Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Today by Sean Kelly

Six more sleeps
The budget is coming and Fairfax is striking

Yesterday, I said I couldn’t complain about Malcolm Turnbull: he was doing exactly what I thought necessary and grabbing the political bull by its horns. Well today it’s Bill Shorten’s turn not to be complained about. (I know, I’m a generous guy.)

Last year Labor chose to roll out the beginnings of a scare campaign when the Coalition hinted that it would cut private school funding. Tanya Plibersek then said, “If [the education minister] thinks that some schools are over-funded, the obvious question is, ‘Which ones?’ Does he have a secret hit list? Which kids will be robbed by this minister who seems incapable of being upfront about his secret plans for school funding?”

Labor began its walk back from that position earlier this year and today Bill Shorten went one better, essentially indicating he would support [$] the cuts to private school funding announced yesterday: “If Mr Turnbull wants to cut the funding of 24 elite schools and freeze the funding of 300 elite schools, we are up for that. Fair enough.”

That is a very good thing. Some wealthy schools definitely get too much taxpayer money. And if the Liberals are abandoning their long opposition to addressing this, then Labor would be, from a policy point of view, silly to miss the moment. (Labor remains opposed to $22 billion in cuts to overall school funding.)

So from outside this might seem like an easy decision, a simple triumph of common sense. Politically though it’s important to remember that in Opposition – especially since Tony Abbott established his hyper-antagonistic template – deciding to support the government on anything is always fraught. Is this the call, you have to ask yourself, that will turn momentum the government’s way? Will we regret this moment forever, however much the commentariat praises us for it now?

As the Turnbull government makes its way through its third consecutive largely competent week, Labor has – for the first time in a very long time – some reason to be nervous. Despite a tortured process, the treasurer finally seems to have got things to the point where there is some expectation of housing affordability policy, but not too much. We know infrastructure will get a big look-in, without knowing precisely what it will look like, which is precisely where you hope to be with a budget: you want to surprise voters a little, but not too much.

Over the past 18 months it’s been clear that Turnbull’s political skills are lacking and that Scott Morrison hasn’t grasped the dimensions of his job, so there’s still plenty of room for things to go awry.

Of course, politicians aren’t the only ones that dictate how a budget is received. The media plays its role too. Some of that comes in the flavour of commentary, the way that front pages look, what Kochie and Sam and Lisa and Karl think; much of it comes in sharp reporting. Tiny details noticed by eagle-eyed journalists can rise up and come to dominate budget discussion in the days following the big event.

So it is a massive deal that Fairfax journalists today decided to go on strike for a week – which includes coverage of the budget – in response to management’s just-announced decision to cut 125 jobs, or a quarter of its newsroom.

These cuts are terrible news for journalism in this country – which is true of cuts at other newspapers too.

Given the intense concentration of the Australian media market the strike will have a number of effects. First, it will significantly decrease the number of journalists covering the budget, searching for errors, or trickery, or stories nobody else has seen. Second, we will all be deprived of the expertise of some respected economic and political analysts. Finally, it will mean that newspaper coverage – which often drives much of radio and television coverage – will be dominated by the Australian and the News Corp tabloids (despite the entry of significant new online players in recent years).

The budget is often the biggest political event of the year. Given Turnbull’s parlous position, it has assumed even more importance in 2017. Whatever your political leanings, to have concentrated coverage become even more concentrated should worry all of us.

This isn’t a call for Fairfax journalists not to strike. Quite the opposite. It is Fairfax’s management that has brought this on, and not just because the strike was entirely predictable: it seems to me crazy that anyone running a media company right now would think the answer to their woes might be less reporting. These actions, coming when they do, should serve as a warning to all of us about what a burned and decimated media landscape would look like, should things get even worse.

That said, most voters won’t notice, at least on Tuesday night. And actually none of us will know how much has really changed – it’s impossible to ever know what it is you’re missing. But every change to the media landscape has some impact on coverage, and on the subsequent reception of government policy, including whether it passes the Senate. And that in turn affects us all.   

In other news


Language woken up

Detained asylum seekers tell their own stories in ‘They Cannot Take the Sky’

Maria Tumarkin

“They Cannot Take the Sky is a book in which asylum seekers speak directly in words of their choosing about things that matter to them. These include love, birds (Christmas Island frigatebirds, Manus Island chauka), queues, being denied your name, the effects of detaining on detention-centre personnel (‘Before they get to Bali they are going to get mental illness!’ – Hani), boredom, poetry, food, how it feels to scrape the bottom of psychic exhaustion, friendship, human nature (the best of, the worst of).”    READ ON


The particular lives of ‘Certain Women’

Kelly Reichardt’s latest film is another quiet triumph

Anwen Crawford

“Kelly Reichardt makes films – six features so far – that are scrupulous, concise, and very, very quiet. She concentrates on the lives of ordinary Americans, mostly women, who come close to being undone by their circumstances, but there is nothing rough or disorderly about her cinematic style. Each shot is essential, every line of dialogue – and there aren’t many – earned.”  READ ON


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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