Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme was news to his party room. But it wasn’t news to Rupert Murdoch, according to a new book on Treasurer Joe Hockey by journalist Madonna King.
On page 256 of Hockey: Not Your Average Joe, King describes a dinner Abbott had with Murdoch in Febuary 2010, when the latter was in Australia for his mother’s birthday:
“He gave the media mogul a full rundown of the scheme — supplying enough detail for Murdoch to later have his Australian-based editors briefed on Abbott’s plan, which he considered a visionary approach to dealing with a real problem in his workforce. They were encouraged to support it, notwithstanding that it represented a tax impost and was skewed to be of most benefit to parents outside their middle-Australian readership.”
Did Abbott’s dinner pay off? If Murdoch editors were briefed to be nicer to Abbott and his scheme, you certainly couldn’t tell. Crikey could find no evidence that early News Corp reporting on the paid parental leave scheme was broadly positive.
The scheme was announced on March 9, 2010, and our wrap-up of the papers the next day gives a flavour of the coverage. This morning we used Factiva to expand our search, linking where we could (we couldn’t find everything we found on Factiva through Google).
The Australian has the highest-earning readership, so you’d expect it to be the most naturally supportive of the PPL. But the first news report on the scheme was fairly straight, outlining the scheme while noting big business objections. The Australian’s editorial that day described the scheme as “poor policy”, but added it wasn’t “as bad as some hysterical reactions suggest”.
This ambivalence characterised much of the Oz’s early coverage. The following days didn’t bring the scheme support. For example, an early news report by Angela Shanahan noted that the scheme hadn’t been well received by conservative groups: “Among Abbott’s solid conservative supporters, religious pro-family activists on the Right and the Nationals, the reaction has been anger, dismay and even a feeling of betrayal.”
Among the Oz’s columnists, Dennis Shanahan (husband of Angela) is seen as particularly close to Rupert Murdoch. He didn’t write much on the scheme at all, and when he did, he tended to note that it had opened Abbott up to criticism, as he did on March 30, 2010. By 2013, Shanahan had cooled further. The economy had changed, he wrote, and the country could no longer afford Abbott’s scheme, at least not right now: “The time has come for Tony Abbott to take one for his team,” he wrote.
Peter van Onselen was perhaps the most supportive: “Abbott’s policy has a traditional social-conservative value in that it is designed to help that relationship, but it is also progressive in that it encourages women to be able to manage work and family.” But even he often noted problems with the scheme, describing the business lobby outrage as predictable but not without merit.
The tabloids told a similar story. In the Herald Sun, Andrew Bolt gave us 13 reasons why the scheme was “dumb”. Daily Telegraph reporter and columnist Sue Dunlevy voiced early support. “I like Tony Abbott’s plan for a 26-week parental leave scheme paid at actual wage rates. This is a plan, unlike Labor’s, that treats families — and the needs of their newborn children — seriously.” But Phillip Hudson wasn’t impressed with the then-opposition trying to wiggle out of calling the scheme a tax. Indeed, the first news report on the scheme in the Tele notes, in the third line, that it breaches Abbott’s promise not to introduce any new taxes. Malcolm Farr didn’t support or condemn the scheme, but he did note the bizarre political messaging: “Tony Abbott’s policy oscillation between Mao Tse-tung and Margaret Thatcher is working — if his aim is to confuse the Government and his own MPs.”
News Corp papers did not pursue a line of unified, sustained condemnation of the scheme — but neither were they broadly supportive.
If you’re wondering, Fairfax’s big names were broadly sceptical of the scheme. Crikey’s commentators were less so.