Here’s some examples of our political journalism mired in a sort of “perpetual present” in which what happened two days ago, let alone two years ago, is forgotten.

And how once journalists get the smell of ministerial blood in their nostrils, the old higher brain functions start switching off and the pack instinct kicks in.

When Tony Abbott suggested last week that Peter Garrett could be charged with industrial manslaughter in NSW over one of the four deaths related to insulation installation, he should have been laughed out of town.  Coming from a former health minister — how many people died from medical errors in Commonwealth-funded care then, Tony? — it was particularly absurd.

Instead, it was taken seriously, with journalists breathlessly consulting IR lawyers.  The fact that Abbott was talking complete rubbish went missing from the follow-up. Imre Salusinszky — and I like me some Imre, and wish News Ltd would give him more to do than cover the Macquarie St circus — explored the issue in depth, with first port of call “OHS expert Ken Phillips”, who opined “Mr Garrett could be one of many considered within the responsibility loop for the insulation deaths”.

That would actually be Ken Phillips, head of the Independent Contractors Association, fierce critic of Labor, supporter of extreme IR deregulation and long-term opponent of the NSW workplace death laws.  How Phillips would have loved to suggest a Labor minister would be in the dock because of them.

When Salusinszky asked an “OH&S expert” without a partisan barrow to push, top IR lawyer Malcolm Davis, he got completely the opposite story: it was “very difficult to see how Mr Garrett or his department had control over a workplace”.

At least Salusinszky did some basic checking.  That was absent from much of the media coverage yesterday of the solar panels audit, which Crikey’s Jason Whittaker skewered.

What was an audit sought by Garrett’s department, covering panels installed under funding provided under the coalition (which ramped up solar panel funding under Malcolm Turnbull) and Labor, which found a 3% mis-installation rate against, literally, world best practice standards, suddenly became in the hands of the ABC’s AM program a new problem for the “embattled environment minister” around “concerns about the potential for house fires because of badly installed solar panels”.

The Clean Energy Council, which did the audit, was deeply unhappy about the story being politicised.

As late as this morning, the ABC website was running the story, which was apparently “adding to Mr Garrett’s woes” because of “new concerns over subsidised solar power panels installed on tens of thousands of roofs”.

That the facts didn’t fit with the Garrett-is-a-bungler narrative that has now taken hold in the media apparently didn’t worry the ABC.  Or, for that matter, Tony Abbott and Greg Hunt, who used the story to call on Garrett again to resign.

But when Hunt was pinned down by a journalist who knew the program that had been audited covered installations funded by the coalition, it was a different story.  Hunt began a convoluted dance, saying that “the message is clear” and that CEC audit should not be ignored and Garrett should be “cautious”.  “We’ve been very cautious on solar panels,” Hunt said.

Oddly, this is the Greg Hunt who throughout 2008 opportunistically joined the Greens in bagging Garrett for not rolling the solar panels program out quickly enough, after Garrett introduced a means test on the solar panel rebate to slow the remarkable demand for the program.  In June 2008, Hunt went skydiving — anyone remember that? — to demonstrate that the solar industry was in “freefall — but unlike me it doesn’t have a soft landing ahead of it”.

So much for “cautious”.  People with memories longer than five minutes might remember that, and point out the glaring inconsistency.

In fact, the most noteworthy aspect of the solar panel program started by Turnbull and accelerated by Garrett is how hugely successful it has been at getting solar panels on Australian roofs, leaving a legacy that will last far beyond Turnbull, Garret or even Hunt’s time in politics.

Garrett also copped it yesterday for cancelling a biodiversity speech to attend meetings with his department.

“I understand that he’s cancelled his engagements today. I hope it’s not just that he’s running from the media,” Abbott piously intoned.

That’s a bare three days since Abbott was outraged that Garrett had skipped a meeting and done his media engagements on — wait for it —  biodiversity.  “For Mr Garrett to be off in some national park when people’s home could be lethal thanks to his policy I think indicates that he has completely lost touch with the values of ordinary Australians,” Abbott said on Monday.

Rather than being called for his inconsistency, Abbott’s comments were dutifully reported by the press, entirely free of reference to his comments earlier in the week.

The Monday meeting was a departmental meeting with electrical worker representatives on the insulation program.  The idea that Garrett “skipped” the meeting was a complete fiction fabricated by the right-wing media.

The meeting Garrett “skipped” was one involving mid-level bureaucrats to discuss technical issues relating to the insulation program.  The presence of Garrett would have been entirely pointless, unless he picked up a working knowledge of cabling from all those years of touring.  For that matter, from my experience, having ministers in the room for such meetings is downright counterproductive, because industry representatives and bureaucrats are less frank than they would otherwise be.

You’d think press gallery journalists would have a clue about how bureaucracies in Canberra work, but no.

And you’d think journalists could at least consult their transcripts about what politicians said three days before, even if remembering back to 2008 is a little more tricky.

Apparently not.  Certainly not if it helps in the pursuit of a damaged minister.

Late breaking: Garrett is set to announce an end to the insulation scheme at a presser at 1.45pm today. Check back to The Stump for Bernard Keane’s analysis.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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