Oct 19, 2010

Neither side get the Murray Darling basics right

On the Murray-Darling, Labor is doing what it always does -- allow its opponents to frame the debate. Luckily, the Coalition still hasn't learnt the basics either.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

Were our politicians always this bad, I wonder. I’ve always suspected it’s the warm glow of nostalgia and watching it from a distance that makes me compare our current leaders poorly with previous generations. And yet, as I watched Julia Gillard zone out momentarily as Chris Bowen spoke at their joint press conference yesterday, then refocus and turn and nod quickly at nothing in particular, it was hard to avoid the impression that the craft of politics is these days performed rather more poorly than even a few years ago.

Sometimes there are signs of progress. Bowen has made a good start in a difficult portfolio. They were announcing the shift toward community detention for minors and “at-risk families” — along with the “commissioning” of two new detention facilities. If you didn’t count any reform that wasn’t driven by the purist of motives, nothing would ever get done in politics, and so it is with Labor’s shift to community detention. It’s a policy motivated at least partly by the realisation — which has been far too long in coming — that a constant shift to the Right on asylum seekers was never going to work for Labor, that it amounted to an endless chase for voters they would never catch, while leaving progressive ALP folk to throw in their lot with the Greens. The electoral maths — as the result on August 21 showed — simply never added up.

Free Trial

Proudly annoying those in power since 2000.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial to keep reading and get the best of Crikey straight to your inbox

By starting a free trial, you agree to accept Crikey’s terms and conditions


Leave a comment

28 thoughts on “Neither side get the Murray Darling basics right

  1. David Sanderson

    I am disappointed thus far that Gillard has not clearly delineated a policy direction and a resonant overarching purpose for her government. Sure, the fragile majority makes it more difficult but that does not reduce the need for it.

    Gillard has impressed me in the past with her ability to clearly put out a message and make an argument. I’m not seeing that much lately and it is needed now more than ever.

  2. twobob

    “Nothing is more dangerous in public affairs than the influence of private interests, and the abuse of the law by the government is a lesser evil than that corruption of the legislator which inevitably results from the pursuit of private interests. When this happens, the state is corrupted in its very substance and no reform is possible.”
    Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “The Social Contract” (1762), book 3, chapter 4

  3. Jimmy

    The Gillard Govt can not control the narrative because the media don’t tell their story simple as that. Yes they could do better but when a report on the BER showing it was largely a success get reported as it clearly showing it to be a failure and Possums analysis of the report into the Home insulation shows virtually no link between it and house fires but the media continue to push this claim you know that no matter what narrative the govt try the media will still go with Abbott’s version of the truth while simultaneously decrying the negative style of substance of todays politicians.

    I mean look at all Abbott’s stumblings and bumblings since the election and yet the media have largley let him off and then look at today’s herald sun front page headline.

  4. zut alors

    Yes Bernard, it’s not merely your imagination, former generations of politicians were better.

    For starters, prime ministers used to have guts – not much evidence of that now, they are afraid of getting anybody offside. Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generation was one of the few gutsy initiatives in recent years, he didn’t give a toss who might be offended (John Howard in particular).

    Also, these days they’ve all received some coaching in media presentation so tend to speak more like monotone public servants rather than off the cuff with some genuine personality and colour (Bob Katter and former MP Wilson Tuckey being standout exceptions).

  5. godotcab

    Bernard Keane has related a lot of what makes Federal Governance much more difficult now than it has been before.

    The government is doing very well, but the game is much harder than it was.

    Proposals around water use in the Murray Darling basin are an example. The govt is damned for not being firm and setting concrete policy that businesses can plan on. They are also being lambasted for not consulting. Affected groups are prompted into outrage on both counts, although they contradict.

    I cannot see how such an issue could be approached better.

    I cannot see how rural groups and environmental concerns can all be met.

    There will be losers, and in this political climate, there will be trouble.

  6. klewso

    Of course bipartisanship’s in Abbott’s DNA (“Diaphanous Narcissistic ‘Abits”) – “As things change I change my mind, what do you do?” – imagine if the bovva-boot was on the other foot, the election had gone the other way, and he was on the other side of this knife edge, “playing with his politics”! He and the A(bbott)-Team (parties and their media PR management circus) would be dripping “bipartisanship”!

  7. Jimmy

    Godotcab – exactly, Abbott was able to run an “all talk and no action” line on the govt while claiming they didn’t consult enough in the lead up to last election.

    I think governement are like music from the recent decades, it’s not until you put a bit of time between them & you that all the crap get’s filtered away and you are left with the few gems that they are remembered for.

  8. freecountry

    [Were our politicians always this bad, I wonder. I’ve always suspected it’s the warm glow of nostalgia and watching it from a distance that makes me compare our current leaders poorly with previous generations.]
    Yes, they were always this bad. Almost always. Either indolently lazy, or bulls in a china shop, or both at the same time — still unable to manage Defence or solve an essentially trivial problem of a few thousand boat people a year, but at the same time ready to blow apart many years of tertiary education development for the sake of a few export dollars or some flavour-of-the-month education white paper.

    The prevailing level of esteem for politicians has not had any sustained change through the 19th and 20th centuries. However there was an interlude in the 80s and early 90s when giants took to the federal stage, most notably Hawke, Keating and Hewson, though there were others.

    Expectations have been raised ever since, and I believe both Howard and Rudd gained a great deal of power from those high expectations. They both would have faced much tougher audiences in the years before Bob Hawke entered parliament. I seem to hear more people deifying their favourite Labor or Liberal leaders than I’ve ever heard before–at a time when the quality of politicians has not so much declined, as returned to its long term level of mediocrity.

    What has declined is the quality of the media. Journalists once played a crucial part in the political process by helping explain policy debates to the public, and by shaming politicians into returning to policy debate (after exploiting a bit of personality drama to sell a few issues of their papers). For example the education and secularism reforms at the end of the 19th century came at a time when the whole country–schoolteachers, barbers, shopkeepers, doctors, everyone–was talking about ways to build a long term future for their descendants. It was the largely the newspapers that led this debate, builing incrementally, week by week, on the sophistication of readers as they read about the heroes of the Reformation or the history of the Boeotian Federation of ancient Thebes.

    The French news media still work much the same way today, as our media did back then.

    Horse race journalism, in which political strategy rather than the merits of policies becomes the main event, is a more recent phenomenon. In the English speaking world it seems to date from about the 1970s. The language, the metaphors, and the hero-worship, have become almost indistinguishable from the sports pages. I don’t know if this has had any material effect on the calibre of politicians. But it has had a profound effect on the collective intellect of the general public, discussing and voting on political questions. It has dumbed down public debate in a way that no political party ever could have achieved.

  9. Jimmy

    Great stuff on the quality of Journalism Free Country, but you forgot to metnion how they manage to complain about this while they feed it.

  10. Gos

    Tony Abbott has an excellent understandng of modern Australian journalism. Feed a soundbite to radio, animated vision to TV and a slogan that fits a headline count to print media and they are happy.

    An ABC apparently now populated almost entirely by sub-editors and not journalists guarantees that this basic sound grab/media release gets cut and pasted and used straight away.

    Hence just about every bulletin and web story begins thus: “The opposition says…..”

    Labor still think sound argument and logic will win the media over and result in a new age of reason. They are wrong.

    Until their own media unit starts to put usable, short releases and soundbites they will continue to lose the news battle. The PM says she is not interested in it. She should be, not to extremes, but in a balanced way that ensures Labor cuts through on key issues.

Share this article with a friend

Just fill out the fields below and we'll send your friend a link to this article along with a message from you.

Your details

Your friend's details