It is more than fair to say that it was excessively critical of the former Labor government and has been insufficiently critical (in the best sense) of this one. To compensate, political journalists are acting all surprised that the Abbott government turned out to be worse than they had expected it to be, when nobody had any right to expect an Abbott government to be anything but the combination of punchline and disaster like the US Presidency of George W. Bush. I've already gone after Michelle Grattan for this silly approach, but yet it persists from beyond the press gallery by two commentators who ought to know better.
In 2010 Greg Jericho was a public servant living in Canberra, hoping that the media would examine the Coalition's policy on disability services. When it instead engaged in its traditional Boys-On-The-Bus crap Jericho took to social media and demonstrated its power for the first time in Australia. The political media were confronted with the idea that whatever they dished up might not be good enough, that they didn't have a monopoly on (or any) news sense, and that they might be judged by both how well they played the game and on the game itself by people who weren't even 'players'. By and large, they hated it. Some, such as Fairfax's Tony Wright and the ABC's Mark Scott, admitted being caught out and promised to lift the standard of political reporting, but none did.
Earlier this week, Jericho wrote this. He seems to think that the most you can expect from journalists covering politics is that they attend press conferences, document launches and other set-piece events, maybe ask a few questions, transcribe what is said and simply relay it on.
During last year’s election campaign, the Liberal Party did all it could to say very little that might rock any boats other than asylum seeker ones.He's right; it isn't. Journalists should have sources of information that go beyond staged events. Murphy's idea of investigative journalism is clicking the Send/Receive button on her email in the hope that some press secretary has sent her a press release. Almost all of her press gallery colleagues are of similar modus operandi.
It was happy to talk about border and national security but on issues like education and health it played a straight bat and suggested little change was coming. While such a strategy may have been the safe play in opposition, it's rebounded badly on them now they’re in government.
A few weeks ago at the National Press Club, Guardian Australia journalist Katharine Murphy suggested to Christopher Pyne that one of the reasons the government was struggling to sell its policy was that “there was a deliberate effort by the Coalition to minimise the differences and the perceptions of the differences in education between the Coalition and Labor”.
Pyne replied that he had given speeches “hinting” that the Liberal Party in government would propose the changes it had and that “the fact that some members of the fourth estate missed that is not my responsibility.”
The reason why Laura Tingle is consistently one of the better journalists in the press gallery is that she seems to have contacts outside Parliament House, in the public service and other organisations that both feed into and are affected by policy outcomes. Murphy and the rest of them don't, by and large, which is why they can't cope when what seems like a great idea in Canberra falls flat before it hits the Federal Highway.
If you want to catch Christopher Pyne you need to watch how he spends his time, and where he gets his ideas from. Pyne did not, as Julia Gillard did, go around to actual schools and ask actual teachers and actual parents and actual students what was going on. So much for minimising differences. Pyne spent most of his time in opposition engaging in parliamentary silly-buggers and offering commentary on any issue other than education, which is why he relies on ill-considered assumptions like these.
Talk to Coalition backbenchers and note the aridity of their ideas and the process by which they come up with ideas: if these intellectual deserts will not fill the banquet-halls of government, then where are we to look? Look at what the IPA come out with, and the antecedence of their ideas: they do not like scrutiny and scurry away like those timid marsupials in First Dog On The Moon cartoons - but that is all the more reason to turn up the klieg lights. The same goes for policy units within business organisations like BCA. Rather than stand around Canberra like the world's most expensive microphone stands, they could examine where the Coalition forages for its ideas, and thereby build a better picture (for better and worse) of how the Coalition governs.
In higher education, he is attempting to implement the same policy that John Hewson proposed in 1991, a version of which Amanda Vanstone attempted to introduce as minister five years later. Fightback! is indeed 'old news', but political journalists need to overcome their aversion to it if they are to detect, report on and analyse how we are governed. Clearly, hanging around in bunches within Parliament House and doing whatever else they do is not working for anyone, including them.
Like education, the Liberal Party’s health policy was barely articulated.The political commentator Paul Kelly said before the election that the Coalition had fifty fully costed policies ready to go, but it is hard to see any evidence of these. Kelly put his credibility on the line by making a statement like that, and it's fair to diminish his credibility in light of the actual performance of this government (including the fact that so many current ministers had held ministerial office under Howard).
In the months leading up to the election, Peter Dutton told the Australian Financial Review that “Our policy is ready to go. I’ve been working on policy with stakeholders in this portfolio behind the scenes every day over the past five years. We will have a cracker of a policy as we did at the last election”.
Again, regarding the above quote: the AFR journalist referenced by Jericho, Joanna Heath, did not approach any of the relevant stakeholders consulted, but instead merely relayed the 'cracker' comment and moved on. This is a failure of journalism on her part and on that of all journalists covering politics and health. They had a duty to examine what an Abbott government might be like, and go around the Coalition press wranglers if necessary; they squibbed it.
Nowhere in the Liberal Party’s health policy document was there anything relating to GP co-payment, nor anything suggesting, as was reported yesterday, that private health insurers would get control over general practitioner treatments.No there wasn't, but that was the wrong place to look. How were private health insurance companies trimming their sails this time last year in response to what was then an inevitable change of government? Who does the Coalition listen to on health matters, and what were they saying?
This isn't being smart after the event. It should be basic journalism.
The AMA was against [the $7 co-payment for GP visits announced in the budget]. But lest you be under some delusion that the AMA was against a co-payment, let me correct you. As the president of the AMA, Brian Owler, told the media yesterday, “The AMA’s position has never been that everyone should be bulk-billed.”If the public are under any delusion about any aspect of public policy, then this is not the fault of the public, but of those who inform them - the media. AMA policy should have been one of the measuring sticks for both Labor and Coalition policies. Journalists should take more responsibility for this than they do.
So, the government remains saddled with a policy that has little love among voters and less among the people needed to make it into law.Time to revisit the question (too late, but still) as to what extent anyone might regard it as a "cracker". If the Coalition had consulted its stakeholders about this policy, surely the stakeholders themselves bear some responsibility for helping convince the public. Building a constituency for change is basic politics, and investigating that constituency (or its absence) is basic journalism.
In terms of "the people needed to make it into law" (i.e. the crossbench senators), this is a simple misjudgment of politics by Dutton and Abbott. Politicians may fail at economic management, they may fail to prepare the country in education or health or in any number of policies. Politicians who fail at politics have failed utterly. Poor old Amanda Vanstone couldn't work out whether the rise of Clive Palmer was a shock or utterly predictable, and so decided on both.
In his various columns Jericho sets himself apart from other commentators by taking a politician's statement and comparing it against reliable external sources of fact to test whether or not the statement stands up. There should be more of this, and he should be congratulated for doing it. He should not be congratulated for insisting that journalists can only be expected to cover what is said in set-piece announcements (including in Hansard).
Journalists have no right to be surprised by the Abbott government when they observed it up close for so long. This is why the very first sentence of this piece by Michael Gawenda was wrong. It is no more weird than any other time since Abbott became Liberal leader.
... Tony Abbott has been unable to offer up any coherent statement of what the main challenges facing his government -- and the country -- might be.The absence both of any vision, and any capacity to execute it, has been there all along.
First there was Eric Abetz for his suggestion that there is a link between abortion and breast cancer.This question was put to Abetz by someone outside the press gallery, regarding an event Abetz is participating in that is squarely in line with his long-held, professed beliefs. Eric Abetz has been a Senator for 20 years. In every parliament, the question of abortion comes up. The idea that Abetz holds ill-informed views and holds them staunchly should surprise nobody. Yet, the entire press gallery flapped and floundered at the 'revelation' of a predictable approach to a predictable issue, diminishing their value as observers and commentators.
Weird? No. Seriously weird? Hardly.
Neither of them, not Abetz in his pathetic attempt to say that he was quoted out of context, nor Hockey, in his abject apology for being misunderstood, actually resiled from what they had said.That, too, was predictable by any close observers of politics and of the way it is reported.
What this points to is the major problem with Tony Abbott’s first year in office. On the available evidence, he has not yet been able to make the transition from an opposition leader renowned for his ability to be relentless in his attack on a shambolic government and its policies, to a prime minister who can articulate the direction in which he wants to take the country.What this points to is the major problem with the way the media covered Tony Abbott and examined what he said. To what extent was he being facile and repetitive, rather than 'relentless'? To what extent was the Rudd-Gillard government shambolic - in absolute terms, or in comparison to the incumbents?
Some commentators seemed to believe he had found the 'real' Tony Abbott PM after the shooting down of MH17 ... For the first time since he was elected prime minister, Abbott sounded like what he was saying, how he acted, the tone of his language, came from conviction and a clarity about what he felt and believed that had about it a real authenticity -- a political authenticity that is, something that every politician aspires to but few actually achieve.These 'friends' are the problem. Why so many of them, even now? Have they privileged this relationship with their friend Abbott over what was best for the country? It's time to ask serious questions about the credibility of the press gallery in terms of telling us how we are and might be governed. It's time to stop accepting that bad reporting is like bad weather, there's nothing you can do so just put up with it.
But on the evidence of the past week or so, it seems that this ‘real’ Tony Abbott that his friends in the media were so hopeful had finally emerged and would transform the political landscape, was no more than a transitory moment.
He has allowed friendly commentators to signal a move by Abbott towards something they describe as pragmatism and at other times, a move towards the political centre, though it is wholly unclear just what that means in policy terms.The signalling is done through the organs that employ those commentators. Their credibility diminishes when Abbott's does. In dictatorships it is the role of media outlets to explain what government has done and that it means well, not in supposedly robust democracies like ours. If commentators have failed to explained Abbott, and have succeeded only in explaining him in ways that please him, this is a problem for the media that employ those commentators.
And Abbott has been muddled at times and at other times tin-eared when it has come to selling the government’s proposed anti-terrorism laws.What did you expect? The Minister who bungled the treatment of Dr Haneef is still a member of Abbott's cabinet. Nobody has explained what the Coalition, the security agencies or anyone else learned from that caper.
He might even be right to take the advice of the security agencies that the anti-terrorism laws need to be beefed up ...... but when the previous government proposed this, the Coalition opposed it on civil liberties grounds. Journalists should have questioned whether this was a point of principle or a cynical maneuver, and looked at the power of security agencies in shaping Coalition thinking (as they had under Howard after 2001).
But when he conflated his government’s abandonment of changes to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act ... It went downhill from there when he talked about ‘Team Australia’ as if there were communities who were not part of the team ... And what exactly did Abbott mean when he said on talk-back radio that "you don’t migrate to this country unless you want to join our team"?Oh come on, he's been doing that for years. The idea that this is some departure from a well-considered position is flatly false. Nobody has any right to be shocked at the inconsistency and cynicism involved.
He knows what he is against, but he finds it very difficult to say what he is for, except in slogans ...'Twas ever thus. This is not a new phenomenon for Abbott, it's just that the media are being a little more critical in some respects, and the Coalition can't handle it.
Had they scrutinised the prospect of an Abbott government, who knows what might have happened? Maybe the last election would have been like 2004, when a flawed and unpopular government was re-elected rather than be replaced by a manifestly worse alternative. Michelle Grattan's insistence that Abbott's policies (such as they were) need not be scrutinised because he was going to win anyway should have brought forward her retirement and signalled her end as a useful commentator. Instead, she and other signallers remain in place, puzzled at Abbott's inadequacies in government, without examining their own role in bringing such a predicament into being - nor their inability to effectively scrutinise the activities of any government, now or into the future.
Gawenda, Jericho, Murphy and the rest need to stop their automatic exoneration of the media. In failing to scrutinise the Abbott government before it was elected, the traditional media have failed the nation and themselves.