Federal politics

Carping emissions
Unable to face the wicked problem of climate change, the campaign turns personal

Willy Stöwer, The Sinking of the Titanic (1912)

Years ago, a friend who used to have an addiction told me that the problem with driving and taking amphetamines was that no matter how fast you were going, you were always sitting still. That sounds something like this election campaign, which has been invigorated only by an attack on Bill Shorten via his mother. A UN report outlining impending environmental catastrophe received only a fraction of the coverage, and the attention it did receive was ominously calm. Real passion was reserved for candidates’ old social media updates and other ill-conceived public statements made as private citizens. The media, often fed by so-called “dirt units” from the major political parties, has spent most of the contest reading thousands of posts, on the lookout for off-colour comments and tasteless jokes.

There seems to be no statute of limitations on this practice. The Liberal candidate for Macnamara, Kate Ashmor, was criticised for praising private schools 18 years ago, in a letter to a newspaper that she composed while still an undergraduate. Labor’s Melbourne candidate, Luke Creasey, was dumped for posts he wrote in 2012, when he was 22. In a triumph of manners over morals, One Nation candidate Steve Dickson was dispensed with not for cosying up to the National Rifle Association but for cosying up to the National Rifle Association at a strip club.

It is hard to work out exactly who this undead etiquette is for. Perhaps it is a useful barrier to entry – if you haven’t deleted old posts, you might not have what it takes to be a politician – but its final effect is to prevent normal people entering politics, a career few view as bearable anyway. Even as “community standards change”, as they say, the media and the political parties themselves cling to this anachronism: commit all the corruption, environmental destruction or human rights abuses you like, as long as you don’t make a “gaffe” while you do it.

These are not new observations – what has changed are the stakes. It’s clear now that no coming calamity will shift these conventions, and that instead they will be maintained to the very end, the way some of the Titanic’s passengers put on their evening finery as it sank. It is the same with “independent reports”, tailor-made modelling that is often conducted in the service of vested interests. Its purpose is to generate fantastic sums that can then be blared on news sites. Dr Brian Fisher’s “costing” of Bill Shorten’s climate policy – a $264 billion drop in GDP, potentially blowing out to $542 billion, because why not – ran everywhere from SBS to The Sydney Morning Herald.

“Opposition Leader Bill Shorten is facing an explosive political row over his climate change policy,” began a David Crowe article on this theme, invoking that curiously arid construction that means “we can’t stop ourselves reporting on this”. Almost 10 years ago, the visiting New York University professor Jay Rosen gave a lecture in Australia titled “Why Political Coverage is Broken”, where he outlined this doublethink: “If today’s media report about politics is about how the media will be reporting a political event tomorrow, there’s obviously something circular in that.” This, he said, was how it made sense to call journalists “insiders”. “Everyone is engaged in the production of media narratives. Journalists and politicians are both ‘inside’ the story-making machinery.”

Rosen challenged the media in Australia (and elsewhere) to adapt their campaign coverage, to try and renounce what he called “the cult of savviness”. They have failed, but that is not just the media’s fault. If the targets are so small, that is partly because they’re the only kind that are still manageable, or that Australians have confidence in politicians to solve. If record early voting is any guide, even that faith is giving way to something more mundane: wishing for it all to be over.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys contributing editor. 


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