The media in Australia’s biggest city has run out of ways to say that the NSW Government is hopeless. For its part, Labor has found that no amount of spin can hide the fact that it is no longer able to govern effectively. Yet, while the state parliamentary press gallery churns out stories you couldn’t make up, there remains the unsettling fact that state Opposition Leader Barry O’Farrell isn’t all over them.
Since Menzies, every ambitious politician in Australia has bent over backwards to please the media, and, in turn, journalists have become players on the stage rather than just observers. It’s an odd situation, and it raises a couple of questions: What happens when you have a political sea-change at hand and the media are reduced to merely reporting it? And why is O’Farrell allowing that to happen? Answering them requires a bit of information about the Opposition Leader himself.
Barry O’Farrell has moved in Liberal circles for a long time. In the early 80s O’Farrell was a Liberal staffer, first with the federal opposition (including being hired by Gerard Henderson in the office of opposition leader John Howard) and then the NSW government, followed by a short term as state director of the NSW Liberal Party before finally entering State Parliament representing a safe Liberal North Shore seat. In that time O’Farrell has observed at close hand quite a range of approaches to the media. He has seen the Liberal Party focus on shallow, media-driven reaction with no in-depth research, as well as getting so lost in policy detail that the political and media narratives were set by others. The political impact of both extremes has been the same: electoral failure.
O’Farrell appears to understand that the media lose respect for you when you lose electorally, whether you court them or not. He has seen Nick Greiner and his successor John Fahey concentrate on policy instead of media relations, until they lost both media coverage and votes. O’Farrell saw Bob Carr cosy up to journalists — particularly the then editor of the Daily Telegraph, Col Allan — to achieve favourable coverage for a 10-year legacy which has since almost entirely evaporated. O’Farrell watched as successive leaders Peter Collins, Kerry Chikarovski, John Brogden and Peter Debnam knocked themselves out to raise their media profile, and develop links with Allan and other large but fragile egos in the state parliamentary press gallery — and a fat lot of good it did them in terms of winning votes.
It’s true that in a close-run election, in recent years at least, a tight media strategy has been shown to be crucial. You need to keep your media profile up. You need to be talking about the hot-button issues. You need to be in the marginal seats. You need to reiterate those lines that have been market tested, both with focus groups and with press gallery journalists. In a close-run election the hope is that by following those rules you’ll pull ahead of your opposition and secure the spoils of office.
The thing is, the next state election doesn’t look anything like close. Most likely O’Farrell doesn’t need to worry about his opposition because they’re still in the process of doing themselves in. O’Farrell is playing a longer game than the media cycle allows. Those who live and die by the media cycle find his tactics perplexing; more perplexing still is the fact that he isn’t playing the game.
In this type of contest, you don’t need to worry too much about the press gallery, because too much focus on the press gallery yields too little political benefit. You make sure your political base is sound: your party first, playing the factions against one another to ensure they don’t play you. With a solid base you have a chance of standing firm against noisy interest groups. With a united party that believes in you, you can withstand a barrage of statistics from the government.
Next, you buttress your position by getting on side those other parties that can help make life difficult for your opponents. From a position of political strength you can wait out shrill media demands for counter-statistics, funny-hats, pie-eating — and gainsaying whatever the government does, because that’s what the media expect from oppositions. Media strategy says that you don’t get far by bucking media preconceptions. O’Farrell has been bucking the media preconceptions, and he’s doing very well regardless.
O’Farrell’s approach to the media is different from most politicians because he is not a media animal — he’s a political animal. He has built an unlikely coalition in the NSW Legislative Council (the upper house) in which Greens, Outdoor Recreation and Family First MPs combine to frustrate Labor’s legislative agenda. It’s true that there he has been greatly assisted by Labor’s repeatedly promising minor party MPs whatever it took to get Government legislation passed, and then reneging on those promises. Still, O’Farrell’s skill in building an anti-Labor coalition is remarkable. When Labor promises legislation will be passed, then fails to get it through, it makes them look worse than dishonest — it makes them look incompetent.
Since O’Farrell became Liberal leader a whole generation of Labor talent has been snagged in the barbed wire and machine-gunned. Morris Iemma, Reba Meagher, Joe Tripodi, Matt Brown, Graham West, Ian Macdonald, John Della Bosca, Nathan Rees, Kristina Keneally: all might have been formidable opponents had the Liberals won any of the past four elections, now none of them will play a role in returning Labor to government in NSW if O’Farrell wins the next one.
For NSW Labor, Keneally’s sunny optimism was supposed to inspire a similar optimism in her party and its supporters. But now she is spending a lot of time being "very angry", "very disappointed", or smiling so vapidly that she seems to have no idea what’s going on. Ambitious Labor people in NSW have their eyes on federal seats. O’Farrell is given too little credit for creating and maintaining the conditions under which Labor has crumbled.
The churn in the cabinet means that every minister faces a shadow minister who has more experience and better media skills than they do. All its ministerial perks and media resources don’t seem to be helping Labor much, politically. Shadow ministers like Jillian Skinner (health), Greg Smith (attorney general) and Gladys Berejiklian (transport) discuss issues in their portfolios in a nuanced way while still being able to do a 10-second grab for the nightly news, and without being asked about their personal lives. O’Farrell has known each of these people a long time — but they are not just in their roles because they are Barry’s mates.
From time to time the Liberal Party tears itself apart over factional issues. These play out most acutely in preselections, where long-time party activists stand to gain jobs in which they can be paid to be political activists — jobs which are pretty secure because the Liberal Party tends not to challenge sitting MPs. O’Farrell keeps the Liberal factions in check, which pleases the majority of party members who are neither far-right nor moderates — and which keeps his own position safe as it is the factions who can mobilise support swiftly and decisively if so moved.
The most recent evidence of this was O’Farrell’s move to shore up the preselection of David Clarke, leader of the party’s far Right. In doing that he took the Liberal Party’s internal wrangling off the front page and kept the focus on the increasingly leprous Labor Government. Political pros know that the best machines run quietly. The far Right made a lot of noise about Clarke not because they were asserting their power, but from fear of their own powerlessness. Backing Clarke’s preselection avoided tit-for-tat reprisals with party moderates that would have distracted from the battle against Labor.
As things stand the Liberal Party’s far Right is in disarray, and it is no threat to O’Farrell — but a tactical victory for the moderates would have made O’Farrell their man, an invidious position for someone beholden to no faction or clique. Had Clarke been defeated it would not necessarily have put O’Farrell in a strong position to win an election with a united party behind him — and that is the main game for O’Farrell, not kowtowing to the factions or soothing the toothless tiger that Clarke has been shown to be.
O’Farrell has built unity in the Liberal Party, from the grassroots to the front bench. Unlike many former staffers, who despise the amateurs who make up their party’s membership and their small-picture busywork, Barry O’Farrell has spent many years going to small meetings of his party’s branches and listening to the largely ageing membership. They feel able to wander up to him at party functions for a chat, in a way that was discouraged by aloof Greiner, prickly Collins and Debnam, or slick Chikarovski. They will be enthusiastic in turning out for a sure winner next March, and victory is a balm like no other for political wounds.
Whatever the NSW Liberal media strategy may be in paid ads or unpaid editorial, the election next March will see the party united behind O’Farrell. The Nationals are happy with him and will not play spoiler. The Coalition is focused and united in a way that it hasn’t been for 20 years. Minor parties are more disposed to give them preferences, and more fearful of the consequences of not doing so.
When a government has 215 ministerial appointments in five years, when there is a transport snafu, when Kristina Keneally declares Lennox Head a disaster area — presumably because it reminds her of her party — spin is redundant. The State Government is shedding media and other advisers. Even if they could, the Liberals need not respond by ramping up their media staff. Where spin is redundant, counter-spin by the Opposition is also redundant. O’Farrell gains far more with gentle reminders that it doesn’t have to be like this than he ever could with the kind of razzle-dazzle that only gets voters’ backs up.
Malcolm Colless of The Australian called for O’Farrell to be replaced by Joe Hockey or Malcolm Turnbull, because Hockey and Turnbull know how to work the media — i.e. they treat journalists like crucial political players. This isn’t the media reflecting on O’Farrell’s weakness, but on its own.
Unlike in the US, the media in NSW can’t claim that online and other non-mainstream media sources are becoming important in NSW politics. It is unnecessary for O’Farrell to play the media game when Labor has shown the bankruptcy of spin, and where straight reportage of state politics will be more persuasive for the Liberal cause than any traditional media strategy could be.
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