Toyota is going. And yet the government is barely sweating. They stand at the dockside, waving their hankies, thinking of something else. Not even a crocodile tear in their eyes.
This, in an environment of rising unemployment, is politically shocking. How has it happened that the populace apparently no longer wants this key industry saved? The answer is not that the Australian people have suddenly swallowed an Economics 101 textbook. It is just in the “national mood”. And that mood is still shaped by the media.
One could trace the beginning of the end of support for Australian car manufacturing to 2011. The economics editor of The Australian newspaper was a man called Michael Stutchbury. A man with ambition. Fiery and with salt-and-pepper sideburns, “Stutch” put his hand up for a new job that was going across town. He wanted to be handed the editorship of The Australian Financial Review — Australia’s only business daily — a paper loved and feared in decision-making circles.
The top echelons of Fairfax considered the CV of the man. He had strong views, sure, and the Fin had floundered under middle-of-the-road helmsmanship — perhaps that was not just desirable, but necessary.
Stutchbury arrived at the Fin amid a surge of excitement, armed with a two-word slogan: agenda-setting. “I think we can turn it into a growth story by reinvigorating the journalism, concentrating on news breaking, going back to setting the agenda,” he told ABC business reporter Ticky Fullerton at the time of his appointment. The move to agenda-setting came with an advertising campaign, too, which made the odd choice of appropriating some classic communist propaganda tropes.
The newspaper proceeded to take a far sterner line in deciding what was and wasn’t news. But it went a step further than that — the paper made some things into big news.
Stutch’s sharp news sense, formed at the AFR but forged in the right-wing foundries of The Australian, combined with his purist views of the government’s role in the economy, meant the car industry was a prime topic. I personally spent hours camped out front of Toyota’s Altona factory getting soundbites from workers, hours trawling through the car statistics to find an Australian manufacturing angle, hours looking into the history of government assistance to the industry.
I even interviewed motor racing legend Dick Johnson about the possible end of the Falcon, a story idea I was told came from the very top. (Johnson said: “Australians have an affinity with a front-engine, rear-drive car [and] a medium to large body size … But it may only be my generation that sees that.” The paper printed the story and a picture.)
Anything with a car industry assistance angle was easy to get past the mid-level editors and into the paper, because they knew Stutch would love it; he didn’t have to personally demand every single story the Fin published. The car industry was hot, and everyone knew it.
Not long after Stutch got the job, Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced cuts to car subsidies.
Would the government keep this risky promise? The issue remained firmly on the agenda. I wrote at least 10 stories on the topic, and I was perhaps only the fourth reporter in line to write car stories, behind Mark Skulley, Peter Roberts, and Lucille Keen (three of the four no longer work at the Fin).
But once set, the agenda doesn’t stay inside just one newspaper. If the Fin is in a lather about the car industry, then The Age gets a bit of froth on it too, as do The Sydney Morning Herald, the Herald Sun and The Advertiser. The tone of coverage nationwide took a subtle turn.
Now, newspapers can push barrows without getting anywhere. What gave the AFR barrowload so much momentum was the political gradient. Labor was clearly sliding out by 2013, and the Coalition was ascendent.
Stutch’s steadfast campaign was given legs because it coincided with a Productivity Commission report and a bright new political day (not to mention political capital in the shape of dozens of one-term backbenchers).
Newspaper editors are powerful people. The Abbott government is emboldened to make the decisions it is making — decisions its predecessors were unwilling or unable to make — because the prevailing climate is one in which they can expect some media support for the decision. Neither national paper is going to crush the government for cutting the funding that kept car manufacturing here.
I can’t help wondering how Stutch feels today, with the end of Australian automotive manufacturing a reality. Perhaps I am naive, but I can’t quite imagine champagne corks popping. I prefer to imagine him slightly frightened. As in, “jeez, I can’t believe I just did that!”. Like the start of a superhero movie.
As many have always said, with great power comes great responsibility.
*This article was originally published at Jason Murphy’s blog Thomas the Think Engine