So here we are. Silly season is officially over. Welcome back to politics — election year politics. Excited? Yeah, me neither. But I’m trying to pace myself.
In any event, Parliament resumes on Tuesday for two weeks, although the Senate only sits for three days before one of those futile one-week Estimates sessions. The Government’s first big policy set-piece is on Monday, when Wayne Swan releases the Inter-Generational Report. The tactical battles over the CPRS will resume as well, but you get the sense the Government wants to shift debate to big-picture economic policy.
Earlier in the month, my colleague Richard Farmer, pausing briefly to reflect on Tony Abbott’s already-forgotten “Green Army” speech, noted that Abbott’s frenetic activity was silly given voters were too busy holidaying to pay any attention and that the PM had wisely understood this and dropped out of view until the year got going.
If you had read no other political journalism, analysis or commentary in the past four weeks than Richard’s pithy observation, you’d be about as well informed as you need to be. Everything else was pretty much superfluous.
January is the political dead zone. No one’s paying attention except the political tragics. Voters are on holiday, or more interested in escaping the heat, and care even less about politics than they usually do, which is very very little anyway.
Still, spare a thought for journalists working over the Christmas-New Year period, who have to find copy from somewhere. It’s OK for non-specialist journalists. Most “news” stories in the mainstream media are the same half-dozen stories re-told over and over again, in the same way they’ve been told since our ancestors huddled around campfires thousands of years ago. Summer furnishes its own set of rituals and myths with which to pad out newspapers and news bulletins, from major sporting events to bushfires and the road toll.
For my colleagues in the press gallery, it’s much tougher, not because political journalism doesn’t rely on the same basic stories being told over and over (it does, in some ways more so, because politics is so much about performance) but because the actual material for journalism — people saying and doing stuff — is materially reduced. Occasionally that can generate some creative solutions. Kevin Rudd’s wine collection came under the spotlight in early January after an Estimates question by Michael Ronaldson. But what would normally have been a variant on the old “politicians are out-of-touch spendthrifts” meme collapsed in the face of the sheer ordinariness of the Rudd “cellar”, which barely merited the name. So one outlet took the reverse tack editorially, warning the Tsar to improve his wine purchasing because he was letting the side down. Nice.
It serves — to the extent it can be said to serve anything — to throw into sharper relief a continuing feature of political journalism, that much of it, in fact maybe most of it, most of the earnest words knocked out by political journalists, are an extended effort to convince you that something is happening when it’s not, or that something is significant when it is not.
Bear that idea in mind for the rest of the year, an election year, in which journalists and commentators will be hell-bent on trying to convince you all sorts of exciting things are happening. All you’ve got to have is a memory longer than last five minutes to know that in many cases you were told something entirely the opposite not so long before, with equal conviction. Much of the time our political journalism resembles Guy Pearce in Memento, running around in an eternal present, the events of anything longer than 10 minutes earlier for all intents and purposes having never happened. And no, much as we strive to be, Crikey isn’t always blameless in that regard either.
But the rather bland reality of this year is that this is an unspectacular Government, more competent but less reform-minded than its two predecessors, which history say will win a second term later this year, and polling says will — unusually — pick up some seats, although I suspect not nearly as many as current polls suggest. And yes, some of the gloss is starting to come off Rudd personally, the polls seem to suggest, but it’s about time after three years of absurdly high approval ratings that he come back to the earth inhabited by political mortals.
Doesn’t get the juices flowing, does it? It’s not exactly a rich feast that political journalists have to convince readers and viewers to attend. That’s why I don’t want to seem too critical (something quite a few readers seem to think I can’t help). Political journalists face severe enough pressures to perform in the face of under-resourcing as it is. Everything’s fine when there’s plenty of colour and movement in politics but when it’s slim pickings, the job of convincing editors and executives that politics, let alone public policy, is critical becomes ever harder.
That’s why I incline to the view that it’s the Seven, Nine and Ten gallery journalists who provide the most — what’s the right word? — honest coverage of politics. Every day they and their producers have to battle news editors to get political stories up above car accidents, celebrity nipslips and crime yarns in the commercial news bulletins, a process that has a certain way of stripping out the unnecessary, leaving only the bare essentials of a story.
And it’s why, I suspect, every single gallery journalist prays nightly to whatever deities he or she worship (God, Mammon, Alcohol, Yog-Sothoth) that Malcolm Turnbull will stick around politics. He’s colour and movement made flesh.
And I keep thinking back to John Hartigan’s speech to the Press Club last year (the one with those Obama-esque dual teleprompters) in which he said he wanted to close the News Ltd press gallery and do less political journalism and more “local journalism”, and Nine management’s ploy to consolidate bureaux with Sky and Seven, and I fear where we’re going to end up with our non-public media outlets, and, worse, I can understand exactly why senior media executives are thinking that way, especially if politics has a decidedly business-as-usual flavour.
At least in an election year there’ll be more advertising revenue for the media, but even that’s under long-term threat from electoral funding reform and the drift of advertising dollars to online.
So there’ll be plenty of herbs and spices in the mainstream media’s political coverage this year. Hallucinogenic herbs, in some cases, especially among the febrile coalition cheerleaders in some outlets. Just don’t mistake them for actual, nourishing food. Apply a sceptical eye to everything you read and hear (including from here), and keep remembering what we all told you earlier. Sometimes in politics, there is much less than meets the eye.