The Politics    Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Trust in the time of coronavirus

By Nick Feik

Source: Twitter

Today’s news and tomorrow’s toilet paper

On a day when attentions are divided between the Super Tuesday primary results in the US, the coronavirus threat and the latest economic figures, it is important to register a couple of other major stories, in case they get lost in the slipstream.

Yesterday it was announced that the AAP news agency, a local wire service that employs 500 staff including 180 journalists, will close down after 85 years. AAP is owned by Nine, News Corp Australia, Seven West Media and Australian Community Media, and its journalists, photographers and editors collect on-the-ground news and images for every major media company nationwide: reports from courts, parliaments, royal commissions, council meetings, business AGMs and public events. As Margaret Simons points out, its operations have provided a base level of the “ordinary, routine, reliable reporting” that our democracy relies on. Not spectacular, not necessarily Walkley-winning, but clear, accurate and dispassionate; qualities that are already scarce and now critically endangered.

The general public may not mourn the loss of these uncredited journalists, but we will all soon suffer from the disappearance of the public accountability they have long provided.

Government MPs in parliament yesterday expressed their condolences for the job losses, but given their track record regarding public-interest journalism, we should be sceptical about their platitudes. They have so far done nothing to prevent or mitigate the hollowing out of the serious news media in recent years. In some cases, they have made it worse.

For instance, as a result of the Coalition’s assault on the ABC starting in 2014, the national broadcaster will have to get by with $106 million of budget cuts per year until 2022. The extra cost of its 935 emergency broadcasts this financial year (compared to 371 the year before) will just have to be absorbed.

In another sign of the government’s attitude towards public accountability and transparency, the past 24 hours of Senate Estimates have exposed extraordinary contempt for basic governmental processes.

It has been revealed that Sport Australia officials gave the Senate incorrect information last week about instructions they received about how to spend federal sports grant monies. They neglected to mention correspondence they received from the prime minister’s office after the caretaker period had begun ahead of the election, correspondence that led to changes in the list of recipients – thus breaking caretaker provisions and corrupting the grants process. Furthermore, Sport Australia officials arrived at Senate Estimates today without key documents, including the ministerial brief about the approved grants.

“I’ll have to take that on notice” has become the go-to phrase at estimates hearings in recent days, and this seems a deliberate strategy to avoid scrutiny. The Opposition counted 258 instances of questions being taken on notice, on Tuesday alone. Worse, it appears that government members may be directing public servants in this strategy: the minister representing the government, Richard Colbeck, today acknowledged that staff from the prime minister’s office were at the meeting yesterday with Sport Australia to prepare for today’s appearance.

As Leigh Sales patiently explained to a testy prime minister on ABC’s 7.30 last night, the government’s credibility rests on public trust. The government’s ability to guide the economy and manage national crises also rest on it. The PM as yet doesn’t seem to realise that his leadership has left stocks of this asset perilously low. He misled the public in relation to his Hawaii holiday during the bushfires, and we learnt yesterday too that he’d misled us about his office seeking to have Hillsong’s Brian Houston included on the White House state dinner invitation list last year.

Without the transparency or accountability that basic media coverage and Senate Estimates, among other things, provide, the government will never retain public trust. It’s easy to mock the rise of panic-buying in supermarkets around the nation, but in the face of overlapping national crises – drought, fires, floods, pestilence – is it any wonder people are taking emergency measures into their own hands? They simply don’t believe the government’s reassurances.

“It is highly likely that we will get to that pandemic phase at some point.”

Victorian premier Daniel Andrews, warning that the coronavirus could only be contained “for a certain amount of time”. Authorities have confirmed a 10th case of COVID-19 in Victoria.

“Mr Robert is not involved in the assessment process and acts on recommendations of the independent community committee.”

A spokesperson for the NDIS and government services minister, Stuart Robert, sees nothing wrong with Robert handing out a giant novelty cheque – representing $9725 of government money – to the bowls club of which he is honorary patron.

Labor’s climate smokescreen
Labor has now got an emissions target, but no mechanism for getting there. The party’s current position is a far cry from the world-leading climate policies it used to champion. Mike Seccombe on how Labor lost its nerve.

While most economists were forecasting economic growth of 0.3 or 0.4 per cent for the quarter to the end of December, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that household discretionary spending and the provision of government services lifted the result to (a still fairly weak) 0.5 per cent.

More than 11,000 Chinese university and high school students have used a third-country layover mechanism to sidestep the ban on Chinese nationals flying direct to Australia, some funded by grants of up to $7500 from Australian universities.

The list

“The Australia 2020 Summit bridged a period of roughly 12 years, the period between 2008 and 2020. Science-fiction filmmakers tend to eschew the year 2020 as shorthand for the future because they think it sounds too symmetrical, too naff. But those qualities of neatness and cliché were just what appealed to then prime minister Kevin Rudd, who had convened the summit when national enthusiasm looked bullish.”

“Denmark is managing the transition to a low-carbon future better than any country in the world. Since 1990, Denmark’s economy has grown by about 55 per cent in real terms (around the same as the European average), while over the same period gross energy consumption has decreased and total greenhouse gas emissions have shrunk by 38 per cent. ‘We have been able to decouple economic growth from the use of energy,’ Danish energy-policy expert Finn Mortensen says.”

“If you do the crime, so the saying goes, then do the time. In Australia we like to add a third step: then go back to where you came from, or to where your parents came from, if we can possibly send you there. Perhaps because transportation of convicts is so etched into the collective psyche of the society that spread from the soles of Arthur Phillip’s boots when they trudged ashore at Botany Bay 232 years ago, we couldn’t quite let it go after Britain stopped sending its pickpockets and street urchins in 1868. So we nationalised it.” 

Enter to win

The Monthly invites readers in Sydney to enter the draw for a chance to win a double pass to Handel’s Messiah, presented by City Recital Hall and Sydney Chamber Choir on Saturday, March 14.

Handel’s Messiah shocked the authorities, disrupted traffic, enthralled its audiences and brought a king to his feet. Composed in just 24 days, it was an instant hit and for almost three centuries has remained one of the world’s favourite choral works: visionary, lyrical and deeply human.

Entries close at 11.59pm AEDT on Thursday, March 5, and the winner will be notified on Friday, March 6.


Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of The Monthly.


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