Does anyone not know how the coming weeks and months will play out for the Nationals leadership?
The Nats may have their own tweaks on the process — like not revealing the numbers in the leadership ballot, thereby letting all sides make self-serving claims — but we’ve already seen the rituals we’ve grown so used to since 2010, when Labor, to its eternal shame, began the process of knifing serving leaders while in government.
The pre-spill posturing. The careful leaking of fake vote counts ahead of the ballot. The pro forma declarations of unity from the winner and loyalty from the challenger — even if Barnaby Joyce’s Cincinnatian pledge to return to his farm was as unhinged as most of his public statements.
We know how it will play out. It’s become ritual over the last decade, so ossified as to resemble Kabuki theatre.
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The destabilisation from Joyce or, more commonly, from his supporters. The seizing of every issue that can be used against the incumbent, the exploitation of every misstep, the speculation, the renewed rumour that Joyce “has the numbers”, the exasperation from MPs that the leadership is distracting from the real issues that voters want them to focus on etc.
All fed to and reported by journalists, even if the latter are as jaded about writing leadership stories as voters are about reading and hearing about them (and don’t worry, I’m not pretending Crikey will be no different to other outlets covering politics).
And eventually there’ll be another challenge, with the live blogs, and the Sky News coverage starting at dawn, and all the theatre that goes with it.
Leadership stories are appealing for journalists because they’re easy to write. They’re about personalities and a simple narrative around who is winning.
They’re not nuanced or complex, or require specialist knowledge or extensive experience in covering politics — the most junior reporter on Sky News can bloviate as much as a Gallery doyen.
They also have more reader or viewer appeal than the stories that many journalists would prefer to be writing, around policy issues — and so editors and producers are going to prefer them, particularly in commercial media where live crosses to car prangs are much more likely to lead a bulletin than stories from Canberra.
As media companies cut the numbers of journalists, editors and producers and resources them less, the pressure on remaining journalists to do simpler stories grows as well, no matter how fed up they are with writing them.
And as many journalists argued when criticised for their recycling of Rudd faction destabilisation in the Gillard years, if an MP is trying to undermine the party leader, it’s of public interest whether people like it or not, and it’s their duty to report it.
But as we settle down for volume XXIV of leadership destabilisation, maybe it’s time for journalists to revisit that view.
Remember the former distinction around sex scandals — one that has broken down in recent years as journalists have increasingly reported on the private lives of MPs that are no one else’s business, like Barnaby Joyce’s — that they may be of interest to the public, but are they a public interest matter?
Perhaps it’s time to see leadership destabilisation as less a public interest matter and more one that is merely interesting to the public. Is the public interest really served by providing a platform for the destabilisation of denialist malcontents within the Nationals, whether or not it turns out to be successful?
For that matter, are the public even interested in it, beyond to a narrow section of the electorate that is fascinated by political minutiae, in contrast to the majority of voters who couldn’t care less?
Indeed, the growing frequency of leadership crises in the last decade has been accompanied by growing public hostility to them.
What was once a remarkable, seemingly earth- (or at least Canberra-) shaking event — the only government leadership challenges in the 1980s and 1990s were Andrew Peacock against Malcolm Fraser and Paul Keating’s two tilts against Bob Hawke — has become banal and boring.
The sheer absurdity of the idea that Barnaby Joyce should be allowed to use scissors unsupervised let alone occupy the second highest office in the land provides a patina of interest, but otherwise this is shaping up as a rerun of Murder, She Wrote level tedium.
In what has proven to be a mutually addictive game of leadership revolving doors, maybe it’s time for journalists to go — for this Member for New England, the phrase is most apt — cold turkey.