Coalition election coverage of elections
(Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Here’s a great example of how the Australian media no longer serves Australians on some of the biggest issues facing the country — and why we’re facing a lost decade and more on productivity and innovation.

Regardless of the content of Monday morning’s speech on economic reform by Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister was entitled to expect it might have received detailed coverage and dissection by the media. It outlined the government’s intention on its economic agenda at a crucial point for the economy both in terms of the need for immediate stimulus and structural reform.

At The Australian Financial Review today, there are several articles and an editorial addressing the speech. Whatever you might think of what was on offer — we’ll come to that — the AFR took the speech seriously.

It was less so elsewhere. The Australian had a couple of comment pieces — someone from the IPA supporting deregulation (surprise!) and Judith Sloan calling for a return to WorkChoices (double surprise). Thereafter it stopped. The other Nine papers ran nothing on the speech today. Nor was there any analytical coverage on the ABC, which like much of the Press Gallery is preoccupied with the second order issue of the government’s tax cuts.

The ABC, coincidentally, didn’t carry a preview of Morrison’s speech yesterday morning. The Australian, the AFR and the Nine tabloids had all been given the speech, or major chunks thereof, on the weekend, and all ran a preview of it. As it turned out, in the case of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and to a lesser extent The Australian, that’s all they ran.

This practice of dropping speeches to newspapers ahead of delivery has occurred under both sides for a long time. It’s advantageous for politicians: broadcasters are unlikely to cover a policy speech so newspapers are the only sources of detailed coverage, but won’t be interested in a speech delivered the day before, even by a prime minister.

So the speech is dropped the day before delivery so that the morning editions will carry some detail of it. Better yet, that preview coverage will never be critical. Journalists won’t savage a speech to which they’ve been given a preview because if they do they won’t get a preview of the next speech. They’ll be cut off the drip while other outlets and colleagues that play the game continue to enjoy access. The result is essentially free advertising for the speech, along with, maybe, some discussion of the political tactics involved.

But this kind of insider game serves readers and audiences even more poorly if that’s where the coverage ends. AFR readers got yesterday’s preview and then some detailed discussion today. For the readers of the SMH and The Age, that flat preview coverage was all they got. Even the readers of the Oz only got some ideological ranting (OK, that’s pretty much all they ever get, but still). ABC audiences got little or nothing.

Two of the AFR’s articles were essentially about business welcoming the opportunity to demand industrial relations reform and deregulation, while its editorial is another demand for a return to Workchoices. All of them could have been written, and perhaps were, simply by assembling the usual clichés from a thousand other AFR articles and editorials.

To be fair, the AFR’s industrial relations roundsman David Marin-Guzman also discussed the ACTU’s perspective on industrial relations. The AFR also ran a piece by Adrian Blundell-Wignall that actually grappled with what would enhance productivity — something that none of Morrison, business or the AFR’s editors actually bothered to do themselves. 

But other than the AFR, the rest of the media failed. Morrison’s speech was a collection of the same business wish list we’ve been hearing for decades, not even coherently written. Diligent analysis would have highlighted its contradictions on deregulation (Morrison is lauding deregulation while his own energy minister is threatening gas and electricity companies with heavy-handed regulation that is little short of de facto nationalisation). It would have noted that WorkChoices led to a significant deterioration in labour productivity and pointed out how few of Morrison’s suggestions had anything to do with serious proposals for reform put forward by independent bodies like the Productivity Commission. 

That is, they would have served voters and the national interest by talking seriously about lifting productivity and economic growth. 

It’s not just this government that appears unable to rise to the challenge of leadership on the economy.

What could the media be doing to better interrogate the government? Is Australia facing down a decade of lost growth? Send your thoughts and full name to [email protected]