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Hugo Kelly gets up early for a fresh new take on political reporting

There was Piers, sitting on the ABC’s couch at 9 o’clock yesterday morning, looking grumpy and corpulent, dissecting the entrails of Aston with political pundits Christine Wallace and Malcolm McGregor.

Not a pretty sight, and not very encouraging for a new program the ABC promotes as a close-up examination of the innards of Australia’s body politic.

Sitting next to Piers, McGregor and Wallace were both trying to look relaxed and comfortable, wearing leather jackets and winning smiles. McGregor, who’s known to enjoy a spot of corporal punishment, looked like he’d stumbled onto the set after a late night at the Hellfire Club.

Moderating was Cassidy, a long-time ABC political reporter/commentator who’s spent the past few years junketeering round Europe for Aunty.

These were The Insiders. More, The Usual Suspects.

At least Cassidy, a former Hawke spinner, used to be an insider. Wallace and McGregor are no more insiders than your average press gallery hack, kept at arm’s length by the machine men and fed the usual mushroom diet.

And if we needed proof, the panel discussion that followed was it.

The chat had that circular, in-house perspective you get wherever a bunch of political journos gather round a table: Barrie Cassidy analysing Michael Gordon’s analysis of Hugh McKay’s analysis of his interminable political focus groups.

If you didn’t read Gordon’s piece in Saturday’s Age, which formed the reference point for much of the conversation, it centred on McKay’s fresh, groundbreaking research that reveals (drumroll please), 05Australians are apparently growing tired and distrustful of politicians.

Well, I never! Who would have thought?

This formed the basis of much discussion, drawing some odd conclusions and wacky observations from the panel along the way.

McGregor set the tone, quoting the gallery’s bar-room bore, Alan Ramsey, about what a tough politician John Howard is. Then going on to quote that other political guru – Malcolm McGregor: “As I once wrote about Kim Beazley…” etc. etc.

Christine, who has recovered from her decision to devote years of her life to a lengthy and worthy biog of John Hewson (apologies for earlier description) – only to see him and his Fightback disappear down the gurgler.

On Sunday, her contribution was the “observation” that the Liberal candidate Chris Pearce, second on the ballot, had received a decisive boost from the donkey vote, equivalent to the 1.3% of the vote secured by independent candidate Peter O’Loughlin at the top of the ticket. “Something that no commentator has yet pointed out…”

Allow me to disabuse you of this notion Christine. Sitting in Parkmore Primary School on Saturday night scrutinising the votes, this was not clear at all. Sure, Pearce benefited from a few dregs passed on from disillusioned donkeys. But the majority of O’Loughlin voters showed some imagination with their preferences.

Their preference flows were fairly evenly distributed between Pearce and Boland, with just a slight edge to the Libs.

Sitting in a TV studio in Elsternwick, Wallace clearly thought she was in the ideal position to judge how those preferences flowed.

So it continued, McGregor quoting himself, Christine misinterpreting “the punters” intentions, and Barrie rounding off the show after half an hour of huff and puff and precious little insight

The big news on the Insiders came when John Howard quietly conceded defeat in the federal election, during an interview with Cassidy. Seeking to spin the result, Howard made a telling and revealing analogy: “You’ve got to compare like with like and look at the by-elections a few months before a change of government. (For example) Lowe in ’82 which presaged the defeat of the Fraser Government, was 7%.”

So, while his headline message was “the Government is back in the game”, the PM was, with his choice of analogy, clearing the decks for the end of the Howard era.

In very careful language, Howard is starting to write his own obituary. His most direct frame of reference is Malcolm Fraser, the last Liberal loser. Not wanting to replicate Malcolm’s messy end, Howard wants to go out with dignity. And on the Aston figures, there will be no need for him to dissolve into tears on election night, as Fraser did 18 years ago.

For Howard, it is all about minimalism now; minimising mistakes, minimising the GST – minimising ultimate defeat.

With the PM softly softly conceding defeat in the big game, Aston in deadlock, and the media confused, the carnival has moved on. At stake now is the 2004 election. In order to cement a two-term administration, Beazley needs to demonstrate he can sweep to a big majority in November/December.

Labor’s soft vote in Aston indicates Beazley’s win in the general election might yet be less than monumental – significantly hampering his first term agenda and setting up a dangerously close fight with a rejuvenated Costello in the 2004 poll.

No wonder the Treasurer was standing on tables at the Libs function on Saturday crowing about the Aston vote.

Over on Nine, during his interview with Laurie Oakes, ALP President Greg Sword said it all in an unconvincing attempt to wallpaper over the result.

Sword: “This is a terrific result for the Labor party.”

Oakes: “Even if you don’t win?”

Sword: “well…well…”

Sword then let out a real clanger: “People out there are unhappy. They’re doing it tough and they’re desperately trying to tell him (Howard)…”

Well, Greg and Kim, on Saturday they had that very chance. And they showed very clearly that they didn’t have faith in Beazley as a safe destination for their protest. The Labor vote was down nearly two per cent, and some 20% of the electorate didn’t even bother to vote – let along protest.

The only true insider to shed light on the by-election and its ramifications on TV yesterday was the Liberal state director, Brian Loughnane. And that came in an interview with Oakes. Put simply, he said, Labor’s campaign was about sending a message to Canberra. It failed. The Libs had a solid, mature, local candidate who concentrated on local issues important to the electorate. It helped soak up the disenchantment factor, and gave new hope for many marginal Lib MPs.

As for Chris Wallace? She was looking further down the food chain: “Costello and Crean are both nice guys…From a leadership point of view, perfect deputies”. Uh oh. Sounds like Christine’s getting friendly with the Men Most Likely. Do we hear another book on the way?

Still, Wallace, McGregor and Ackerman were not the only confused political pundits. Another who got bogged down in Aston was the SMH’s political crusader, Margo Kingston.

Now, Margot has vowed to change the way politics is reported in this country, by getting close to the people (or “the punters” as our journo pundits invariably call them); communing with them, seeing politics through their eyes, climbing down to where they live – etc etc. To her credit, she uses her internet column in the Herald to conduct a lively dialog with readers.

And for this by-election, Margo apparently drove down to Aston in an RV and, to get a feel for the place in the final week of the campaign, parked the Jayco in a caravan park somewhere near Wantirna South.

So armed with local knowledge, would-be Aston voter Margo then tuned in on their wavelength, whipped out the crystal ball, and divined that they would be voting Labor.

Nice try, Margo. At least now you’ve qualified for a gig on the Insiders.

Ends

Crikey affronted by Akerman role

By Stephen Mayne

As an admitted right winger, Crikey cannot allow the presence of Piers Akerman representing our cause to go unremarked.

Is this a conspiracy by the three other Labor supporters on the show – Malcolm, Christine (the partner of Beazley’s chief of staff Michael Costello) and Hawkie’s old spinner – to portray the right in the worst possible light?

The reason that Australia is still such a relatively left-wing country is the pathetic nature of many so-called leading lights on the right. Akerman is a shocker and should not be allowed to spout his views in the Telegraph or anywhere else.

Think about it for a moment. Who are Australia’s right wing heroes? Former Liberal heavyweight Jim Carlton tells anyone who listens that Malcolm Fraser was a “socialist”. Andrew Peacock was a complete powder puff and John Howard is an uninspiring old fogey who has risen way beyond his talents. It is this dearth of talent that rendered an ex-army thug like Jeff Kennett a Liberal hero. There simply was no-one else to worship.

The same applies to the business world where leading Liberals such as Ron Walker and Hugh Morgan have plenty of skeletons in the closet. Walker is a colorful property developer with a blind spot for conflicts of interest and Morgan should have been sacked back in 1993 when WMC got into all sorts of strife.

It is good for the ABC to air some bright right wing advocates such as Tim Blair and Imre in their knew Friday night how on Radio National but please spare us discredited fools like Piers Akerman. He gives the right a bad name. Why can’t “Insiders” get someone with a bit more credibility such as Miranda Devine?

Feedback to [email protected]

Peter Fray

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