Over summer the Canberra press gallery collectively filed 724 articles speculating about the future leadership of the Australian Labor Party. That statistic is probably wrong, but if political journalists are allowed to make things up, why can’t I?
The entire notion of “the silly season” is probably the most self-indulgent wank that the politico-journalist sphere participates in all year, and that’s coming from an industry that spends most of its time self-indulgently wanking (is there any other kind?).
For those of you who haven’t heard the term before, it’s used by politicians and journalists to describe the summer recess of Federal parliament. Parliamentary business is over for the year, politicians return to their electorates and most of the ‘real’ journalists go on holiday. To fill up pages, newspapers rely heavily on introspection and attempting to read political entrails, to discover what the New Year might hold. The excuse for this is “nothing newsworthy happens over summer anyway so we may as well write this stuff”, as though the entire world shuts down to accommodate the whims of the Australian media industry. Nothing newsworthy besides ongoing upheaval in the Middle-East, a coup in our closest neighbour, Papua New Guinea, the Republican primaries in the United States and the release of the new Muppets film!
The topic of this year’s silly season was Julia Gillard’s supposed woeful leadership of the Australian Labor Party, and by extension the government, and the seemingly inevitable return of Kevin Rudd to the Prime Ministership.
The dominant narrative goes something like this: after taking the leadership by rolling Kevin Rudd, Gillard lacked legitimacy in the eyes of the voters. This problem was further entrenched by the result of the 2010 federal election which resulted in a hung parliament where Gillard was forced to negotiate with independents and the Greens to hang on to power. Fast forward 18 months and after a “disastrous ALP national conference”, poor communication with the electorate and the Australia Day fracas, Gillard’s leadership is in turmoil and many Labor MP’s who previously supported her are now backing Rudd.
My problem with this thesis is that it’s a) full of shit and b) based on the assumption that most Australians view politics through the same prism as the press gallery and the political staffers they drink with.
Take the whole “fast forward 18 months” thing for example. There’s been a lot written in the past couple of years about the failure of contemporary political journalists to adequately analyse policy and provide serious scrutiny of major decisions. Instead the focus has been on what’s called ’horse race’ reporting – focusing almost entirely on gossip and the trivialities of what goes on in Canberra. Because this sort of analysis has been done to death I won’t go into much detail other than to say that I agree with that view and that it is not serving politics, Australia and the profession of journalism very well.
Since the last election the Gillard Government has managed, from a minority position, to implement the carbon tax, the mining tax, increase investment in education, health, and renewable energy and start the process of Indigenous recognition in Australia’s constitution. This is not an exhaustive list, but you can see that it’s managed to actually get done many things that Rudd tried and failed to do.
Before I get accused of being a Labor apologist, I should point out that whilst I respect and support some of the things Labor has done, I’m not trying to propagandise about its virtues (which I actually think are quite rare these days). The point is to show that despite having negotiated through some of the biggest reforms in Australian political history, Gillard’s achievements are immediately brushed aside when there’s a story to write about the leadership.
I honestly don’t think most political journalists, whose job it is to inform us of these policies, understand how most of them work. For example, instead of a lucid analysis of gambling reform and the impact it will have on Australians and the economy we get fevered gossip about how MP’s from the NSW Right faction of the ALP are maneuvering to have it snookered, and rubbish from Tony Abbott about how it will destroy the fabric of the universe. Some of that political insider stuff can be interesting, but it shouldn’t become the dominant theme.
Like I said earlier, part of the problem is that political journalists think that everyone cares about the same things they do. They live most of their lives in the Canberra bubble. The only people they interact with are other journalists, politicians and political staffers. So when they write about the lackluster ALP National Conference and the involvement of a Gillard staffer in the Australian Day protest as being “crucial” and “game changing,” they actually believe it.
No one in the real world gives a shit about the ALP National Conference and the first poll after the events on Australia Day showed a four per cent swing to Gillard, so that disproves that theory.
There are real reasons why Gillard is a bad Prime Minister. These reasons will differ if you’re a disaffected Labor voter, a Greens voter, a Liberal voter or a Labor MP who is thinking about backing Rudd. I don’t actually think all of the hype about Rudd comeback has been conjured out of nowhere. There is definitely a group agitating for his return and that group seems to be getting bigger. But until it happens how are we served by endless front page stories reporting MP’s too cowardly to attribute their names to their quotes?
On top of the carbon tax, which starts in July, this year will see a complete overhauling of the way universities are funded in Australia, changes to asylum policy, the beginning of our withdrawal from Afghanistan, a US election and a deepening economic crisis in Europe.
Incredibly important issues that we need an intelligent, engaged and mature political media to help understand. Unfortunately, poor communication and a lack of legitimacy isn’t just a problem the government faces, it’s one political journalists do too.