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Federal

Feb 4, 2013

'Chaos', or how to see the world like a political journalist

After years of complaining about politicians failing to treat voters like adults, Julia Gillard has done just that -- and incurred the wrath of the press gallery at the same time.

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What a collection of hypocrites political journalists can be sometimes.

One of the beliefs that unites the press gallery, despite other divisions that undermine the idea that it’s a monolithic institution, is a longing for politicians who will treat them and voters as adults. Politicians who won’t engage in spin, stunts and cheap rhetoric, but engage on real issues and speak candidly, intelligently and with conviction to voters.

It might manifest itself as a longing for the days of Paul Keating, or a preference for Malcolm Turnbull, or a fierce resentment at the obsession with media management that has been a characteristic of Labor’s time in office, particularly under Kevin Rudd. They’re all versions of the same conviction that politicians these days are too much “on-message”and insufficiently straight with voters.

Along came Julia Gillard last week and fulfilled those oft-expressed hopes, in two ways. First, she abandoned the traditional prime ministerial prerogative of keeping the nation guessing about an election date and said when we’d go to the polls later in the year. Second, she spoke in detail about the economic policy challenges facing the government, why they existed and how limited the government’s options were in dealing with them, in a manner unusual for its candour.

In short, whatever her political motivations for doing so — and of course they existed — she treated voters, at least for once, like adults. But the reaction from the bulk of the press gallery to this rare fulfilment of their expressed wishes has been a tantrum.

The actual speech received precisely zero mainstream media analysis beyond Ross Gittins, who understood what an unusual speech it was, especially for a Prime Minister in an election year.

And many journalists just don’t seem to have been able to process what has happened regarding the election date. They are convinced we are now in an election campaign — a “record-breaking seven-month election campaign” as The Australian described it this morning or “a marathon 227-day campaign for both leaders” as another Australian columnist called it. That’s by no means News Ltd bias — an ABC journalist declared Australia “set for its longest federal election campaign on record”; it was an “extended election campaign”, Fairfax journalists said. Others settled, a little less disingenuously, for the term “unofficial election campaign”. 

That misconception might be understandable for the UK Telegraph but not for local hacks. One journalist asked the PM on Saturday about a “sort-of faux caretaker principle that applies because of the announcement of the election date so far in advance” (public servants, of course, would love nothing more than to spend the next eight months doing nothing but tweaking their election briefs and surfing the internet).

“‘Chaos’ and ‘disarray’ are media judgements, right or wrong, about politics, not about real world outcomes.”

But you can see the appeal: framing everything through an “election campaign” prism makes journalism easier. Election coverage is, at least the way it is normally done now, easier than regular coverage, because it focuses exclusively on politics — who’s up, who’s down, who’s stumbled, who’s made a gaffe, what do the polls say, who has strayed off-message, who will win. It’s an excuse to abandon content in favour of race-calling.

Framing everything within an election narrative means anything unexpected, or unusual, that doesn’t fit the narrative, either gets ignored (the PM’s speech) or treated, reflexively, as a stumble/gaffe/debacle/disaster. Thus the government was said to be in “chaos”, and “disarray”, suffering “body blows”, because two long-planned resignations were announced on the weekend (Nicola Roxon a “body blow”? Really?).

That Tony Abbott is too concerned about his level of support within the Liberal Party to risk a reshuffle that would remove deadwood like Bronwyn Bishop, Kevin Andrews and Peter Dutton in favour of the talents of Arthur Sinodinos, Jamie Briggs, Steve Ciobo or Simon Birmingham — indeed, promised last week that his first ministry would be exactly as it currently stands — is as significant a political story as the departure of an ALP stalwart like Chris Evans, but it isn’t so manifestly inconsistent with the now-dominant “election” narrative.

Even then, some in the media went further, indeed, right off the deep end. “Is it possible for her to recover after these two resignations we’ve seen over the last 24 hours?” an unidentified and presumably local journalist, referring to the Prime Minister, asked Christopher Pyne in suburban Adelaide on Saturday. The ABC, too, inexplicably thought it appropriate to seek the views of Pyne on the ALP’s internal matters. Even if you’re going to ignore substance in favour of politics, why seek the views of a political opponent to commentate specifically on party politics?

“Chaos” and “disarray” of course are political no-noes, particularly during election campaigns. Recall “chaos” was the key prediction of many at the start of this parliamentary term — minority government couldn’t be expected to produce anything other than a mess. The government has delivered plenty of chaos — relying on Peter Slipper, welshing on its deal with Andrew Wilkie, belatedly dumping Craig Thomson, having a leadership spill — but the Parliament also churned out hundreds of bills, including a carbon price that both sides had previously promised and not delivered, cuts to middle class welfare and superannuation reforms.

Indeed, what’s the broader economic achievement of this “chaotic” minority government? Low inflation, low interest rates, low unemployment, a massive investment boom, a “safe haven” currency, growing labour productivity, a sharemarket up nearly 20% since a carbon price commenced. If this is the product of “chaos”, long may it continue.

“Chaos” and “disarray” are media judgements, right or wrong, about politics, not about real world outcomes. The more journalists view everything through an election campaign prism, the less interested they appear to become in real world outcomes.

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