A Crikey spy in the Press Gallery, Jed Leland, breaks the cone of silence surrounding the party room spin.

At the start of each Parliamentary week, the two opposing sides meet with their coach for a private pep talk and a run-down of tactics, burning issues and tuition in toeing the party line.

After these meetings, journalists will get on the phone to the pollies to find out what coaches Howard and Beazley had to say, what issues were raised and – hopefully – who was sledging who. Press Gallery hacks will also troop down to a formal debriefing held by spokesmen from the Coalition and the ALP, normally held in Committee Rooms on the first floor of Parliament House.

Usually, the Caucus and Coalition Joint Party Room media debriefings are held at roughly the same time. Around midday on a sitting Tuesday, give or take one side or the other running long in their meeting (Caucus is normally finished a little earlier, but there are fewer of them to talk).

This week the Caucus met on Monday, creating an unusual opportunity to view them both in their totality. Their main purpose (in the soon-to-be-forgotten days when the Senate was not a rubber stamp) is to allow the Government to announce what legislation is about to be lobbed into the Parliament. Similarly to allow the Opposition to say if they will support or oppose legislation up for debate in the coming week.

That’s not always how it works. One famous (recently retired from Parliament) debriefer managed to turn up without having found out why he was meant to be there, and told the reptiles to look it up for themselves. Armed with the Bartlett initiative (a Democrat statement on the deliberations of the Democrat party room) any old fool could predict what legislation was likely to pass in the coming week. Any old fool also armed with the outcomes of the two debriefs that is.

Caucus and the heavy-hitters

Back when the Howard Government was a novelty, not totally believed by the reptiles of the gallery, the crowds at the Caucus debrief were greater and you would see more heavy hitters. Now that (after a decade) the reality of the situation has dawned on the punditocracy, the Coalition’s Joint Party Room debrief is the circus of the stars.

The formats are superficially similar. A spokesperson will tell the reptiles what the party wants them to know about the inner workings of the meeting. There will be questions in which the reptiles hopefully posit that their pet issue of the day was the centre of heated debate.

It’s a bit like twenty questions and eventually someone’s pet issue will be admitted to as being of some importance. Generally Michelle Grattan wins this game if she’s decided to play. One wonders if this is because she gets to choose her issues. Then the legislation will be discussed. The devil, as always, lurks in the details.

The invisible men (and women) – Who conducts the briefings

Long-held convention dictates that journalists reporting the briefings may quote a spokesman (or woman), but not by name.

At Crikey, naturally, we respect convention. So we will note that joint Party Room (Coalition) debriefs are always held by men with dark hair, wearing dark suits. They speak carefully, with voices which betray a better than public education. Currently, we detect an Adelaide grammar school upbringing.

Caucus (ALP) debriefs are generally conducted by sandy haired men in shirt sleeves. Recently, a flame-haired woman has injected some colour, humour and competence into proceedings. (No balding person has conducted a party debrief in many a year which is notable if one surveys our Members of Parliament)

Caucus debriefs are held around a large table with fresh jugs of ice water (which no one drinks from). Latecomers sit in chairs around the walls of the committee room. There are pads of paper and pencils laid out.

At the Joint Party Room meeting, smaller tables have been laid out in a ring, fewer people need to sit against the walls and the chairs are bigger and more comfortable. There is no water at all. There is note paper but no pencils. (On the subject of paper and pencils, it is worth noting that no sane reptile ever goes anywhere without their own paper and writing implement.)

At the Caucus debrief a less senior parliamentarian will sit with detailed notes to bail out the spokesperson should they be troubled by detail. To some extent, they have the feel of a political officer supervising the captain of a Soviet ship. When the spokesperson is stumped by a question they can refer to this offsider, ostensibly to check the notes.

At the Coalition shindig the spokesperson flies solo. Independent and free – except a staffer from the PM’s press office will place a radio grade recording device on the table in front of them a few seconds before they start. When the speaker is stumped by a question there is nothing but deathly silence as they consult their notes; and one can only wonder what the short man reads into those pauses, and how he will act on them in the future.

Those are the discernable differences. The final one is entirely one of feel. The Caucus feels like a briefing. The Joint Party Room feels like an interrogation.

Another take on gallery briefings

A former Gallery Journo and press secretary read this and sent through the following:

The formal briefing system was begun by Mick Young shortly after the Hawke Government came to power. It was a clever idea based on the premise that you should always freely and willingly give the press everything they would otherwise find out by themselves anyway – and put your spin on it.

It didn’t stop leaks, of course, or keep the truly bad stories under wraps, but it does ensure you a good run on radio and through the wires for the day before the big boys and girls on TV and in the papers find out the other stuff.

But when it goes wrong it can go badly wrong. In one of his first outings Kevin Andrews suggested the Treasurer had made some remark about the dollar or interest rates which caused the financial journos to flee the room screaming down their mobiles and took Costello ages to get it back in the box.

(Andrews got in a bit of trouble in his early days for lying during one briefing about whether a certain contentious issue had been raised. He told the journos no when in fact it had been a major issue in the meeting. Some years later he redeemed himself brilliantly by opening a report on the anti-euthanasia bill, which he sponsored, by declaring “If it was ever my intention to mislead you in the past, can I assure you it will not be the case today” and giving a very accurate and dispassionate report on the emotional debate in the party room).

Most notoriously Rosemary Crowley and George Campbell stuffed up a report about Kim Beazley telling a story of his daughter’s problems with a public hospitals and made it look as though Kim had lied to caucus. The government used this to great effect.

The reason the names of the briefers are kept private is not a conspiracy – it’s just that when they brief they are not speaking as an individual, but on behalf of the whole party room. To quote them would be to imply the views they express are their own which in some cases (most notably in recent times when Wayne Swan had to brief Journos about Caucus meetings led by Simon Crean) is clearly not the case.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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