This is a story about systemic failure, in two important national institutions, federal Parliament and Australian newspapers.
Remember “a good government that lost its way”? That was Julia Gillard’s figleaf excuse for why Kevin Rudd was knifed. Later, it was admitted, that was the cover story for the fact that the Gillard camp didn’t want to engage in wholesale trashing of Rudd’s reputation while he was still clearing his things out of the Lodge. The trashing was withheld until February last year. And, boy, was it wholesale.
But “a good government that lost its way” is exactly where Labor now is. Gillard Labor delivered excellent economic performance, a carbon price that appears to have been surprisingly effective and a number of significant reforms in areas like superannuation. It also proved adept at legislating as a minority government. But now, the wheels are falling off.
It’s not doing the basics right. It decided to cynically exploit the 457 visa issue, which offered short-term gain but at the possible expense of the party’s traditional standing with ethnic communities and progressive voters. But it took several days to put together its case, creating the perception it couldn’t explain what the problem was.
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And in contrast to its skill in negotiating with the independents and Greens on the passage of high-profile legislation, it offered a fait accompli on its media reform package, demanding passage of the bills within 10 days. Moreover, it did no preparatory work on selling the package, which came over a year after the reports that ostensibly inspired it were delivered to the government. The reforms were finally abandoned this morning, after two lower-profile bills, on the ABC and SBS charters and TV licence fees and local content, got through. Real achievements, like the passage of the NDIS, are now being lost amid tactical stumbles.
Gillard’s opponents within the party haven’t shown too much more tactical nous. Joel Fitzgibbon — remember, the only minister to be dumped during Kevin Rudd’s time as Prime Minister — has been mouthing off about the leadership, first anonymously, and this week openly. Some of what he has had to say is palpable nonsense, such as his claim that any change of leaders must happen before the budget. Bob Hawke, elected leader the day the 1983 election was called, and Gillard, installed as leader mere weeks from the 2010 election, would beg to differ.
But Fitzgibbon isn’t operating under Rudd’s instructions. He’s freelancing — “freelancing on a suicide mission”, as a Rudd-backer said — and thereby inflicting damage both on Gillard and the man he’s backing. And the man he’s backing doesn’t have the numbers to beat Gillard even if he broke his oft-repeated (in public and in private) vow that he will never challenge, which he won’t.
“If Labor is engaged in navel-gazing, the press has embraced auto-proctology with a vengeance.”
All this Labor navel-gazing means the opposition continues to get a free ride, one that looks almost certain to deliver Tony Abbott to the Lodge. That’s despite a dearth of actual policies and deep concerns even within his own party about Abbott’s understanding of the economic challenges for Australia or what his policy agenda really is, apart from magically transporting Australia back to 2007 the moment he is elected. The man who looks likely to be Australia’s prime minister, possibly with control of both houses, also has a habit of adopting and then disowning multiple positions on key issues, and by his own admission is influenced by the xenophobic and economically irrational Barnaby Joyce, who may now have the chance to become deputy prime minister under him.
Both sides are failing voters. But voters and the parties themselves can address that. Rudd could, of course, replace Gillard, and either could be defeated at the election by Abbott, or by Malcolm Turnbull or Joe Hockey. We have entered a new era of disposable leaders. Sadly, there’s no such easy choice with the other institution that has catastrophically failed this week, the press.
If Labor is engaged in navel-gazing, the press has embraced auto-proctology with a vengeance. Like most industries, the media is keenly interested in how it is regulated, and thinks it is “special” and “different” to every other industry. Thus, despite the fact that media reform is a tenth-order issue for voters outside the Canberra bubble, it has been virtually the only thing, along with leadership, that the media has focused on recently. Crikey (particularly given my own background on the issue), hasn’t been much different.
But the press’s capacity to objectively report what it claims to be a crucial issue has been, to say the least, found wanting. News Limited again demonstrated that its coverage of key issues is directed by the commercial and partisan agenda of its proprietor and executives, to the extent of simply inventing stories and falsely attributing views to individuals. Actual analysis of the reforms, whether at News Ltd or anywhere else, has been alarmingly limited, to the extent that actual problems with the package, such as the uncertain nature of a public interest test, were ignored in favour of shrill warnings of Stalinism.
Meantime Fairfax, which also strongly opposes the media reform package but where that opposition has been expressed less via reporting than via editorialising and op-eds, has focused obsessively and relentlessly on the Labor leadership, devoting swathes of coverage to it even when there is nothing new to say and insisting it “stands by” stories that have been dismissed as false by the people who featured in them.
This isn’t about the press gallery, which isn’t the monolith that its critics believe it is, and it’s not to say there haven’t been good journalists doing their jobs properly in either News Ltd or Fairfax (see, for example, Katharine Murphy’s excellent piece on the media reform package of a few days ago). It’s about how we’ve been failed by our newspapers on what they say matters most. Newspapers shouldn’t be regulated like broadcasters, Fairfax chief Greg Hywood insisted earlier this week, because they’re all about news, whereas broadcasters are in the entertainment business with news tacked on. Newspapers, he was saying, are the real thing. Which makes their failure over the last few weeks all the more culpable.
I suggested above we can’t change our press as readily as parties can dump leaders or voters can dump governments. But we are, slowly, dumping newspapers. The two companies that have failed so badly are the two companies that are facing a struggle to survive as the internet destroys their revenue. What will a world without quality journalism be like when newspapers die, the refrain goes. In recent weeks, News Ltd and Fairfax have shown exactly what it will be like.