The Politics    Wednesday, May 18, 2022

At what cost?

By Rachel Withers

Image of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese leaves after speaking to the media during a press conference in Perth yesterday. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese leaves after speaking to the media during a press conference in Perth yesterday. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

The press pack is laser focused on something voters don’t really care about

It was ironic that A Current Affair performed yesterday’s hard-hitting political interview, while it was the political journos in the travelling press pack who undertook the embarrassing A Current Affair–style chase. Members of the media demeaned themselves, with reporters picking up the Coalition’s “but where are Labor’s costings?” line and running with it, literally, chasing Anthony Albanese as he left the press conference. The embarrassing footage has been enthusiastically recirculated by the Coalition (the PM labelled his opponent “Forrest Gump”, seemingly forgetting how much footage exists of him walking away from questions, including yesterday). As Albanese has repeatedly said, Labor’s costings are planned for release on Thursday. Whether you agree with this or not, that is when they’re coming, and he wasn’t about to release them earlier just because journalists demanded it. But why are journalists so focused on issues that are not even on voters’ priority lists? Why is the media more concerned with Albanese walking away from redundant questioning than with the fact that Morrison rarely answers questions at all, and that he is now the first PM not to make a campaign stop at the National Press Club in more than 50 years?

Thankfully, the Opposition leader’s appearance at the Press Club today was much more focused on the issues, though a few of yesterday’s worst offenders couldn’t resist making unhelpful contributions. Albanese flagged a new cost-saving measure, announcing that Labor would return around $750 million to the budget by reducing the Coalition’s heavily rorted grants funds, adding that he would have more to say about it tomorrow. The costings debate raised its head near the end of the session, with Laura Tingle questioning whether the Coalition regularly having left its costings this late in an election campaign was a good enough excuse. Albanese did not quite answer, insisting that Labor would be “transparent” and “fair dinkum” about their figures, while noting just how secretive and wasteful the Coalition’s spending had been. But the journalists responsible for yesterday’s display seemed far more concerned about Albanese’s claim to have been asked “18 questions” about costings, arcing up to note that it was actually more like nine or ten.

Should Labor have put out its costings sooner, even though it is often left this late, even though the current forecasts ought to put an end to the media’s obsession with the debt, and even though most voters probably don’t care that much about the exact figure? Arguably yes. But should Albanese have uprooted his plans and answered Tuesday’s incessant questions as to the exact Labor deficit? Absolutely not. This, after all, is the same press pack that less than two weeks ago demanded to know “how are you going to stand up to Xi Jinping if you can’t stand up to us?”, and which seems to think its role is to test the Opposition leader’s ability to withstand pressure. What would they have said if Albanese bowed to their demands to release the deficit just because they wanted it now? It would be one thing if the Labor leader was refusing to answer at all, rejecting the premise of their questions or simply launching into an unrelated stump speech, as Morrison often does. As Albanese repeatedly informed reporters, they would get the answer to their question on Thursday. And yet they reacted with unwarranted outrage, hounding him as he tried to walk away from the circus as if he had refused a basic freedom-of-information order.

Once again, many of the journalists who follow our leaders during the election campaign – the people we rely on to ask them about their policies – have decided to spend most of a presser focused on something redundant, while leaving important issues unaddressed. As this excellent Guardian Australia analysis shows, voter priorities have not been appropriately reflected in the media during this campaign, with top concerns such as aged care, climate change and education not receiving the corresponding amount of coverage. Yesterday morning, the Coalition’s hypocritical bleating about Labor’s costings coming two days later than its own hardly seemed worthy of attention. And yet a significant number of reporters were more than happy to make that Liberal talking point the entire focus of a Labor press conference.

As outgoing editor of The Monthly Nick Feik recently wrote, election campaigns are a terrible way to decide who should run the nation. Much of the media has been painfully out of step with voters, with many journos far more interested in “gotchas” and games than in examining policies or exploring records. The press pack took this to a whole new level with Tuesday’s ridiculous tabloid-style chase, wasting everyone’s time by demanding information about costings due to be released in two days’ time. (“You have to answer eventually!” one yelled, a ridiculous point given that was always the plan.) But at what cost for our democracy? That remains to be seen.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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