In Australian politics, we’ve ended up with our own unique version of Mark Twain’s famous trilogy of falsehoods: lies, damned lies, and political posters masquerading as neutral advice from the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC).
At one end, there’s something endearingly quaint when the frontline of the battle for truth runs through the printed material at polling booths. At the other, we’re in deep with the rest of the world, confronting high-tech fake news and fossil fuel-funded attacks on climate science.
So here we are — because of both the failure of political leadership and of too much of a certain kind of political reporting.
In Australian politics, there’s been a steady deterioration of the restraints that the shame of being caught lying once brought to political life. “Whatever it takes” has morphed from the provocative title of Graham Richardson’s memoir a quarter of a century ago, to the accepted — even admired — mode of political practice.
That morphing has been encouraged by a political reporting that admires winning, that celebrates political success over public morality. It valorises power over principles, resulting in a depressing meta-narrative, reporting politics as competitive sport.
And so, the Liberal Party can admit with a shrug — as it did in court last week — that its now notorious Chinese language election-day advice on “the correct way to vote” was designed to look like it came from the AEC.
The prime minister can happily spend the weekend brushing off questions about climate change with “thoughts and prayers” and “not the time”, with support from Australian media.
Public institutions have largely gone along. The High Court as the Court of Disputed Returns has put this shrug into legal practice, with narrow definitions of what constitutes “misleading” voters. It’s being urged by both the AEC and the Libs to do so again in the current proceedings over the recent election.
The media too often talks a far better game of holding power to account than it actually plays. Too often, it marks the political players more on whether they won or lost, than on how they played the game.
Policy is twisted by this savvy analysis.
Look no further than the current Right to Know campaign to see how even the media themselves get tangled up. After nearly two decades of applauding the savviness of conservative wedges on Labor with bad policy on national security, journalists are now surprised to find themselves having their own metadata ransacked (or being raided by the AFP).
But the greatest damage has come from reporting the politics of the climate crisis. With the election of Tony Abbott as Liberal Party leader 10 years ago next month, the conservatives made fossil fuels their wedge of choice, wielding policy on power prices to mining jobs as a weapon.
In a vicious circle, this has delivered electoral success and that electoral success, in turn, has legitimated the policy in media analysis.
The result? Since the May 18 election, the climate denying media (largely, but not exclusively News Corp) have been arguing that there can simply be no climate crisis when the Australian people have voted otherwise. Coal has been electorally sanctified.
Nine has been trying to walk a more cautious line, accepting the reality of climate change while defending the legitimacy — the electoral obligation — of the government to do nothing about it. Nine News political editor Chris Uhlmann took this to its logical end last week comparing climate protesters to millenarian religious cults, failing to recognise that it is this politically disempowering savvy that drives people to the streets for environmental action.
On Saturday, confronted with the ferocious fires, the company opted to embarrass the hard-earned journalistic integrity of the SMH newsroom with a front-page Nine network advertorial. Again, they simply shrug.
Yet somehow, through drought and fires, the climate seems to be sending a more compelling message.