Australian Politics

The Greasy Pole

Hunting Canberra's Loch Ness Monster

Today we know that a petition ended the political career of Julia Gillard. But we don’t know if the petition ever really existed. Even when this mysterious document was still being circulated no MP would say they had actually seen or signed it, not even Kevin Rudd, who was only ‘advised’ it was there. Gillard likened it to the Loch Ness Monster. A respected journalist wrote a post-spill story suggesting that it might have been a phantasm, and then after deadline was contacted by a political source with the truth: the petition existed, but its existence couldn’t be proven. It had taken on non-Newtonian properties, morphing from the Loch Ness Monster into Schrodinger’s Cat.
If the petition didn’t exist, then it means someone fooled the papers into fooling Julia Gillard into a losing leadership contest, a piece of three-dimensional chess that might get cooked up after years of plotting. It would also give some credence to fears the fourth estate is becoming a kind of fifth column in these battles, an invested political player itself, both through manipulation and intent. There’s a lot of talk about how bad these constant leadership wrangles are for the Labor party and the country. But consider for a moment what they’re going to do to our already staggering political punditry.
Just as Kevin Rudd’s resumption of high office has created a moral hazard for one-man sociopathic jihads, it’s also rewarded the kind of kite-flying, tea-reading, rumour-mongering leadership speculation that’s weeded up our political media. The ousting has gold-starred every hack who sits through an hour-long policy announcement only to ask a ‘confidence in the prime minister’ question first up and post the dreary response. The people het-up about Kevin Rudd’s blue tie and changing Twitter picture? Prescient. Genuinely onto something. Even Graham Richardson was right for once, all the way down to the numbers. Months, perhaps years of ambit claim gossip have been solidified into fact in just a few hours. 
All this will give our political media the mentality of someone playing the pokies – run enough spins, and eventually you’ll get the feature. What’s the incentive to do otherwise? There’s no ‘lose the house’ downside when reporting the story helps create it.

Spare a thought for those who have been trying to hose down the leadership speculation these past few years, and have now lost control of the blaze. They’ve been beclowned. “The fact is when you pick up the papers and read the stories in the morning, what you find is a lot of rubbish,” said Wayne Swan, referring to rubbish that would be proven true barely four days later. The responsible write-ups about the Rudd rumbles being ‘fictional’ were themselves the fiction. They were also the product of media manipulation as well, a more benign ‘let’s get on with business’ kind there’s now much less incentive to play along with.
It’s going to be hard for us suckers ingesting the news, now there’s a human centipede-style direct alignment between leaker, media and audience. Already fed a meagre diet of policy, we look set to starve every time the polls dip. If this is the way forward (and it seems to be), separating the news from the planted ambition is not going to be easy. When the mathematician John Nash was hospitalised for his schizophrenia, a friend asked him a question. How could someone so committed to rationality come to think aliens from outer space were trying to kill him? Nash replied “These ideas came to me the same way my rational ideas did, so I believed them.”


Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys contributing editor. 


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