At what point will so much of Australia’s mainstream media, and the press gallery in particular, stop pretending what’s happening in politics is even remotely business as usual?
One of the lessons of the last four years in America was the struggle of a media class resisting the normalisation of Trump’s behaviour — the open corruption, the constant new lows of presidential misbehaviour, the trashing of institutions and centuries-old political norms, the attempts to intimidate the media, constant attacks on science and facts, indifference to the deaths of hundreds of thousands, culminating in his incitement of an effort to overthrow a democratically elected government.
We’ve not plumbed anything like those depths in Australia, but nor is much of the media resisting the rapid deterioration in political standards.
This week alone has brought a succession of moments that demonstrated we’re far beyond business as usual. The prime minister has been shown to have clearly lied to Parliament. Coalition staffers have been revealed to have engaged in lurid sex acts that would shame the private school boys whose ranks they’re drawn from. A Coalition MP defended one of them.
There were revelations of sex workers being brought into Parliament House for a then-minister. The prime minister erupted with rage at a journalist and invented allegations of sexual harassment at a media company, then openly lied about why he’d done so in front of the same group of journalists.
Now, talk of “orgies” in the house during question time — though at least that means someone was enjoying themselves between 2.00 and 3.15. Plus the pending reshuffle that will see two of the most important ministries reallocated because it’s no longer politically or ethically tenable for them to remain.
This has all been in the last three days. It’s only the latest instalment of revelations about the truly sick culture in Parliament House and, it has to be said, predominantly within the Liberal Party — and only the latest steps in Scott Morrison’s effort to cover up, distract from and trivialise alleged sexual assault in the hope that the whole thing would just blow over.
This is not normal. It’s not normal in Australian politics. It’s not normal in any workplace, not in this century at least. There is no doubt that if Scott Morrison was the CEO of any decent-sized corporation, major investors would have spoken out and the board would have sacked him. That’s now the standard in corporate Australia, supposedly the sector that the Liberal Party so enthusiastically represents.
But many press gallery journalists continue on as if this is all stock-standard stuff, not a government and prime minister in crisis. Their coverage continues to be about political tactics, why Labor is playing this wrong/has its own problems, why this isn’t resonating outside Canberra, what announcements will give substance to Morrison’s genuine change of heart.
Most of them are male. The last six weeks has demonstrated a stark gender divide in political journalism, with female journalists grasping the significance of what has been happening and older male journalists and commentators struggling to see what the fuss is about. The divide is all the more apparent because Scott Morrison appears to have an aversion to female journalists, persistently refusing to speak to Leigh Sales but happily talking about the footy yesterday with Ray Hadley.
Morrison is no Trump. He’s a devout Christian and a lifelong political insider. He could never pledge to “drain the swamp” because the swamp has been his ecosystem for most of his adult life.
But he has many of Trump’s personality flaws: the molecule-thin skin, the predisposition to lie, the lack of substance. And many of the effects are the same: the degradation of political standards, the trashing of institutions, the normalisation of behaviours below even those of the worst governments of the past, and the setting of a terrible example that everyone in government, including staffers and public servants, feels free to follow.
Plenty of journalists, mostly female, have been prepared to call this out. When will the laggards of the press gallery see that this isn’t normal? Or are they too deep within the culture to see it?