The Politics    Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Attention fatigue

By Sean Kelly

We can’t afford to ignore something just because it’s difficult

Back when I was a press secretary, it was sometimes my job to try to persuade journalists to run with a story about climate change. It was tough. Sometimes, of course, the news was obviously important and would get a spot. But in any lineball case I’d be told the same thing: nobody’s interested. People don’t want stories about climate change. It doesn’t rate. What else have you got for me?

There are several reasons for that, among them the volume of political shouting, but I suspect another was that after a while the stories blurred together and became one single story: things are bad and getting worse. After a while, possible “news” stops being actual “news” unless it’s actually new. There are only so many times you can be told that sea levels are rising without wondering if you’re listening to the same story you heard last month. This doesn’t make the story less important; it does, sadly, make it less interesting.

I suspect a number of subjects fall under the same banner, even for those of us who care about the issues at hand. The treatment of refugees. African poverty. Tension in the Middle East. Homelessness. Q&A. It’s not just “compassion fatigue”, because it’s not necessarily related to issues that demand compassion. It’s that after a while – decades sometimes – of hearing new variations on the same problems, many of us stop listening, implicitly resigning ourselves to the fact that things are never going to change.

I raise this today because there is renewed discussion of the prospects of holding a referendum on the recognition of indigenous Australians in the constitution. In an historic event, indigenous leaders sat yesterday with the prime minister and the leader of the Opposition to discuss what the next steps should be.

Those discussions are difficult. They increasingly focus not just on symbolic recognition but on what is to be done about clauses in the constitution that allow for racial discrimination, a subject of deep divide between some conservatives and some indigenous groups. Different models have been put forward; none has yet found consensus support.

The talks seemed to go well, with the prime minister’s approach offering some hope that the debate can rise above the technical and focus on the humans it will affect. Noel Pearson criticised the event as overly stage-managed, which seems to be a fair call. Nevertheless, the meeting appeared to end on a note of tentative optimism, with plans for intensive community consultation in the months ahead.

It is dramatically important that what happens from here justifies that optimism. Indigenous disadvantage, for most Australians, often falls within the bracket of news stories above: an intractable problem, long ago emptied of hope. Occasionally, however, there are moments that remind the nation of the progress that has been made, and the progress that can still be made – and, yes, the distance still to travel. Such moments are crucial because they direct the nation’s focus to problems that are too often brushed aside in favour of newer, shinier problems.

Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations was one such moment. The coming together of Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten yesterday, however contrived, provides hope that this may yet be another.

But there is a lot of work ahead – as well as difficult compromise – before we can be sure. 


Today’s links

  • The PM appeared to suggest today that his grocery code of conduct could have prevented the Greek crisis. And the RBA left rates on hold.
  • The Q&A culture wars drag on … and on … After giving weeks of free publicity to the program, the PM now says he is not going to give “further advertisement” to it. Nobody knows what that means, which was probably the intent.  The PM would not clarify whether Malcolm Turnbull would go on the show. Barnaby Joyce may have been in the group that decided to boycott Q&A, even though he blamed the decision on the PM. Ray Martin, who will audit the program (and others) said he suspected Q&A had been as hard on the previous Labor government as the current government. Bored yet?
  • In news that will come as a shock to nobody, the Abbott ministry is one of the worst in the developed world on gender balance. I look forward to Eric Abetz offering this up as an argument against same-sex marriage.
  • A US effort to reduce teen pregnancies delivered stunning results.
  • Religious news: Ramadan is a good time to question crude stereotypes. And Josh Bornstein argues the Catholic Church shouldn’t wait for a national redress scheme to right the wrongs of child abuse: it should act now.
  • Former sporting star news: Dawn Fraser does herself a lot of damage. Senator Glenn Lazarus threatens to give Tony Abbott a “John Hopoate tackle” over coal seam gas.
  • The SMH reports “A whopping three-quarters of voters support a controversial proposal to strip the citizenship of sole Australian nationals who take part in terrorist activities, if they able to obtain the citizenship of another country.”
  • From the same well-connected source that pointed me to the Clarke and Dawe send-up a couple of weeks back (that so many of you loved), here’s another Labor in Power parody.

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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