can be what the mainstream media should be – Marshall McLuhan’s watchdog of the mind.

Here’s an idea. Let’s replace the Canberra press gallery with independent media for the first sitting of 2013, and see what they produce. Let’s hold independent media to the standards of mainstream media, and judge the questions asked in pressers accordingly.

I think the results would be … interesting.

Even better, though, would be a situation where independent and mainstream media co-existed to call all politicians to account, to inform the public of the facts and to safeguard against the political desire to change not only what we think, but how we think.

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Win-win for Rudd

February 23, 2012

As expected, Prime Minister Julia Gillard has called a leadership ballot for Monday, citing a need to settle the issue ‘once and for all’. Rudd is still to declare whether he will contest that ballot, although it’s likely.

With that in mind, let’s examine some scenarios.

Scenario 1: Rudd loses with the support of more than a third of the caucus.

Result: Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a problem for Gillard. To have the support of two-thirds of the caucus should be conclusive. In fact, when Opposition Leader Tony Abbott won his challenge against Malcolm Turnbull by only one vote, he spun the narrowest of victories as indicative of party unity.

There is a problem, though. Gillard’s supporters are out there talking down Rudd’s support as vanishingly small, well short of having enough numbers to even mount a challenge under party rules. If they are proved wrong, it raises the question of whether Rudd is a viable alternative to Gillard – perhaps not today, but soon. The Keating model. And once the question is raised, Rudd becomes a focus for discontent with Gillard.

Gillard tried to stave that off in her speech today by effectively challenging Rudd to a dare. She announced that if she lost – adding quickly that she did not expect that to happen – she would go to the back bench and promise never to challenge again, and called on Rudd to make a similar undertaking. Of course, that’s nonsensical. Any such undertaking isn’t worth the bytes it’s recorded on (oh dear, the old print metaphors really are the best). There are any number of get-out clauses, from the tried-and-true ‘I know I promised but people are begging me’ to the weak but difficult to refute ‘that was then, the world has changed’.

So she’s left with Rudd on the back bench as a credible alternative who’s free to speak his mind, not bound by the usual constraints on Ministers.

Scenario 2: Rudd loses comprehensively.

Result: This should spell the end of Rudd’s leadership ambitions. But again, he could employ the Keating model. This time, though, he keeps his head down. He publicly supports the government when called on to specifically do so, but looks pained about it. He reminds the media at every turn that he is a back bencher, and refers them to appropriate Ministers or to Gillard herself.

And, as in the previous scenario, he becomes a focus for discontent among back benchers. A leader ignores the possibility of a back bench revolt at their peril – after all, there are more of them than the Cabinet, many with personal axes to grind on behalf of their individual electorates.

Both of these scenarios presume that the Coalition wins the next election. On the strength of polling trends, this seems likely. Rudd losing a challenge now and going to the back bench sets him up as someone to lead Labor out of the electoral wilderness. He has a proven track record in winning elections – and not via the skin of his teeth, either.

Scenario 3: Rudd wins.

It’s an outside chance, at best. Although Centrebet reports that Rudd’s odds are shortening (no link provided, in the interests of avoiding spam trackbacks, but it’s easy enough to find), enough Labor figures have already declared support for Gillard to make it unlikely that he could snatch victory. But let’s look at it anyway – just for fun.

Obviously, there would be a huge sense of personal achievement for Rudd, not to mention a fair amount of ‘best served cold’ satisfaction. It might also bring disaffected, left-leaning voters back to the party – those who objected to the way Gillard became Prime Minister in the first place, or who reject her policy stances (which can be described as Centre Right at best). If Rudd bullies through his stated aims on party reform, constraining the power of the factions and unions, it removes a key plank from Abbott’s anti-Labor platform. And he just might squeak an election victory, if enough voters forgive him for the political manoeuvring he undertook to get back the top job.

Even if he doesn’t win the next election, he can argue to keep the leader’s job in Opposition, on the grounds that he needs time to consolidate reforms.

An outside chance, yes – but it has to be one he’s considered.

Scenario 4: Rudd does not challenge.

This is by far the least likely scenario. All the rhetoric suggests Rudd is positioning himself to contest the leadership on Monday – and possibly that he expects to lose, setting up the groundwork for a later challenge (at least, according to Labor strategist and Rudd backer Bruce Hawker). In the interests of completeness, though …

It’s a very, very dangerous strategy. Rudd risks looking like a coward, talking big about the need for good leadership and touting his own credentials, then not following through. He also risks having his supporters – both public and Parliamentary – turn on him.

On the other hand, if he’s clever enough, he can spin it. His speeches weren’t a job application – he was defending himself, and warning people of the need to work hard to (a) defeat Abbott and (b) come through the looming Eurozone financial crisis. It would take some brilliant speechifying – and while he’s capable of it, I think it’s too great a risk.

So there you have it.

But no matter what scenario ends up being played out, Rudd’s already won. He’s drawn out into the spotlight the venom with which Gillard’s supporters regard him. Steve Gibbons called him a ‘psychopath’. Simon Crean said he was a ‘prima donna’. Nicola Roxon advised us to get over the idea that he’s a ‘messiah’. And from Treasurer Wayne Swan (also Treasurer under Rudd) came an extraordinarily petulant spray that his media advisors clearly never saw until it was too late.

This morning, Rudd spoke about the damaging nature of those comments, how they showed disunity and helped only the Coalition. He urged those speaking out on his behalf not to be drawn into the same kind of personal comments, confined his remarks to policy decisions, and talked himself up rather than criticise of Gillard herself.

By contrast, Gillard – already under fire for not chastising her Cabinet and supporting Rudd as Foreign Minister – engaged in similar personal attacks this morning. She accused him of everything from deliberately sabotaging the 2010 election campaign to single-handedly paralysing the government through his ‘chaotic work patterns’ to responsibility for her government’s inability to communicate its agenda (something she’s previously ascribed solely to Abbott).

Rudd also gave credit to Gillard’s government for pushing through reforms – with the reminder that these were begun by his own government. Gillard characterised the Rudd government as entirely ineffectual, and claimed solely for herself those same reforms.

The language was clear. The contrast was clear. And yes, you can say that Rudd was talking in private, leaking to the media, undermining Gillard privately. Maybe he was. Politicians do that. Remember Gillard arguing against Rudd’s proposed pension increases? Remember the leaks against Rudd? And still, no one has yet come out and categorically stated that they were briefed in a de-stabilising campaign by Rudd, or named any followers who have allegedly done so.

Rudd’s not a white knight, by any means. He’s a slick political operator, as is Gillard. You only have to look at how they’re handling this issue. It’s a textbook in politics.

But Rudd’s the clear victor in one sense. He exposed the vicious side of Gillard’s team. He blindsided her by resigning from Cabinet without warning. He’s reminded people of why he became Labor leader, and why the Australian public elected him the first place.

And now he’s effectively barricaded against the media for around 24 hours. It does give Gillard a clear field – but it also means that the media will zero in on her wherever she goes. She already displayed her temper once this morning at a particularly insistent journalist.

You can bet the pressure won’t let up until Monday morning. And in the meantime, Rudd can monitor, strategise and assess the situation.

He may not have the numbers, but so far, he’s ahead on points.


Dancing the Gillard Re-Shuffle

December 12, 2011

There’s a new dance show sweeping Canberra. It’s called the Gillard Re-Shuffle, and it’s hitting the boards just in time for the holiday season. Inspired by the retirement stylings of Nick Sherry, Minister for Small Business, these new fancy moves will undoubtedly put bums on seats for, oh, a matter of days. Of course Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, in his new, self-appointed role of the ‘grinch’ judge for Canberra’s Got Talent, is expected to provide his scathing commentary – but really, we expected that.

So who are the lucky Chorus members finally moving up to the front of the stage? Let’s take a look – and while we’re at it, we might spare a moment’s thought for those whose footwork just doesn’t keep up with the Prime Minister anymore.

Greg Combet, already dancing up a storm in Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, will also learn the moves for Industry and Innovation. In a sneaky switch-up, he’ll be backed up by Chris Evans, who takes over from Kim ‘Comrade’ Carr in Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research. Carr himself will be relegated to the Outer Ministry (or more accurately, the Outer Darkness) in Manufacturing and Defence Materiel.

Brendan O’Connor incorporates into his routine a sideways move, which will bring him into step with Peter Garrett on Education.

Jenny Macklin gives us some Disability Reform to go with her current role in Indigenous and Community Services, and Robert McLelland will display his skills in the excitingly-named but somewhat confusing role of Emergency Management, Housing and Homelessness.

Bill Shorten, long-time ‘faceless man’ of Labor’s Outer Ministry, steps up into a plum solo role in Employment and Workplace Relations, with a bit of Superannuation thrown in for good measure. His place in the supporting cast will be taken up by Mark Arbib, who’ll now be Assistant Treasurer and Minister for Small Business and Sport. As part of his new role, he’ll also be lead performer of business in the Senate.

Sadly, Shorten’s new move somewhat eclipsed the more exciting developments in choreography.

Mark Butler’s finally getting his big break; he’ll take his moves in Mental Health, Ageing and Social Inclusion to the spotlight.

Crowd favourite and QandA veteran Tanya Plibersek is going to wow us with her undoubtedly brilliant interpretation of the Health Ministry.

And finally, Nicola Roxon steps up to take on the traditionally male role of Attorney-General, with additional appearances in Privacy and Freedom of Information. This is a real opportunity for her to shine, especially with a Big Tobacco Freedom of Costume lawsuit looming on the horizon.

Of course, these big dance productions are always cut-throat, and we did have casualties. Comrade Carr was relegated and Kate Ellis lost her supporting role in Status of Women. A retrospective show-reel of their accomplishments will, presumably, be included in the upcoming DVD release.

So there we have the highlights. Few real surprises, some possibly interesting developments, and some sadly unsurprising appointments of Parliamentarians widely considered to be the major movers behind 2010’s shock replacement of former lead dancer Kevin Rudd with Julia Gillard.

‘The Gillard Re-Shuffle’ opens in February 2012. We’ll be watching with interest to see how this new company performs.

*****

(Oh, and if the tone of this article is flippant – it’s because frankly, I just can’t get worked up about this. All last weekend the media was full of ‘ooh, ah, faceless men, scary factionalism’ stuff, as though this re-shuffle was something both unique and significant. The reality? Nothing about this is either surprising or unprecedented. Prime Ministers regularly reward those who support them, and just as regularly demote those who break ranks or simply become too unpopular. It’s about as thrilling as a reality TV show or one of those interminable ‘talent’ quests. So this is all the time I’m going to spend on it – there are some real issues out there in the Australian political landscape that deserve some scrutiny.)


Ozvote 07 – the Health debate (repost)

August 11, 2010

With the Health debate between Minister Nicola Roxon and Shadow Peter Dutton looming on the agenda today, I thought I’d repost my analysis of the 2007 debate. Remember, at that time, the current Opposition Leader Tony Abbott was the Health Minister. Looking back can be enlightening sometimes.

_____________________

The National Press Club has been the scene for two crucial debates in the upcoming Federal Election. Yesterday, Treasurer Peter Costello debated Opposition Treasury spokesperson Wayne Swan. The worm handed the prize directly to Swan (with nearly 60% approval rating), although most commentators gave it narrowly to Costello – based, it seems, more on Swan’s nerves than any real difference in economic policy. The hold-out was Channel Nine’s 60 Minutes phone poll, which – as with the leaders debate – came down squarely in favour of Costello (65%).

Today was the Health debate. Health Minister Tony Abbott versus Opposition Health spokesperson Nicola Roxon. It looked like it was shaping up to be a good stoush, even without the worm – who, no doubt, was recovering from a good deal of fatigue. It’s done a fair bit of climbing and diving lately.

But then Tony Abbott didn’t turn up to begin.

Or bother sending a message explaining why he was late.

Or when he might make it, if at all.

Or apologising.

In his absence, Nicola Roxon held what can only be described as a highly genial press conference, marred only by a moment of mud-slinging when she described Abbott as a consummate buck-passer whose highest priority was keeping John Howard out of trouble. Every time a question was asked, she spoke directly to the reporter and thanked him/her for it – which gave the whole process a slightly surreal air reminiscent of ‘Dorothy Dixers’ during Question Time. She even offered, when one journalist mentioned his question had originally been for Abbott, to do an impersonation of him – an offer which was greeted by a great deal of laughter from the press corps.

Roxon’s policy announcements bring the Labor commitment to Health up to $2 billion. This is largely concentrated on preventative medicine, lowering elective surgery waiting lists, equitable pay for nurses (with the inevitable dig at WorkChoices) and providing dental care for 1 million people. The press corps didn’t let her off, either – but she seemed cool, and had answers readily available.

Abbott finally turned up 35 minutes late and apologised, but ‘even in an election campaign things go awry’. The apology was perfunctory, and, judging by the reaction of the press corps, not well received.

His opening statement lost a lot of steam – largely because many of his points had already been attacked by both Roxon and the press corps. In the face of the huge criticism levelled at private health insurance gap and loss of Commonwealth public hospital funding, his roll call of Coalition health achievements sounded pretty hollow. It wasn’t helped by his insistence that the problem with public hospitals was solely the fault of ‘State Labor governments’ and attacks on both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, while claiming to want to end ‘the blame game’.

Abbott’s response to questions was completely different to Roxon’s. His manner was hectoring, there were no ‘thank yous’, and every answer was prefaced by an extended attack on Federal Labor. Most often, the target was Kevin Rudd, which struck this writer as slightly bizarre, given the presence of Roxon sitting right next to him. Abbott’s treatment of her tended to give the impression he considered her ineffectual and hardly worth his while to notice, but if it was a strategy, it backfired badly. Coming on the heels of his failure to arrive on time for the debate, it looked like rudeness.

His other main strategy was the time-honoured politician’s tactic of refusing to answer questions directly. In this, he contrasted poorly with Roxon, whose answers – while somewhat long-winded (which didn’t always play well with the press corps) – tended to be directed at the substance of the question. Policy announcements were difficult to pick out of the rhetoric, being bounded around with equal parts Coalition-praising and Labor-damning. In fact, in both his opening statement and in answer to questions, the only policy he even mentioned was the much-criticised ‘local boards for public hospitals’ idea.

Finally, the question for which this writer had been waiting came. Why hadn’t Abbott taken better care when making his travel arrangements, and why didn’t he have a deputy available to take his place, if necessary? Abbott’s response? He had to be at a campaign launch, and – ‘given the speed of planes’ – it was impossible to be there any earlier than he actually arrived. The inference could be drawn, then, that Abbott considered the debate of minor importance, able to be sacrificed in favour of a campaign launch, without even the courtesy of an explanation via Airphone.

In closing, Abbott rang the bell of ‘our record, our record (which was, by then, becoming something of a broken record). Roxon picked up that refrain, but showed the negative side of an 11-year Coalition government. That was a particularly dangerous strategy, but she concluded with what is becoming Labor’s clarion call in this election – the appeal to the ‘ordinary Australian with everyday worries’.

Lacking a worm, I’d have to conclude that the debate was a clear win to Roxon (as did the majority of Sky’s commentators). Many of the points on which she outstripped Abbott had nothing to do with policy, and everything to do with respect – respect for the press corps, the opponent, and the desire of people to hear direct answers to direct questions. Coming on the heels of Abbott’s sledging yesterday of asbestosis sufferer and campaigner Bernie Banton, this counts heavily against him. Roxon’s policy announcements came across as sound and well-considered, with a big emphasis on specific programmes (although she didn’t speak specifically as to how Labor planned to increase the workforce of skilled hospital workers). Abbott’s were vague, consisting largely of attacks on State Labor governments and a sketchy plan for a massive increase in hospital bureaucracies at the local level – while all the while insisting that Australia has, apparently, never had it so good.

It was pretty clear that Abbott knew he’d lost, too. As the two debaters shared the traditional handshake for the cameras afterwards, Roxon commented that Abbott could have made it to the debate on time. Abbott’s response was to snarl out the side of his mouth, ‘That’s bullshit, you’re being deliberately unpleasant. I suppose you can’t help yourself, can you?’ while maintaining a fixed smile.

There couldn’t be a greater contrast with yesterdays’ debate. Costello was clearly the polished politician, and Swan a nervous nelly. Today, Roxon was relaxed, chatty, serious where she needed to be and solid all the way through. Abbott, despite his long experience as Health Minister, came across as rude, out of touch and a political novice.


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