Introduction by Croakey: If nothing else, the results of the #Super Saturday by-elections – that left Labor celebrating four by-election wins in the seats of Braddon, Longman, Perth and Fremantle – suggest health advocates now have more time up their sleeves for prepping for the next election.
Expectations there might be an early election have been put to bed by the “horror” night for the Liberals, as this News Ltd report called it, while The Guardian billed the results as “ominous for the Turnbull Government”.
According to Wikipedia: the next election must be held between 4 August 2018 and 18 May 2019 for half of the Senators (from the states) and on or before 2 November 2019 for the House of Representatives and the Senators from the territories (except for another double dissolution). The earliest possible date for a simultaneous House of Representatives and half-Senate election is 4 August 2018.
Health is building as a key election issue; as ABC’s political editor Andrew Probyn wrote of Opposition leader Bill Shorten: “Serially underestimated by foe and friend, the Labor leader will enter the last few months of this parliamentary term firmly believing he has the pitch right, on health, hospitals, education and tax.”
(Let’s just hope that Shorten is not seriously equating a “bigger hospitals” slogan with sensible health policy.)
However, the capacity of the media to critically analyse health policies and politics is in question, not only due to industry instability following the planned Nine takeover of Fairfax, but also because of the media focus on political machinations rather than the big picture policy matters affecting people’s lives and wellbeing.
Former Fairfax journalist Jim Parker, better known to many as Mr Denmore, writes in the article below that the media are failing their public interest roles by not covering issues that matter:
We are talking here about the stagnation in real income growth, the war waged against the young in denying access to affordable housing and refusing to act on climate change, our slide towards US-style minimum safety nets, the slow destruction of public education and marketisation of health care, the concentration of media ownership and the existential assault on the ABC, the politicisation of the public service, the growing security state and, worst of all, the revoltingly cynical scapegoating by an increasingly fascistic right of immigrants, refugees, Aboriginal people, the disadvantaged and anyone who is not white, privileged and old enough to cover up their handiwork elsewhere.”
The article below is cross-posted with permission from Parker’s site, The Failed Estate.
Jim Parker writes:
In the aftermath of the ‘Super Saturday’ by-elections, the professional media types squeezed into their box seats on the ABC’s ‘flagship political discussion program ‘Insiders’ to discuss how the political commentariat (not looking at anyone) had got it so wrong, again.
Despite the media spending a month telling people that the story of the byelections was the continued viability of Bill Shorten’s leadership of the Labor Party, the electorate instead gave an emphatic finger to the conservatives, particularly in the Queensland seat of Longman. The morning after, on Insiders, the tone, for once, was uncharacteristically reflective.
“Here’s a point I’m absolutely willing to concede,” Guardian Australia political editor Katharine Murphy began. “We spend too much time with theatre criticism…and not enough time burrowing down into the issues on which voters make their choices.”
Yet, Murphy added, the story about the fragility of Shorten’s leadership was a real one. In other words, something might have happened (Shorten’s head would roll) if this outcome (people focused on the actual issues) had not happened. To keep with Katherine’s theatrical analogy, if Laurence Oliver had gotten hit by a bus before the matinée of Hamlet at the Royal Court, we’d have to watch the understudy.
Murphy was at least right on her first point. The media are so consumed with the performance of politics they miss the substance, the stuff that affects people’s lives beyond Parliament House. But we’ve known that for a while. We saw it throughout Julia Gillard’s leadership. In the meantime, before we get back to that substance, we really have to tell you about what perennially anonymous sources, with their own agendas, are whispering in our ears because leadership speculation is what keeps us employed, it’s the very reason we’re here.
Weeks before Super Saturday, you could almost smell the narrative being cooked up in the press gallery. Shorten was under increasing pressure (from whom?) The polls were tightening. Turnbull had gotten his groove back (how many times is that now?) The News Corporation favourite Albanese was positioning himself. Probably all true on one level. But this is like reporting on theatre by noting breathlessly that actors have fragile egos and hanker for the limelight.
These are politicians, after all. Their personal ambition and vanity almost always exceed their spirit of wider public service. Everyone wants to be the leader some day. But that’s not a story unless, of course, you are a put-upon, under-resourced journalist working in straitened circumstances of post-Google broken-down media and desperately needing to feed the content beast 18 hours a day, seven days a week (you’ve got to sleep some time).
The truth is that leadership speculation (‘leadershit’, as it is popularly dismissed on forums like Poll Bludger) has become the tail that wags the dog in Canberra. The two-party preferred vote has pointed to a Labor win now for about 35 successive Newspolls, yet all the focus is on a preferred prime minister question as if Australia operated under a presidential system. Abbott never was particularly popular. Yet he won a landslide victory in 2013 as the public called time on the ALP’s own leadership soap opera.
The media is in a bind. With no or little budget to do in-depth reporting or ability to talk about the underlying issues, it becomes easier and cheaper for journalists to race around sniffing out “leadership tensions” like dogs chasing passing cars. It keeps them employed, of course, and it fills the gaps between the ads, but it is ultimately meaningless. They’re obsessing over changes in the cast of a play that most of us gave up watching years ago.
The great irony is that the world is going through a monumental change right now. For instance, there is a real story in the battle between the hard Trumpist right that has taken over the Liberal and National parties, with the pseudo-moderate Turnbull flashing his teeth at the old ladies out front, versus a nascent social democratic left (like the Sanders push in the US) that is trying to steer the ALP back from the neoliberal cul-de-sac it found itself in after the Hawke-Keating years.
And that battle, in turn, reflects the real dislocation caused in liberal democracies since the global financial crisis. We are talking here about the stagnation in real income growth, the war waged against the young in denying access to affordable housing and refusing to act on climate change, our slide towards US-style minimum safety nets, the slow destruction of public education and marketisation of health care, the concentration of media ownership and the existential assault on the ABC, the politicisation of the public service, the growing security state and, worst of all, the revoltingly cynical scapegoating by an increasingly fascistic right of immigrants, refugees, Aboriginal people, the disadvantaged and anyone who is not white, privileged and old enough to cover up their handiwork elsewhere.
These are the real stories in Australia right now. It’s what driving our politics. It’s ultimately about the choices confronting us. It’s not about Shorten v Turnbull. It’s not about who’s the preferred prime minister in Newspoll this week. And it’s not about a bunch of people sitting on a sofa on a Sunday morning television show telling the rest of us what ‘the narrative’ is.
At least, that’s the view from here in the stalls.
PS: If you want perspective on what’s going on in our politics, I highly recommend Bernard Keane’s new book ‘The Mess We’re In’. Switch off the Insiders and read that instead. You’ll be much better informed.
• Jim Parker is a 26-year media veteran, who has worked in journalism in New Zealand, Australia and London, and now works as a corporate communications adviser, writing and presenting on investment, media and communication for financial intermediaries.
• Follow on Twitter: @MrDenmore