Does Australia have a toxic political culture and, if so, what role does the media play in it?
It’s clear that Australia has entered an era in which political parties have less patience with leaders. The removal of Morris Iemma, Nathan Rees, Kevin Rudd, Ted Baillieu and Terry Mills while their parties were in power is as nothing compared to the procession of oppositions that have ditched leaders in recent years in an effort to find a winner.
And the media revels in such revolving-door politics, obsessing over polls, speculating about likely replacements, breathlessly reported anonymous sniping, wondering constantly about timing, about how the deed will be done.
It’s interesting to reflect on how this culture might have changed previous political eras. Paul Keating may not have made it to the 1996 election. John Howard might have been replaced in 1998 or 2000.
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But as the list of first ministers discarded by their parties illustrates, the media didn’t start revolving-door politics. Politicians themselves began it, and specifically the NSW Labor Party during its too-long period in government. It was a tradition that first infected the federal Labor Party and now, seemingly, has spread to the conservative side of politics.
The media are, however, enablers and supporters of this new culture. Dour, business-as-usual politics in which governments focus on governing competently makes for dull copy for a media under increasing pressure from declining revenues. Long-standing media traditions such as a lack of interest in good news, and a tendency to hyperbolise anything bad, have become exaggerated (case in point: the general lack of interest in Australia’s remarkable economic performance of recent years). The general tenor of political reporting is ever more strident.
It’s up to politicians to address this culture, because the press is certainly unlikely to change. Even if Julia Gillard leads Labor to defeat, perhaps Labor yesterday signalled it is not prepared to persist with revolving-door politics. There may be no short-term benefits, but it might start rebuilding a healthier political culture in the longer term.