The Politics    Thursday, May 19, 2022

Sunk cost

By Rachel Withers

Image of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese speaking to the media in Sydney today. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese speaking to the media in Sydney today. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Was Labor’s modest deficit gap really worth two days of tantrums?

Labor today released its costings as planned, though not before another unedifying display from a press pack that has repeatedly demanded to know the deficit (but cracked it when Labor tried to send them to Canberra for the announcement). The Murdoch media has been eager to report that Labor’s short-term deficits were higher than the Coalition’s, by $7.4 billion (a figure not much bigger than the predicted cost of the cancelled French submarine deal), but it wasn’t the $20 billion some had been expecting. The media’s ongoing obsession with the exact figure, rather than the merits of the policies themselves, has been bizarre considering that the national debt is already heading towards $1 trillion. Announcing the costings, shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers and finance spokesperson Katy Gallagher emphasised quality over quantity, insisting it was about “responsible investment” in areas that would improve productivity, such as childcare. As a few journos in the Canberra gallery noted, it didn’t seem particularly responsible to be following the Coalition in continuing to throw grants at dog parks, BMX tracks and murals. But was that $7.4 billion really worth two days of others shrieking “say the figure!” at the Opposition leader?

The release of the costings – the absence of which has dominated Anthony Albanese’s pressers for the past days – was pretty much a nothingburger. Labor had more or less already confirmed there would be a modestly larger deficit, and that savings would be made by cutting back on pork-barrelling (though not entirely eliminating it, apparently), as opposed to the devastating public sector cuts the Coalition has planned. Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce had already arced up at Labor’s plans to cut millions from his heavily rorted regional grants fund, suggesting that Labor doesn’t care about country folk. (Labor deputy Richard Marles noted that the fund was previously used on a $10 million pool upgrade in North Sydney.) PM Scott Morrison had already begun shamelessly complaining that higher deficits meant that Labor shouldn’t be in charge of the economy (quelle surprise), with no mention, of course, of the billions his government had wracked up in debt. 

The PM carried on in that vein today, railing pathetically against a $7 billion figure that simply does not have the impact that it used to, no matter how much he proclaims it “a lot of money”. Curious, considering his government made no effort to recoup what some estimate to be $40 billion in JobKeeper waste. (Chalmers confirmed that Labor had no plans to recoup that either, for all Labor’s complaints.)

Of course, Morrison and co were always going to try to make something of Labor borrowing even more than them, no matter how responsible or targeted. But what has been truly shocking is the conduct of some members of the media trailing Albanese, those who have been quite happy to waste everyone’s time by repeating Liberal talking points about timing and how can we trust you. When given the chance to ask questions about the very thing they had been demanding to ask questions about, and of the people responsible for Labor’s finance policy to boot, the press pack had a public meltdown, accusing Albanese of hiding from them, until the decision was reversed. The ensuing morning presser was especially vile (Albanese was “mauled”, according to news.com.au), with many journalists proving what a waste of time these exercises have become. Reporters continued to ask pointless questions about the costings, the dedicated press conference for which they had refused to attend, and instead hectored Albanese for “the figure”, in a display that prompted ABC veteran Laura Tingle to declare it embarrassing for the profession. Albanese later held a post-release presser, where journos couldn’t help having a weird dig about being made to wait.

It’s quite sad, frankly, to again be covering the conduct of the media, which time and again has decided to make itself the story during this election campaign. Some of this comes down to TV journalists wanting the shot; some of it no doubt comes down to the bias of News Corp, which, as Margaret Simons recently wrote, may have begun to expose its own impotence. But today’s display, in which journalists refused to go to the announcement of the very thing they had been asking about, opting instead to lecture, test, and “gotcha” Albanese some more (with a few notable exceptions), only proved what a twisted conception some in the media have of their role in this campaign. Today, as many intelligent minds remarked, should prompt the industry to take a long hard look at itself. Because, from where many of us are sitting, it doesn’t look good. 

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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