When I started this blog in 2013, it was to debrief from the coming tsunami of nasty policy and toxic dishonesty that I was sure would inevitably flow from an Abbott government. Two years later, in 2015, I did not assume that Malcolm Turnbull would be an honest and statesmanlike Prime Minister.
I listened carefully to that first press conference, where Turnbull failed to restore the quantum of funding Abbott had cut from services providing shelter and support to women and children escaping male violence. Turnbull allocated a third of the $100 million funding restoration to advertising companies, presumably companies which benefit from Liberal Party ad-buys. He implied the money was new funding. He sounded smug and arrogant.
I assume the decision to make this grandiose announcement, rather than some other grandiose announcement, was political strategy. Liberal polling probably showed that Abbott alienated women voters, and so Turnbull was despatched to ‘charm’ the swinging voter woman of the (extremely limited) Liberal Party imagination.
The same vibe was on show when Turnbull announced his first ministry, which was in fact a ministerial re-shuffle, given the Coalition government was still in its first term. With great fanfare, he trumpeted Marise Payne as the ‘first’ defence minister, and political reporters duly accepted this as fact. When it was pointed out that Ros Kelly was a junior minister for defence science and personnel a full two decades earlier, the claim was refined to first ‘stand-alone’ defence minister or some such.
Either way, the claim is bollocks. It is designed for headlines, not grounded in fact. There is no single or fully fledged defence minister when someone with the status and influence of Christopher Pyne is also in the field, in this case, as minister for defence industry. The submarine build in South Australia promise was a massive part of the almost-lost 2016 election (my longer thoughts on that expensive nonsense here).
In typical Turnbullesque style – of which the hallmark is extremely poor political judgement – the relationship between Payne and Pyne is reportedly toxic.
None of this bodes well for merit-based economically-efficient decision making in the defence portfolio. But then no Liberal Party appointment ever does. Its members are incapable of redistributing tax revenue for the purpose of providing essential government services. Basic government functions are not what a bunch of private school boy grads have any qualifications, life experience, wisdom, or skills, to do. How could they?
It is against this backdrop that I watched yet another nadir in political reporting emerging this weekend. Does this mark a turning point for the Prime Minister? asked the Sydney Morning Herald, implying that it has faithfully documented that which Turnbull requires a turning point from: two years of ignominious policy failures, leadership so weak it would have been cut down if there were any (male) alternative, and crushing disappointment in the electorate, expressed in the 21 losing polls breathlessly counted by the waiting reptiles.
The ‘point’ was to ‘turn’, apparently, on Turnbull telling a backbencher ‘we are having a political discussion about it. We have a sensible policy.’ That is what we the readership are supposed to see as a turning point in the shabby gutless political leadership of the nation. Here is the context, verbatim, from the front page of News Review:
“As shut-downs go, it could not have been more emphatic. Environment and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg had just presented to the Coalition party room details of the government’s long-awaited energy policy. Flanked by government officials from the energy market regulators, his presentation, while lacking detail, was well-received.”
The party room reportedly applauded this evidence that Turnbull could ‘shut down’ Tony. That is what we are supposed to get excited about. ‘Details’ of a policy which was ‘lacking detail’, but that is okay because it was well-received in the Coalition party room by… the Coalition party room.
This is meaningless twaddle to anyone outside the party room or the parliamentary press gallery. There is no evidence that Turnbull will not continue to bow to Abbottian influence, as he has in this ham-fisted ‘energy’ policy. There is no evidence that the National Energy Guarantee (NEG) will not see increased emissions and increased prices while locking in Australian reliance on coal (a far better and more detailed critique here).
Most of the gallery, to various extents, attempt to not merely report but also to sway political news and audiences. This desire and its attendant practices cuts across outlets: it is standard for Chris Uhlmann or Peter Hartcher or Laurie Oakes or Sharri Markson to insert themselves into the story. They do this not just to safeguard their own access and Insider status, but also to be players, and to appear to be players.
To safeguard access and become a player is self-defining, to a degree. It represents some power over what may become the top story and what may be buried. Any one of these big names can make a poor call with impunity. They do not get the sack. Rather, they tend to justify rather than retreat from the entirely wrong prediction or garbage partisan analysis.
This is what the entire corps, minus The Guardian and The Age did, literally as a body, when endorsing Abbott in 2013.
Anyhoo. If the SMH was weak conformity to a weak government message on a weak government policy, the Saturday Telegraph this weekend was breathtakingly, shamelessly interventionist. The Dirty War on Barnaby Joyce was a grubby and internally contradictory hotch-potch of defo lawyer-edited innuendo and garbled insider gossip.
Now I have no time whatsoever for Joyce, except to write up the many ways in which, on my analysis, he has failed his constituency, himself, the government, the constitution, and the electorate. And if there is one thing I have less time for than the political failures of Barnaby Joyce, it is the ‘private life’ – political reporter speak for ‘sex life’ – of Barnaby Joyce.
But I admit to being curious. Not as to what Barnaby gets up to between the sheets – yuk – but as to why the Telegraph chose to break this ‘story’ – as I said, better described as innuendo – now.
The entry point to media-political player status is the sure knowledge that Prime and other ministerial media staff will pour over who is perceived as having ‘won’ the news cycle of the day. The winner is never the punters. This is an Insiders’ game.
So we can be sure that there is no benefit to either the Australian electorate in general or the voters of New England in particular to the editorial decision that saw sexual innuendo about the Deputy Prime Minister splashed across the front page of the Tele. The article, with a Sharri Markson and Miranda Devine by-line, purported to point to former New England MP and potential by-election opponent Tony Windsor.
But there is no way the collateral damage would not splashback on Joyce, and no way these two players could not know that.
So who is the target?
First, it is worth recalling that the Murdoch press generally is stacked with Abbott defenders who are still cranky that their Tony was supplanted by the hollow conservative pretender who they, hilariously (and harmfully, to the polity) perceive as a leftist and progressive political leader. Of course Turnbull is not left and not progressive and not a leader, but that does not trouble the minds of the political players of the Murdoch press.
Second, Joyce is before the High Court of Australia, along with six senators, on the matter of his capability to be elected or sit in the Australian Parliament under s. 44 of our Constitution. It is possible that the operation of the section will be found by the Court to disqualify him from sitting, from the date of the 2016 election. This would prompt a by-election order from the High Court sitting in its capacity as the Court of Disputed Returns.
Third, and this is key, the government is a lot more bothered by the Joyce constitutional position than it is publicly letting on. Turnbull has been shouty in his support in the parliament, which is unhelpful at best. Why would a High Court take kindly to being shouted at by politicians? Why is the Prime Minister, a qualified and enrolled barrister, breaching (absent parliamentary privilege), the doctrine of separation of powers?
This is a ‘spirit of the law’ rhetorical question: there is no ‘letter of the law’ of the doctrine of separation of powers to breach – it is based in principle, not statute.
But Turnbull also chucked Joyce under the bus outside of the Parliament. Or at the very least, Turnbull trolled Joyce outside of the Parliament. Unless, that is, we accept that the Turnbull political antenna (always badly broken), is so bad that he did not understand that dragging the Joyce properties in Narrabri into the gas debate was a really terrible idea.
Maybe. I have consistently pointed to the lack of evidence to support claims that Turnbull is terribly intelligent. But even I doubt that Turnbull could be so thick as to publicly invoke the Joyce properties near Narrabri during a gas supply presser by accident rather than by disingenuousness.
So Joyce is on the nose and possibly on the way out. The government is sending up the balloon, signalling that he may be cut loose. Is that really a basis on which a pair like Sharri Markson and Miranda Devine would file this?
The popular Nationals leader, who faces being kicked out of Parliament next week over his dual citizenship, has for months struggled with issues that have affected his marriage of 24 years.
That is the second sentence. The first is even more self-servingly interventionist political-reporter-as-player:
Embattled Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce is in the grip of a deeply personal crisis that has now spilled into public life at the very time he is fighting to save his political career.
But whatever the crisis is, it had not ‘spilled into public life’ via a couple of tweets, but via the Saturday Telegraph front page. The Tele literally ‘reported’ what it was doing by reporting what it was doing, which was to ‘spill’ whatever is going on for Joyce in private – does anybody care? I know I do not – ‘into public life’.
The Tele front page also refers to ‘his dual citizenship’. This is fantastically unhelpful to Joyce. He has renounced what was his New Zealand citizenship by descent. The Solicitor General spent considerable time, before all seven judges of the High Court, making the case that Joyce had no knowledge and thus was not on notice of any citizenship by descent and as such had no ‘allegiance’ to a ‘foreign power’ under our Constitution.
The Commonwealth in Re Joyce (represented by Commonwealth Solicitor General Dr Stephen Donaghue QC) is up against contradictor Tony Windsor (represented by Justin Gleeson SC, former Commonwealth Solicitor General). The High Court decision is imminent. It is frankly impossible that the Tele editors and writers are not fully cognisant of the government tension about the decision, the representation, the political implications. Of course they are.
And here is an unmistakable political intervention, cementing the Joyce (former) dual citizenship status in the minds of the punters, while avoiding the precise claim.
Over at The Guardian, the political editor sent a pair of pointed tweets:
- There’s something of a convention in Aus politics: unless there’s criminality, coercion or abuse involved, private lives are private.
- It’s a good convention. I hope we stick with it.
This message was prima facie addressed to 120,000 twitter followers. It is also an intervention, in the sense I have been using the word, the political reporter as political player. The purpose is to maintain a specific reporting culture, one that has not served the electorate particularly well, whatever the benefits to the journalist or political classes.
Both claims are unsupported and unsupportable.
Saying that a convention is good and should be kept, because it is a convention and good, is not a strong claim (my credentials for assessing the strength and logic of statements and claims here). Both are also demonstrably disprovable: Channel Seven broadcast images of then-NSW Transport Minister David Campbell at the entrance to a known gay spa, Laurie Oakes decided to reveal details of an affair between Gareth Evans and Cheryl Kernot.
In addition, what is convention for politicians and political reporters – collectively – is not necessarily accepted (as convention or anything else) by the people. In a democracy, the media is the fourth estate, and has specific obligations, to operate in the public interest. The people are not some afterthought. The commoners are the third estate, the commons (I have previously written on this at length, for example here, here and here).
Whatever. I am personally grateful for the presence of The Guardian in the Australian political landscape. I mention these tweets in support of the more general thesis that political reporting tends to be somewhat insular. I disagree with the general assumption that what is convention for the political/media class should be accepted at face value by the electorate.
In sum, this weekend we have seen:
Fairfax leading with the claim that a hopelessly compromised Prime Minister somehow turned a corner on energy policy and thus his prime ministership when the policy is a cypher and according to polling he is approximately infinity corners from turning his political fortunes in a positive direction ;
The Murdoch press running a front page on a hopelessly compromised Deputy Prime Minister who is before the High Court on his qualification (eligibility) to be elected or sit in the Australian Parliament so naturally they ran with what he may or may not be doing in his sex life, couched in terms of what may or may not impact on his ‘marriage of 24 years’;
The Guardian political editor on twitter saying that private political lives are private which yes of course all decent people agree they should be except that this is a government which is currently, right now, at a cost of $122 million of public moneys and counting, running the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey on the private lives of punters so…
So. I guess I have said what I have to say. The standard of politics and political debate and coverage of political debate… is quite something.