13 January 2013

What we cover when we cover politics

The Federal Parliamentary press gallery purports to cover goings-on in federal parliament, with a central focus on the lame theatre of Question Time and the pursuit of rumours. When called upon to cover major issues of substance and complexity that arise in that place from time to time (e.g. the Budget, Aboriginal disadvantage, misogyny, sexual abuse of children), supposedly experienced correspondents dismiss them with "the devil is in the detail" and go back to the ephemera that sustains them.

Stephanie Peatling's press gallery stories that are worth reading: they can be traced back to actual public issues and rarely involve the same dreary flights of fancy that apparently keeps her colleagues employed. In any industry full of mouthy bludgers the quiet achievers are the most interesting; this article is in that vein.

Peatling refers to Peta Credlin opening up about about a topic that could hardly be more personal. Given that Credlin approached the journalists concerned to do so, and given the fact that she is more powerful than almost any elected Liberal MP, is she now deserving of greater scrutiny by the media than she has so far received? If we are to really understand what the Coalition wants - in the short term, within some passing parliamentary standing-order feint, or in the long term from "an Abbott government" - surely it is fair and relevant to scrutinise someone Credlin more closely than has been the case to date.

The odd profile that declares someone to be a "power behind the throne" and leaves it at that might suit the person concerned perfectly well, but in a democracy it is not on.

When you elect a government, you elect a whole package. Senior staffers and advisers are part of that package. Many of those people who came out of Paul Keating's office with a book publishing deal might have served their employer, party and country better building linkages between vague big-picture pronouncements and practical outcomes of same. The early Howard government would have been better understood had journos not just used Grahame Morris as a source for colourful quotes, but really examined what made him tick and how he made his presence felt. The transition of Julia Gillard from a wooden repeater of catchphrases to a genuine and direct communicator has to, in large part (but not wholly) the result of a turnover of staff. Staff deserve scrutiny.

The problem with that is twofold, as Peatling alludes to in her quotes from Paula Matthewson. Firstly, nobody elects staffers. Secondly, thanks to The West Wing many think that their roles deserve more attention than they get, and would only be too happy to hog what little limelight falls upon Australian federal politics.

The response to that is also twofold: first, whether or not people elect them, they are there; they are influencing policy outcomes, they way our taxes are spent and our laws made. Second, professional journalists should be able to filter out self-aggrandisement chaff from the kernels of real stories.

This applies to staffers who become lobbyists. The Rudd Government set up a lobbyists' register where lobbyists are identified individually, along with who they are working for. No press gallery journalist has made effective use of this resource. In the corridors of Parliament House, lobbyists sail past journalists on their way to ministers' offices to conduct business that will change the way government policy works; journalists wave them by without a second thought that these people might have a story worth telling.

Peatling's quote from Damian Ogden fails to examine what happens when there are jarring differences between a politician's personal story and their subsequent actions in office, as happened with Obama. It seems (and you have to do a fair bit of inference to Peatling's article, and drag in a lot of other stuff to reach this conclusion) that you have to rely on the other side to run a bunch of turkeys, but are rewarded with mandates that vindicate both image and reality.

There are journalists who cover substantive issues, and who do so seemingly in isolation from the federal parliament whose deliberations are so crucial to those issues. It is silly to demarcate journalists who, for example, have been patiently describing what the NDIS is and how it might affect particular individuals, from those who are supposedly following the passage of the relevant legislation through the parliament (there is so often a surprise deal in the Senate in the early hours of the morning of a sitting day that changes a bill so profoundly, which is almost never covered in any detail, that it is worth having dedicated Senate correspondents).

It is often said that covering politics is like an iceberg, where elected representatives are the above-surface visible portion while the far larger part (staffers, lobbyists, permanent public servants) are below the surface and out of sight. This may be so, but isn't that what journalists are for: to uncover what is hidden and to make sense of it?
Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.

- George Orwell
Press gallery journalists should be more often guided by their colleagues who cover those areas that federal politics regulates - between them, they would make for better coverage of how we are governed than we receive today. It would mean less jowl-wobbling outrage about "context" and the forced redundancy for many who are now, falsely, regarded as paragons of a profession that can only survive with such disruptive innovation. Someone like Stephanie Peatling would almost certainly handle such a transition much better than the stale, cliched offerings of almost all of her colleagues, particularly those encrusted with self-referential journosphere accolades.


  1. Excellent article

    Food for thought

    I know of a senior adviser turned lobbyist that didnt get any press at all by the media

    When a journalist was asked why this was so they said they were on a mortgage


    They remain hidden and under cover for numerous reasons

    When they are approached the nasty abuse starts and they get very defensive

    This is but one example

    It starts with Student politics and the cliques are formed there until they become lobbyists

    Its a perfect example of the shallow form of democracy the polity live in by unelected apparatchiks from hell like Credlin et al

  2. Hi Andrew,

    Good post as usual. What really jumped out at me with Peatling's article was the final sentence.

    "If we want to continue to be the sort of nation that looks to American to learn about political engagement and campaigning then we get the whole box."

    That's all very well and good but the US political culture is very different to Australia's, with both the Republican and Democratic parties being far more diverse and open than their down under equivalents.

    Given the almost Stalinist grip that the Liberal and Labor executives have over their candidates and staffers, it seems to me that the tools which work in the US system are almost irrelevant in an Australian context.

    There's also structural differences too such the need to motivate voters out to the ballot box in the first place which makes it much harder to transpose how US campaigns work onto Australia.

    It appears the talentless apparatchiks of the Liberal and Labor parties are reading the wrong lessons from the US.

    All of which guarantees an interesting 2013.

  3. Google

    Stephen Conroy for clues .....

  4. Laura Tingle is the exception to the rule

    At a Wheeler Centre function she was very honest with her analysis

    "Some advisers are crap" she says

    She is class and credibility in the press gallery

    I always think sociologists should be employed as advisors instead of apparatchiks

    I watch Australian Story on a politician and analyse it sociologically

    You start to get a sense of how they think that way

    Well its a start ,when you see the family they come from and their upbringing

    Paul Howes ' story is a great example of the direction of the labour party for the foreseeable future

    Scary but realistic when ratbags enter the ranks as faceless men like him

    His biography is an eye opener but a sad example of the extremism of labour for the next generation

    Power for powers sake is the main game and agenda for now

    Sad and shallow

  5. reading the wrong lessons from the U.S...

    The Lance Armstrong interview with Oprah is a lesson to the shallow forms of media we currently have to some extent

    Going off on a tangent here but controlled media management with lying cheats is akin to many members of our own political class

  6. An in depth look at the staffers is warranted especially when they invite the media into their lives.

    The image I have of Credlin is that photo of her with the Dirt file, which made me think is it a one off or just one of a library. For instance does Credlin hold a Dirt file on Peter Slipper? Credlin had a lot of personal gain to see him lose the Speakers job, after Slipper decreed Credlin would be banned from the House if she again yelled abuse to the PM or any of the Members of the House.