Politics Gets A Change Of Tone

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Tony Abbott’s strategy of keeping a tight control on the Australian media is working, and that’s bad news for Australian democracy.

Perhaps we’re exhausted from the political controversies of the Gillard years, when it seemed as though the government was in constant crisis. In marked contrast to the siege mentality of Julia Gillard’s prime ministership, the early months of Tony Abbott’s reign seem relaxed, even comfortable.

For those of us who have been following politics closely in recent years, the toned-down nature of post-Gillard politics seems passing strange.

Where are the screaming headlines, the constant undertone of turmoil, the editorials calling for the prime minister to step down? Where are the rolling, manufactured controversies, in which baseless claims from discredited bloggers are repeated and amplified for months in a calculated campaign to discredit an elected leader? Where are the talkback shock jocks, ridiculing our Prime Minster every morning for his dress sense, or his hobbies, or simply because, as a man, we all secretly know he’s not actually up to the job?

All this disappeared after 15 September. Like Sherlock Holmes’ dog that didn’t bark, the abrupt absence of media outrage tells us something quite important about the natural balance of political forces in Australia. Conservative and Labor governments are held to different standards of accountability and conduct by Australian media. It’s not fair. Little in life or politics is.

Want some evidence of the different ways in which conservative and progressive governments are judged? Look no further than the first scandal of the Abbott government, about travel entitlements. As scandals go, it’s been something of a fizzer, despite the fact that the prima facie evidence suggests that the Prime Minister and many of his senior cabinet colleagues have misused taxpayer money for travel to events that have nothing to do with their parliamentary duties.

Arguably the most culpable figure is Western Australian Liberal MP, Don Randall, who appears to have claimed parliamentary travel money to conduct a business deal in north Queensland. Randall has repaid the money, but escaped censure.

During the Gillard years, such a scandal would have been big news. Ministers would have been hounded, media cycles dominated. It would have started in the far-right blogosphere, been taken up with enthusiasm by the Murdoch newspapers and then covered diligently by Fairfax and the ABC on the grounds that this was what everyone else was covering.

The spurious claims about Julia Gillard’s actions as a solicitor at Slater and Gordon in the 1990s, which never had much substance to them and yet were given wide prominence, were perhaps the most obvious example of how this process works.

The critical difference between the AWU controversy and the travel expenses scandal is that coverage of the expenses scandal has not spread beyond the Fairfax newspapers and the ABC. News Limited has, not surprisingly, been rather circumspect in covering it, certainly in comparison with the way it covered the entirely comparable allegations about Peter Slipper. The television news bulletins have largely ignored it.

As a result, Abbott has kept a lid on the scandal, with media interest starting to wane. The responsible Minister, Michael Ronaldson, has been conspicuously silent on the matter. Despite a clear admission of wrong-doing – in the form of repaid expenses – from the Prime Minister, several ministers and government parliamentarians, there is no ongoing investigation, either by police or by the government itself. 

Indeed, in a broader sense, the media appears to have largely accepted the way in which the Abbott government has clamped down on media briefings and public information. Treasury briefings have been blocked, information about asylum seeker boat arrivals quarantined behind a militaristic screen of “operational security”, and media conferences terminated with barely a question allowed. There has been little backlash beyond a few well-chosen words from Fairfax’s Bianca Hall.

The contrast with the atmosphere under Julia Gillard is stark. The eventful years in which Gillard implemented one of the more successful reform agendas of post-war Australian history were marked by a heightened level of political outrage, as the Coalition and its backers in Australia’s big mining and fossil fuel industries ramped up a long series of anti-government media campaigns.

Time and again, the Gillard government was painted as illegitimate and dishonest. Spurious or trivial incidents were repeatedly blown up into major media events, from the loss of a prime ministerial shoe to the decision to get a new set of glasses. Criticism was all too often accompanied by a healthy dose of implied or open sexism, or couched in weasel terms questioning Julia Gillard’s judgment.

The political coalition mobilised against Labor under Gillard was broad, influential and well-funded. Business interests combined their natural antipathy towards the party of labour with specific anger at Labor’s most attempts to implement carbon pricing and redistribute more mining profits for the common good (including for a broad-based cut in company taxes, which the business lobby seemed quite reticent to champion).

In the media, News Limited pursued a coordinated strategy of attack. Powerful editors and an Old Boys' Club of conservative commentators whipped their audiences into a frenzy. The reward for their unstinting support has not been slow in coming under the new regime, with many of the most prominent hosted for dinner at Kirribilli by Abbott.

It saddens me to say it, but another of Labor’s problems was Julia Gillard’s gender itself. Even as Australian sentiment makes great strides towards same-sex marriage, attitudes to women in important positions are still negative. Among conservative voters, particularly older white men, the animus was entirely more personal, reflecting an insecurity about feminine power that has astonished and dismayed progressive and feminist groups.

In her excellent review of the recent slate of books that have recently been released on Julia Gillard’s prime ministership, Kerryn Goldsworthy makes the point that “when you read, take notes and meditate on five volumes of this testimony and evidence of masculine oppression, suppression, repression, stalking, humiliation and naked hatred of women, you can feel it doing you damage.”

The damage done by the vicious campaign against Julia Gillard’s gender will echo for a long time in Australian history. The sudden absence of gendered abuse since the election of a man to her position only makes it more obvious.

None of this would have been politically effective of course, if the demographics had not supported it. But the right-wing rage found solid support. Labor’s problem was not just that it depended on a messy coalition of Greens and country independents for its parliamentary majority.

The broader problem remains that, for many conservative voters, no progressive government will ever be truly legitimate. Indeed, looking at the opinion polls and the focus groups, clever pollsters were predicting the unhinged atmosphere of political discourse under a minority Labor government well before it reached its fever pitch. 

The rage seems all the stranger now it has been replaced by comparative quiet. Many voters, it seems, are comfortable with the new and slower pace of government, and with a much more controlled and less open style of communication.

In a longer perspective, none of this is surprising. Australia has elected comparatively few Labor governments, and many of them have ended badly. Progressive government in Australia has seen plenty of nasty splits and crushing election defeats.

It’s now up to the Australian Labor Party and for those campaigning for progressive causes to find new ways to engage their fellow-citizens. One thing’s for sure: the old politics of top down media management, as disastrously practised by false idols like Bruce Hawker, are failing. Different models will be required.

These models need not be new: indeed, they may be time-honoured strategies of grass-roots organisation and public engagement, of the sort that labour unions and feminists engaged in long before the advent of social networks or crowd funding. But none of it will happen without renewed effort.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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