The greatest challenges and uncertainty created by the new minority government are not for politicians or business — but for an Australian media trapped in clichéd, formulaic political coverage and the media advisers who also work the field by adding their own fertiliser contributions.
As a few journalists have already pointed out, minority governments are common and they actually work quite well. (Yes, before you protest, I know about Holland, Belgium and some Central European countries — but Australia is none of them and is in a totally different situation). The benefits of strong government are overrated as the IPA’s John Roskam amusingly described in an AFR column, Government: Who needs it? (3/9/10).
The real problem is that Australian politics is (generally) covered in such a formulaic, superficial, innumerate and partisan manner that reporting in a different way is going to be very, very difficult.
Reactions to the Oakeshott/Windsor media conference are a good example. The two took their time to explain the decision, the factors they took into account and the process they followed. Meanwhile, the gallery got more and more frustrated. Mark Davis in the SMH online went berserk accusing them of “self-indulgent theatrics”. Predictably, the media this morning was mainly full of how the project would fail; how business uncertainty would inevitably follow; and how “we would all be rooned”. The AFR led with the ridiculous headline that “Gillard buys power for $10 billion”, demonstrating that our leading financial newspaper subs are so financially illiterate that they can’t tell the difference between new and re-allocated funds and then divide by three to see if the allocation is reasonable.
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In one of those happy coincidences, I was at a function on the night of the media conference announcement. The function program included an extract from one of the works of another Oakeshott (the conservative thinker Michael). In The Years of Liberal Learning (Yale, 1989) Oakeshott wrote: “The pursuit of learning is not a race in which the competitors jockey for the best place, it is not even an argument or a symposium; it is a conversation.”
He was speaking of places of learning but the message could equally apply to policy discussion. How many bad laws have been passed because governments could both do so and guillotine any discussion? How many stupid stunts have been devised by media advisers to obscure lack of policy? How many nanny state impositions have been pushed to appear tough and concerned?
Australia could do with a bit of reflection and a lengthy conversation about issues. Unfortunately such conversations don’t fit into the formula that the media employ to cover politics. By this morning there was a crisis (no doubt by tomorrow News Limited journalists will be claiming the government will fall as a result) because of a difference of opinion between the independents and Wayne Swan on the resource rent tax.
Unfortunately, the reflection and conversation will be incomprehensible to many journalists and media advisers. The hysteria will be amazing, and not only among the media, because sadly the modern day Right is hardly Oakeshottian — in favour of organic change, careful consideration and social solidarity — the sort of ideas that the UK Tory-Lib Dem coalition are currently exploring. If they did quote Oakeshott (Michael), it would probably be in some truncated form similar to their re-invention of Edmund Burke as a supporter of delegated democracy rather than representative.
Instead, influenced by the US Republican right, the Australian right favours radical change; emotional appeals instead of reason; fear and social divisions. Unlike traditional conservatives — and the Tory-Lib Dems government — they are unpleasantly keen on big government and big spending — mainly for those who need it least. Indeed, one could say they are just like the NSW Labor Right if it was not for the NSW Labor aversion to any significant non-personality change at all. All of these trends and attitudes feed into, and interact with, the current political coverage formulae.
No doubt we can expect to see an Australian version of the Tea Party groups (what will they be called I wonder?) being launched soon to claim back their country from the Greens, the leftists and the awful independents. No doubt The Australian commentators will be telling us how rational and necessary they are — with the same seriousness with which they claimed Treasury and Finance was involved in a conspiracy to defraud the Coalition of its rightful win.
Fortunately, AFL and NRL finals are in train, the spring racing carnivals are near, and Christmas is coming, so the hysteria might get pushed off the front pages or down the list in the news broadcast in coming months. And government will go on; legislation might be slower to be passed; the Greens won’t make all straight couples divorce, take up gay marriage and ingest drugs; the economy will bubble along on the strength of China; Australia will continue to be the lucky country — and some conversations might be had that might lead to some outcomes that might make us deserve some of our good fortune.
Ritual declaration of interest: The author did not vote in the last election and — if he had, as already declared, would have been a write-in vote for Angela Merkel.