A Great Budget for the Press Gallery


Not long after the 2004 election, Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott couldn’t resist the obvious dig. Addressing the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery’s Christmas dinner, Abbott chided them for misreading the public’s voting intentions:

Obviously, the election has been a defeat for the ALP but there’s a sense in which it’s been a defeat for the media too. Many journalists predicted a narrow Coalition win, but none predicted a substantially increased Coalition majority and Coalition control of the Senate, Journalists’ predictions of a close result were at least as confident as intelligence agencies’ predictions of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.


Abbott is particularly enamoured of research conducted in the mid-1990s by Professor John Henningham, then of the University of Queensland’s journalism program, who found that 39 per cent of journalists identified with ‘Left of Centre’ political positions, while only 16 per cent identified as ‘Right of Centre.’ A more recent survey in late 2004 by the RMIT journalism school found that 55 per cent of journalists identified as ‘Left of Centre’ or ‘small ‘l’ liberals’.

But when you excavate this research you discover that the benchmarks for determining journalists’ political views are overwhelmingly the social and cultural issues. So journalists will favour, for example, abortion on demand, more liberal drug policies and an Australian republic. (Indeed, the support for the ‘Yes’ campaign in the 1999 Republic Referendum was almost uniform across the media, including perhaps especially among the Murdoch press.) They also oppose the mandatory detention of asylum seekers and, probably, the Iraq War.

Thanks to Bill Leak

But these same studies also reveal that journalists the Canberra Press Gallery especially and the overwhelming majority of the commentariat, are big supporters of economic rationalism. And this was obvious again in the media’s generally rapturous reception of Peter Costello’s 11th Budget last week, which delivered generous tax cuts for the top 5 per cent of taxpayers.

Matt Price, in The Australian, regaled readers with a story of an average American beseeching Costello to come and run the US economy, so clever was he. Price’s colleague, Dennis Shanahan, rhapsodised over how the brilliance of the Budget and its tax cuts had politically snookered Kim Beazley and Labor.

(The Australian has quite openly committed itself to a campaign to lower the top rate of income tax and to supporting the Howard Government’s industrial relations agenda and its support is repaid in the preferential treatment it and its stablemate, the Sydney Daily Telegraph, receive from the Government. I know, having worked there in 2005.)

As everyone knows by now, the tax cuts for average wage and salary earners are very modest indeed about $10-12 a week and already eaten up by rises in home mortgages and petrol prices. But for the top 2 to 5 per cent of taxpayers that is, for people like the majority of the Canberra Press Gallery the cuts will deliver somewhere between $50 and $120 extra each week.

Dr Andrew Leigh, the impressive, Harvard-educated Australian economist at the Australian National University, has mounted a strong argument about the correlation between the upper-middle-class incomes of Gallery journalists and commentators and their strong endorsement of tax cuts at the top end. ‘Because most journalists think $80,000 is a middle-income wage, stand by to hear these mis-described again as tax cuts for the middle and the top,’ he said after the Budget was announced.

Incomes in the Press Gallery start at about $90,000 for a junior in one of the newspaper bureaux and run to several hundred thousand dollars for the big-name television reporters, such as Nine’s Laurie Oakes. The average income is about $120,000 to $150,000 a year. It is no surprise that many Gallery members are among the cheerleaders for the Budget. With the exception of the estimable Ken Davidson in The Age, there are no mainstream commentators calling for higher taxes on ‘high net worth’ (read: extremely wealthy) Australians.

Nor have many in the journalistic elite resisted, these past two decades, the liberalisation of the Australian economy and the privatisation of its publicly owned assets. (Again, Davidson is the exception.) Occupying jobs that cannot be relocated off-shore, commentators and leading journalists have embraced the globalisation agenda, with its cuts to tariffs and local job protection and exposure to competition from countries with low wages. Indeed, the doubters of this economic orthodoxy were, from the late 1980s on, almost uniformly derided as ‘economic dinosaurs.’

Only in the industrial relations debate have journalists, still represented by a vigilant union (although that is ebbing in commercial TV and at News Corp), been skeptical of free market reforms. Even here, though, many journalists felt they had to concede the need for ‘some reforms’ to a system that was already extremely liberal by international standards. They could not allow themselves to be seen as archaic defenders of the ancien régime.

The Gallery’s response to the Budget was entirely in line with its adherence to the new economic orthodoxy and, yes, self interest.

The aforementioned Dr Andrew Leigh described the Budget’s tax cuts as:

More regressive than I’d expected, worth 10 times as much for the richest 1 per cent as for a middle-income earner. Put these tax cuts together with last year’s Budget, and it may be that the tax changes in Australia have been as regressive as President Bush’s tax cuts of 2001 [were in the USA].

A particularly interesting statistic came from the Sydney Morning Herald‘s Ross Gittins, who calculated that if you were one of Australia’s growing band of millionaires 130,000 according to a Merrill Lynch report of June 2005 your annual tax cut would be worth $446 a week; that’s $23,192 a year.

According to figures compiled by the South Australian Department of TAFE, annual salaries for childcare workers among the most desperately needed in Australia start at $25,844, and don’t get much higher.

And just what policy figured so prominently in Opposition Leader Kim Beazley’s forceful budget reply speech last Thursday? Childcare, of course. Perhaps, with the size of the millionaires’ tax cut figuring so starkly alongside the size of the childcarers’ wage, we might see a new line of attack opening up against the Budget?

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