What does Government control of both Chambers mean for our
political culture and the media? Political editor Christian Kerr
Back in those long lost days as a staffer, back when I’d
celebrate a Return to Order – a demand from the Senate for documents –
by trashing my emails and feeding paper through the shredder, the days
when I’d quake through Estimates or grit my teeth and smile sweetly at
the ex-cathedra pomposities of Clerk of the Senate Harry Evans while
wanting to deck the dick I’d never thought I’d worry about the
independence of the Upper House.
How things change.
so the Government control of the Senate is not monolithic. As I
observed soon after Antony Green called it for the Government, with the
Agrarian Socialist Party, AKA the Nats, holding the balance of power, a
few interesting things might happen.
And as I also
mentioned, there is some dim hope that some of the cowardly careerists
that call themselves Liberal moderates might, to paraphrase a bloke
named Kennedy, “find their faith again” and actually make a stand on
some things and cross the floor from time to time.
Mad old Unca Alan wrote in The Sydney Morning Heraldlast weekend, “There is nothing ‘historic’ about the Howard Government’s Senate majority, however much some ignore history.”
Bollocks, Alan. That statement only measures up if you decide to completely ignore our contemporary political culture.
Yes, after a few of your calls over the past few months it’s understandable that you might want to do that, but really…
have a quick look at what’s really happening in contemporary Australian
politics and what the Howard Government’s control of both Houses will
Be afraid. Be very afraid.
there are no hard feelings to Unca Alan, I’m going to do a Ramsey and
just toss a slab of quotes together. Even worse, I’m going to begin by
quoting myself – but now Jacques Derrida’s dead someone’s got to do
this sort of thing.
Here are a few comments I made on the essence of the Howard Government in November last year:
“What’s been the greatest unsung triumph of the Howard Government? Unity
the paralysis that gripped both the Liberal Party and its Coalition
with the Nationals at various times during John Howard’s first term as
Liberal Leader in the 1980s? Remember the way in which backbenchers
crossed the floor from time to time during the Fraser years to vote
against government legislation?
“Nowadays, the time when
Liberals prided themselves on having the conscience vote that the tied
caucus ballot denied Labor MPs seems as long gone as Menzies himself.
Most Liberals have probably forgotten that crossing the floor was what
once differentiated the Party from Labor.
Government’s unity has been helped by the way it has clamped down on
alternative sources of information from government instrumentalities.
Under Labor, various inquiries and semi-judicial tribunals used to
cause havoc by releasing reports critical of government actions. The
Howard Government seems to have taken the line that such alternative
views are a dangerous form of democratic bureaucracy.
has become its forte – but it has learned from the Kennett government
and keeps the issue as far as possible from the media and the public
A political commentator who isn’t
in their dotage have something nicely complementary to say on this
subject and its wider implications just this Saturday – Shaun Carney in
has secured unfettered control of the Senate. Presumably, it will take
a bit longer before the ramifications of this spectacular achievement
are fully understood.
“What it seems to mean is this:
Australia has confirmed that it has set sail on a new political course,
one where controversies over such things as propriety, ethics and
honesty are likely to be dismissed – if they occur at all – as boutique
sideshows, of little concern to the great mass of voters.
seems to be no other way to interpret the October 9 election result. A
great deal of the political debate since 2001 was devoted to the Prime
Minister’s handling of the children overboard incident, the threat of
terrorism and, most important of all, the engagement in Iraq.
reason for going to war was to wrest from the hands of Saddam Hussein
the weapons of mass destruction that we were assured he would
eventually deploy against the rest of the world. There were no weapons
of mass destruction. This is a matter of great moment in America and
Britain. It did not figure in our election campaign.
“This says something profound about Australia’s contemporary political culture.
the heart of these issues that in many ways dominated the public
discourse – or at least the media’s portrayal of it – during the Howard
Government’s third term was the question of accountability. How honest
do we expect a prime minister to be? Is it right to expect a prime
minister to accept the ultimate responsibility for his government’s
actions and the things that he says?
“The verdict of a
substantial majority of the Australian people appears to be that what
we might call these issues of process are not very important at all.
The ‘punishment’ that voters meted out to Howard for taking the nation
to war on false pretences was to increase the Coalition’s vote by more
than 2 per cent and give him unfettered control of both houses of
“It pays to show a bit of caution when
examining an election result, of course, because the victors
reflexively claim vindication for everything they ever said, did or
thought all the way up to 6pm on polling day.
the Liberals have spun the result so far is to suggest that the people
did not just endorse Howard as PM and utterly repudiate Mark Latham and
all he stood for, they also gave the thumbs-up to all of the
Coalition’s policies, right down to the footnotes. At this rate, by the
end of next week we’ll be expected to believe that voters backed the
Liberal campaign team’s lunch orders and favourite pop groups.
it is also folly to try to deny what most voters were saying about
politics and political behaviour when they cast their votes. This
result was not an accident or a fluke.
“The majority did
not opt for checks and balances. They want the Coalition to be able to
do whatever it wants. They did not want the country to get caught up in
discussions about which advice got through to which minister, or
whether it is appropriate for ministers to come down like a ton of
bricks on the head of the Federal Police for making the simple
observation that being a combatant in Iraq makes us more prone to
terrorism, or any of the other revelations about ministerial behaviour
that sprang up regularly in the past three years.
is second order stuff to most voters and they are unlikely to want to
hear about it during the Howard Government’s fourth term. This
situation poses serious challenges for the media as well as the Labor
Opposition. When most Australians are saying with some force that they
are not overly concerned about process just as long as their economic
circumstances aren’t being disturbed, how are questions of right and
wrong in public life decided?”
This, of course, poses a huge dilemma for the media. To quote the Small Faces, wotcha gonna do about it?
Let’s have a look at the Overland Lecture, “The Shape of the Argument”,
David Marr delivered in the last fortnight of the campaign. This is
only some of the opening – but if I ran the lot it would all be too
were at it again the other night: a bunch of journalists, old friends
and colleagues, eating, drinking and thrashing out the problems of the
country. Over the years we’ve argued our way through the rise and fall
of half a dozen governments, the collapse of the House of Fairfax and
the passing of three or four regimes at the ABC. We’ve been at it
through booms and busts. The ideological sharp edges have all been
rubbed away. There are no Pollyannas left. None of us expects too much
would change if the government changed in late 2004.
the table the other night, I was struck by the gap that’s grown between
the stories we’re telling each other and the stories we’re telling the
public; between our talk and our work. Journalists spend their lives
swapping stories that never see the light of day. But I’m talking about
something else: the gap that’s opened up between our take on these
times and the pallid version presented in the media.
of the time the newspapers and networks we work for seem to be
reporting another country and another government – like our own, but
not the Australia and the Howard government it’s our business to know.
Creating this gap between private and public argument has been a major
achievement of the Howard years.
television have not been censored or bludgeoned. This is not Singapore:
the government is not wielding defamation laws against its critics. Yet
the media is rattled. Some of the reasons for this are as old as the
hills. The conservative instincts of proprietors are as strong as ever
and they know they’ll make more money under Coalition governments.
That’s simply a fact of life. But reporting is also more difficult now.
Canberra doesn’t leak in the way it once did. The cabinet and the party
room are superbly disciplined. Bureaucrats are nervous. Leaks happen,
but these days the government leaks to favoured journalists who give
the public sneak previews of government policy.
tactic that keeps journalists friendly, too. And the spin out of
Howard’s Canberra is brutally clever. I’m interested in something more
difficult to pin down: the media’s faltering confidence in its own
purpose. After nearly a decade of sustained bullying from government –
this goes back into the Keating years – the media is in a quandary, has
lost its edge. Not everyone, not everywhere. But it has happened. What
I am exploring here is how that loss of confidence has come to shape
“Media proprietors read the same opinion
polls as politicians. The same focus groups are telling newspapers what
they want to read and political parties who they’ll vote for. The
popularity of what Howard did in the Tampa crisis explains, in part,
the widespread failure of the media to grasp what was really going on
here and cover these events the way they deserved.
were honourable exceptions to this failure – I particularly exempt The
Australian and the ABC – but to be working inside a newspaper as this
shameful episode in the country’s history unfolded is to know the power
of the media’s willed indifference to issues of pure principle when
these collide with overwhelming popular support…
principles were, of course, debated freely on op. ed. pages, on
talkback radio and on television. But the media was too rattled to
organise its reporting of these rapidly moving events around a worldly,
sceptical view of what the Howard government was really up to. The
language of the government – ‘border protection’ – was not contested
but became the language of reporting. The fundamental principles being
ignored by Canberra were treated by the media as moot points. Reporting
was not organised around the plain violations of due government process
going on day after day. Howard and his ministers were continuously
offered the benefit of the doubt. Shock was domesticated. Awe went
missing. The result was called balance but it was, in fact, poor
reporting because the media was missing the story….
everything, John Howard has been trusted for so long because this
country is enjoying the longest uninterrupted run of good fortune any
of us can remember. Not for everyone. Not everywhere. But most of us
have never been so comfortable. Howard is running the great popularity
contest of democracy and nearly all of us are in line for a prize.
Measured only by money, these are very good times. And there is a
visceral – entirely human – wish to keep it that way.
it is a time to hold back. We don’t want the media rocking the boat. We
want no distracting rows, no dissent, no great public arguments. We
just want to keep going. While it lasts…”
despite what you hear from some of the shriller pitched attack dogs of
the right, is actually a quite conservative bloke, in that he
demonstrates considerable regard for the institutions of this country
and the checks and balances that have evolved around them and govern
Does John Howard? Who’s going to report that?