July 5, 2016

An impoverished estate

By Russell Marks
An impoverished estate
The Australian media prioritised personality over policy during this election campaign

Australians awoke on Sunday morning to the possibility of a second hung parliament. At this stage the only thing that seems clear is that Malcolm Turnbull’s days as prime minister are numbered. The Coalition may be returned in its own right, or Turnbull may be able to form a minority government. But his ability to placate the rabid right wing of his party depends on him delivering clear electoral victories. He has failed his first test. He is unlikely to get another chance. How did it come to this?

The better question is: why did Turnbull get even this close? On its record, the Turnbull-led Coalition should have lost in a landslide. But we live in a mediated age. Almost everything we know about political issues and personalities is presented to us via television and radio stations, newspapers and websites owned by the private and public companies that employ the journalists and the commentators. This is hardly a new observation. But during the 2016 election campaign, mainstream content was virtually silent on the government’s record over the past three years. Even the most trusted of outlets, the ABC, was little more than a conduit for the parties’ narratives.

On any analysis, the Abbott–Turnbull government’s record was bad. On its own economic criteria it was woeful, and much worse than its predecessors. Australia’s rates of economic growth and wages growth (which has been in freefall since mid 2012) were no better than under Labor. Nor were its budget deficits or its ratio of current account deficit to GDP. Australia’s rates of unemployment, youth unemployment, government debt as a proportion of GDP, labour force participation, total debt and consumer confidence for the three years after September 2013 were much worse than for the six years before. Australia’s global corruption ranking, which was improving under Labor, has slipped from 7th to 13th under Abbott and Turnbull.

After interest rates hit “emergency lows” (in Abbott’s language) under the Labor government, they continued to drop under Abbott and Turnbull. Australia’s rate of productivity had flattened and then commenced a sharp decline under Abbott until Turnbull’s ascension. Inflation has continued unabated. And Australia’s truly horrific levels of household debt, which were holding relatively steady under Labor, have zoomed off into the stratosphere. Household debt is much more dangerous and much less serviceable than government debt, but the media’s entire focus has been on the latter.

In a capitalist economy, where consumption is the end goal of production, it makes no sense to apply the brakes while economic activity is already sluggish. Yet all of the Abbott–Turnbull government’s policies have been designed to contract the economy. Cutting social spending means taking disposable income out of the pockets of low-income earners. Pursuing a budget surplus means withdrawing stimulus from the economy, and shifting the debt burden to households. Increasing the cost of primary services (such as general practitioners) can only lead to a greater burden on the much more expensive tertiary services (such as hospitals). None of this analysis formed any part of the election coverage in Australia’s news media. Whenever the ABC brought up the government debt (which is uncharacteristically expanding at the same time as household debt, which indicates a significant problem), Scott Morrison said it would be worse under Labor. And that was where the subject was left.

The amnesia extended to the government’s political record. For a first-term government that had knifed its prime minister, it – and the voting public – was reminded of that fact hardly at all. The previous government’s leadership instability was more of a news topic than the Coalition’s, apart from a single round of questioning on Q&A that followed polling that undermined Turnbull’s rationale for the coup. (News Corp quickly quashed that round of questioning with its own poll, which demonstrated that the Coalition would lose in a landslide if Abbott remained as PM.) But nobody could seriously believe that Turnbull’s leadership was going to remain secure. He has no base of support within the parliamentary party. His leadership depends on his popularity, which is souring.

 A “grown-up” government of “no surprises” and “no excuses” was what Abbott had promised during the 2013 campaign. A more childish government, with more surprises and more excuses, is difficult to imagine. After Abbott had campaigned so forcefully on the need for governments to keep electoral promises, his government broke a full third of the promises it had made. The simplest and probably wisest thing either Abbott or Turnbull could have done following the disastrous 2014 budget was to hit the “reset” button. Neither of them did, and most of that first budget’s so-called “savings” measures (many of which would actually contribute to an even greater debt and deficit problem) remain the policy of the Turnbull government.

Had the actual record of the Abbott–Turnbull government formed part of the media’s campaign coverage, it is difficult to see how the swing against it could have been limited to single figures. And yet it has become political common sense in Australia to see the six years of Labor administration as unbearably chaotic. This was in part because Tony Abbott was allowed, between 2009 and 2013, to generate the perception of total chaos while things were actually chugging along pretty well. And compared with the actual policy and political chaos of the Abbott–Turnbull years, the Labor years look positively golden. There are failures of opposition politics here, yes, but these failures are mainly those of media.

We’ve largely stopped expecting Murdoch newspapers and commercial talk radio to examine politics in any meaningful way. The Murdoch press only ever abandons the Coalition when, as in 2007, it’s well and truly on its way out, and as this election would be close the Murdoch press wanted to influence the result. That’s hardly remarkable. But the reasons the Sunday Herald Sun gave for endorsing the Coalition in its last editorial before the election were quite extraordinary. The Coalition deserved voters’ trust for another term, the editorial argued, because Australia couldn’t afford a return to the political and economic instability of the Rudd–Gillard–Rudd years, and to what it sees (against all international evidence) as the ballooning government debt crisis. The paper had curiously forgotten that the political instability – specifically, leadership changes and policy flip-flopping – had continued under the Abbott–Turnbull government. It curiously overlooked the fact that economic indicators, which had improved over the course of the Labor administration, had flatlined or declined since Abbott became prime minister. And it curiously ignored the actual record of the Abbott–Turnbull government on government debt, which had increased from 30.9% to 36.8% of GDP since the 2013 election.

With the exception of one broadcast interview by 7.30’s Leigh Sales, who stumped Turnbull when she listed the economic indicators that had declined since 2013, most of Australia’s serious journalists were content to take their cues from the politicians themselves. The campaign became an interminable reel of announcements, promises, insults and gaffes, the analysis ungrounded by any overarching political narrative or recollection of the historical record. Senior commentators retreated into analysing how politicians’ particular word constructions would help or hinder their prospects, but this is the job of the comms and PR people in political offices, not of journalists. The fourth-estate media spoke regularly to business lobby groups such as the Business Council of Australia, and treated them as if they were independent economic commentators. They spoke far less often to representatives of organised labour in the unions, even though modern democratic capitalism is largely a compact between government, business and labour. Regular bloggers told us a lot about themselves and about the minutiae of who said what when and where, but very little about how to make sense of the campaign.

All this makes for a boring spectacle, which ironically was the main complaint among journalists and commentators in the main outlets. Boring suits incumbents. In this campaign, “boring” meant that statements and decisions made by Turnbull and his cabinet weren’t subjected to anywhere near enough scrutiny. The government’s policies, when it released them at all, were astoundingly undeveloped. No minister was across enough detail about even the headline policies of the 2016 budget to answer basic questions about them. This merely continued the failure of policy development that had characterised the entire Abbott–Turnbull administration, but curiously little was made of it. Turnbull’s decision to call a double dissolution election to resolve problems caused by a large Senate crossbench was nonsensical – a double dissolution will always result in a bigger crossbench because the quotas to get elected are half what they are in a general election – but that decision remained curiously unexamined.

Collective media amnesia about a government’s record creates a vacuum into which mediocre political leaders drop simple slogans with mundane regularity. These slogans aren’t subject to proper, critical scrutiny by journalists, so they acquire the status of facts in their own right through mere repetition. The result can be farcical, as when Australia’s media consumed itself reporting unsubstantiated cross-claims about “budget black holes”. Political parties run scare campaigns with impunity in this decontextualised environment. Ironically, the Coalition is now apoplectic about Labor’s own dishonest claim that the Turnbull government had plans to privatise Medicare. The Greens also have reason to feel aggrieved, following Labor’s equally dishonest suggestion that there had been a Greens–Liberal deal over preferences in Labor-held seats the Greens were targeting in Melbourne’s inner north. At least the “Mediscare” campaign had some basis in reality: Abbott’s “GP co-payment” policy is privatisation by another name, and it effectively remains the policy of the Turnbull government.

But the point is that all these claims, while untrue, were faithfully reported by media nevertheless. If the Coalition is angry – and it clearly is, going on Turnbull’s bizarre election-night pitch for the crossbenchers’ confidence – it is merely getting a small taste of its own medicine. Between 2009 and 2013, Tony Abbott was allowed to make repeated false claims about the carbon price and Australia’s government debt. Within months of becoming prime minister he declared the debt problem solved, while in fact the debt continued to rise at the same rate. All this was allowed by the mainstream media to pass, relatively unanalysed. It certainly did not form any major part of the analysis during the campaign.

There are various possible explanations for the mainstream media’s collective failures during the 2016 campaign (and indeed earlier ones). The Canberra press gallery has often been criticised for its institutionalised and hierarchical nature, which too often substitutes independent criticism for the need to “build relationships” with politicians. Observers have noted the Australian news media’s addiction to following politicians around with cameras to capture every stage-managed media opportunity. It’s a practice that satisfies the media companies’ fervent need for “new content” to fill their many platforms. But it’s an abdication of media’s fourth-estate role. While intelligent journalists are running themselves ragged acting as unglorified public relations assistants for politicians, they’re not testing statements and checking claims. News reportage becomes quite literally a matter of “Turnbull said A, while Shorten said B”, which is close to entirely useless without context. When it comes to political promises, there is no contextual factor more important than the fact that the promiser broke a third of all the promises he made last time around. Turnbull’s own personal charm has also been remarked on. But his political record is marked by failure after failure since the time he snatched defeat from the jaws of victory as the leader of the Republican campaign in 1999. Are we to believe serious journalists are so captivated by Turnbull’s personal allure that they fail to do their jobs?

In the end, we are told, the voters get it right. But that expression of faith in the democratic process depends on faith in the fourth estate to present political realities so that voters can make sensible choices. Donald Trump and Brexit show us what can happen when media abdicates its fourth-estate role and becomes campaigners or conduits for the forces of reaction. It was in the interests of very few Australians to return a Turnbull government, especially when taking into account the contrasting economic and policy records of the recent administrations. But enormous numbers of us voted to return a Turnbull government, because too many of us believed that the Coalition’s policies had changed since Abbott’s leadership (not true), that the public debt is a problem (not true) and that the Coalition was bringing the debt under control (not true), that the boats are a national security issue (not true) and that the Coalition had stopped them (not true), and that the Coalition was more politically and economically stable than Labor (not true). In a mediated age, it’s nonsense to say that the people get the governments we deserve. We get the governments we believe we deserve, which is a different thing entirely.

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a criminal defence lawyer and an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University, where he completed a PhD in Australian political history. His most recent book is Black Lives, White Law: Locked Up and Locked Out in Australia. He lives on Kaurna land.

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