It's Ben Eltham's Turn To Sign Off

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It’s been an extraordinary week in federal politics, and a fitting week in which to sign off as newmatilda.com‘s National Affairs Correspondent.

In a strange quirk of fate, my tenure writing about federal politics for this website has almost exactly coincided with Kevin Rudd’s reign as Prime Minister. I think I speak for both of us when I say we would both have liked a few more months in the job, as well as a shot at the next election.

In his remarkable valedictory speech yesterday, Rudd ticked off a long list of his government’s accomplishments. I hope I’m not going to be quite so indulgent, but I do think we at newmatilda.com can be proud of what we’ve achieved.

When, more than five years ago, this website first struggled pink and blinking into existence, Australian media was still quintessentially Old. The Canberra press gallery was still largely composed of broadcast and newspaper journalists. Political coverage and analysis was dominated by a small coterie of insiders. Crikey was not even allowed into the Budget lock-up.

In just half a decade, that situation has changed radically. While television has dumbed down, and the business model of newspapers has broken down, new media has created opportunities for new voices and new perspectives on Australian political life. This phenomenon is most noticeable in the emergence of thousands of political blogs with insightful and perceptive things to say. But the rapid development of online journals and news media has played an equally important role.

In publications like newmatilda.com we can see a glimpse of what I think will be a bright future for online news media in this country: a future where low budgets don’t mean low quality; where you don’t need an office in Parliament House to cover federal politics; where online doesn’t mean unsubbed or unmoderated and where a small number of dedicated editors can leverage their skills to enable large numbers of writers like me to reach audiences.

One of the most valuable aspects of new media is that it should, in principle, allow a broader and more diverse talent base to engage in political journalism and coverage.

As a writer and thinker, my background has reflected this. I trained in science and philosophy before dedicating much of my 20s to my love for Australian culture and the arts. It was an arts editor, Rosemary Sorensen at the Courier-Mail, who gave me my first opportunity to write regularly about Australian culture and life, and I’d like to thank her for that opportunity, just as I’d like to thank Marni Cordell and Miriam Lyons for first giving me the opportunity to write here.

I am by inclination a generalist, rather than a specialist, and in my approach to covering Australian politics here I have sought to reflect that. Hence, I’ve tried to report, explain and engage with the full range of policies that affect us as citizens, from economics and the political economy, to the environment and climate change, defence and national security, health, education and social policy, governance and public administration, innovation and R&D, and last, but not least, culture and the arts. 

In doing so, I’ve always tried to reflect on the substance of political controversies and the primary sources and real-world evidence that underpins the sound and fury of political debate. Although I am a tremendous admirer of many in the Canberra press gallery, I believe far too much political coverage in Australia is narrow, ill-informed and at times almost ignorant.

All too often, the media treats politics as a horse race, a Greek tragedy or a Machiavellian intrigue, rather than what it actually is: the contest of ideas, policies and power relationships that determine our government and affect our way of life. It is indicative of the way that the media covers politics that you can watch Sky News for hours without ever hearing a discussion of the substance and detail of public policy — and lots about media tactics and opinion polls.

For too many commentators, policies like emissions trading or stimulus spending are simply poker chips to be traded back and forth between various lobby groups. In this world view, policy is about managing expectations and effecting trade-offs between powerful vested interests. This attitude is shared by many in politics, which is why you can watch a Peter van Onselen or a Kieran Gilbert explaining confidently why Julia Gillard needs to compromise on the Resource Super Profits Tax, as though this were a self-evident truth of political reality.

In fact, the media also shapes political reality, as can be seen when you visit offices in Parliament House, where wall-mounted televisions tuned permanently to Sky News are a ubiquitous feature. The relationship is perhaps best encapsulated by the official title of Tony Blair’s chief spin doctor, Alistair Campbell, who was the former British Prime Minister’s Director of Media and Strategy.

At newmatilda.com, I’ve tried to ignore this echo chamber and, where possible, cut through to the deeper substance of our political debates. Although online media is often derided as being merely about commentary — not true journalism or news gathering — I’ve tried my best here to explain to you the policy background underlying the media debate. That’s why most of my articles contain links to primary source documents like government enquiries or academic journal articles, as well as to the views of other journalists and commentators on any particular issue. It’s also why I like to link to my previous articles, the better to explain the provenance of my thinking and to establish a throughline of my argument.

Over the past two and a half years, I’ve been accused of many things by newmatilda.com readers in the comments pages. You’ve called me boring, predictable, pompous and dull. You’ve claimed I’ve been too easy or too harsh on Kevin Rudd, Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott, Peter Garrett and Bob Brown. You’ve claimed I am a member of the Australian Labor Party, the Greens, and the Liberal Party (but never Family First).

Many of you have confused my firm support for action to combat climate change and create a sustainable economic system with a bias against free enterprise and commerce. Some of you have accused me of giving conservatives too much credit, some of being too nice to Kevin Rudd. And some of you have praised me. I’ve tried to take it all on board in the spirit of open and rational dialogue. One of the great strengths of online media is the ability it offers for writers to engage with their readers. Thank you for your engagement, one and all.

One of the most amazing events yesterday — in what was an amazing day — was seeing Therese Rein standing beside Kevin Rudd and coaching him on how to end his speech. It gave me a new appreciation for the strength and dignity of this admirable Australian as she tried to comfort her husband in the hour of his extreme need. I’m also lucky enough to enjoy the support and love of a strong woman, my partner Sarah-Jane Woulahan. We’re about to start a family together. It’s a source of great hope and joy for me, espite the many challenges faced by our nation and world.

But I should end by thanking the people who have been most responsible for my development as a writer, principally my editors and colleagues here at newmatilda.com over the past four years: my editors Catriona Menzies-Pike, Brendan Phelan, Rod McGuinness, Rachel Hills, Miriam Lyons and especially Marni Cordell, as well as my fellow writers at newmatilda.com, of whom there are too many to name.

Finally, of course, I’d like to thank you for reading. The future for newmatilda.com is uncertain now but I hope we’ll encounter each other again when the website returns. In the meantime, you can email me at ben.eltham [at]gmail.com. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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