Right now, the federal government is putting together its Budget, which will be formally announced and released in May. This happens every year, and you don't need to be a member of the press gallery to know this.
During April, the media is usually full of speculation about what will or won't be in the Budget. Interest groups, bureaucrats fending off incursions from the infidels at Treasury, and even government ministers other than the Treasurer - all background journos and leak documents, and the resulting discussion has an impact on what goes into the Budget and ultimately on what sort of government we have in this country.
This April is different because public servants have not only been told to shut up (this happens every year, no matter which party is in office); but that the government will go through their private lives with a fine-tooth comb and that anyone found to have been leaking, or being disparaging, or even expressing qualms about government policies. However unwittingly, press gallery journalist Samantha Maiden declared closed the traditional multifaceted April debates closed without even realising it.
The institutions of the permanent public service have been commandeered to serve the political interests of the incumbent government. This used to be a big deal and senior journalists, senior public servants and other worthies used to force governments to back down when they did this in the past; no longer.
Maiden has presented this as a problem for the public servants instead of a symptom of a weak government suspicious of those who serve it. Greg Jericho, a former public servant whose career collided with his social media activities to the detriment of the former, can be forgiven for regarding this as a problem for public servants rather than the country more broadly; Maiden can't. Having been diminished as a source of truth by simply quoting Abbott's assurances that he wouldn't be bringing back knighthoods, Maiden has again simply transcribed what she heard with no further consideration about what it means.
Samantha Maiden has done everything a journalist can do to keep on side with this government, and with her employer (but I repeat myself), and all she gets is humiliated. An experienced journalist reduced to a blogger's punchline, I ask you! Give her a Walkley.
There had been a Commission of Audit. The government decided not to release its findings before the WA Senate re-election on 5 April; that election has come and gone and that report has still not been released. No one seems interested. The contents of that report might take the place of the usual April debate around the Budget, but nobody will release it, officially or unofficially. It's one thing for the government to decide that it will not respond to or even court public debate, but it's a pity that the press gallery and even the opposition won't either.
The coming Budget will be the first for a government that likes to talk big, but which can't really deliver. The Treasurer, Joe Hockey, has often been regarded as both a buffoon and a very smart guy; I saw evidence of both when I knew him in the early '90s, and press gallery journalists have also seen proof of both; this coming Budget will see which of those qualities (and the many others he brings to the job, for good and ill) best inform his legacy. One thing is clear: he doesn't want any debate. Whether you're a public servant or not, you'll take what he gives you and you'll shut up.
In the absence of pre-Budget speculation and debate there were some announcements about trade agreements. It was not necessary to go to Tokyo and Seoul to get announcements that were freely available from government websites. In both locations, media footage of Abbott shaking hands with various dignitaries was freely available from local media. When Abbott did a press conference in Seoul and refused to take questions, press gallery journalists expressed surprised, as though walking away from press conferences was not something you'd expect from Tony Abbott.
No agreement was actually signed in either location. No acknowledgement was made (by the government or its press gallery) of the efforts of previous governments, and of potentially critical public servants, in securing those arrangements. The task of reporting those agreements was left to the press gallery rather than to business journalists, surprising when you consider the idea of those deals is to boost trade and economic activity more broadly.
The press gallery focused on agricultural exports, as though Australia's economy hasn't changed in the past century and agriculture is the be-all-and-end-all of our exports. Japan promised to cut its tariff on beef from about 40% to about 20% over 15 years, and no journalist I can find has really explained what difference that would make (not being in the beef industry myself). As Mr Denmore said, coverage seemed more concerned that we think well of the government rather than focus on what might (not) be in it for the country more broadly.
Andrew Robb could well be the only member of this government with any negotiating skill to speak of. If he had been involved with the post-election negotiations in 2010 it is entirely possible that Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott, and Andrew Wilkie would have been more amenable to a Coalition government, and history might have been different.Rather than ramping up their negotiation efforts they went the other way, and seem vindicated by the last general election - until you consider that after six months of Abbott government:
- Labor's carbon tax and mining tax remain in place;
- Supposedly bipartisan policies like reforms to education and disability funding are unclear or in tatters; and
- Coalition commitments like paid parental leave have not yet been introduced to parliament, let alone passed through it.
If I was an experienced press gallery journalist I'd note that Julia Gillard was dead to the press gallery by this point in her term in office, and called a 'liar' to her face. Tony Abbott is still quoted as though his words were achievements in themselves. The way he glides through, achieving little while having journos hang off his every word, reminds me of the way the NSW parliamentary press gallery used to fawn over Bob Carr.
Bob Carr has been a leading politician in NSW and Federal politics for two decades. Everybody knows what he's like: a bit of a wanker, with that Whitlamite combination of self-deprecation and self-aggrandisement where nobody (including Carr) can truly be sure where one ends and the other begins. The idea that press gallery journalists who've seen him go around for a few months can appreciate him on a different level than the rest of us is a ridiculous conceit, insiderism at its worst. It only shows what contempt journalists have for us that they can maintain it in the sheer absence of any proof.
The first sentence in that tweet is flatly untrue; the press gallery reports announcements as facts. And as for the second - if you seriously imagine that Bob Carr is being candid, or capable of being so, I have a bridge (or a rail line from Parramatta to Epping) to sell you.
Carr's career seemed to show the futility of traditional politics. He was a loyal member of his party and held high office within it, but could barely get preselected and nearly got rolled by lightweights like Brian Langton. His big achievements as NSW Premier (e.g. the 2000 Sydney Olympics) were mostly initiated under the previous Coalition government, while initiatives that came from the very bowels of the NSW ALP (e.g. electricity privatisation, Eddie Obeid) were more trouble than they were worth. He was every bit as disdainful of the sort of person who joins the ALP as Joe Bullock. He was a warrior for the Labor Right but his better ministers were Left (Andrew Refshauge, John Watkins) rather than his own people (Obeid, Joe Tripodi, Reba Meagher). He remains Labor's anti-immigration champion, the nearest thing the "fuck off we're full" crowd have to intellectual heft and policy substance.
He was Foreign Minister from March 2012 to October 2013 - a term of 19 months. He went to a lot of conferences in that time but didn't appear to have achieved very much as Foreign Minister. 19 months was two months longer than Percy Spender had in the same job (December 1949 - April 1951). Spender set up the entire post war foreign policy architecture for Australia in his tenure. Thank goodness Carr is so witty because there's nothing comparable to the ANZUS Treaty (positioning Australia on the US side of the Cold War) and the Colombo Plan (positioning Australia as a leading education provider and a major soft-power force in the Asia-Pacific region), which were all conceived - and concluded - in this brief period. Spender became Vice President of the UN General Assembly; Carr, for all his lack of humility, was just another rotating member.
Gillard gave Carr carte blanche in foreign policy - he could've done anything. No press gallery journalist really evaluated Carr while he was in office. They had no petard to hoist him by until Carr provided his own. Those who employ press gallery journalists got someone in from ASPI or Lowy to comment on foreign policy rather than those who actually rubbed shoulders with Carr in Canberra - what would they know? All that other stuff in today's papers/radio/TV - the weird diets, the book-club and trivia-quiz approach to history, the disdain for quotidian politics - we in the nation's most populous state knew that already.
People who are reading Carr's book claim all proceeds are going to charity. People who are reading Carr's book haven't paid for it, and are burnishing it only to make it reflect on them all the brighter.
It was nice of the Murdoch press to finally twig to Carr after plugging him for so long: Carr sold his soul to Col Allan long before Rudd did.
Speaking of the Murdoch press: it was commendable that they joined, late and half-heartedly, in the general mirth surrounding Abbott's announcements on knighthoods and dames. It was pathetic that both kinds of Australian traditional journalism, Murdoch and non-Murdoch, all lined up to be Momentous about Lachlan Murdoch rejoining the family company: all that Dynastic Succession crap. You had to go outside Australian traditional media to read how he move made a mockery of any sense of strategic direction and how undistinguished Lachlan and James Murdoch were and are.
One of the abiding myths of the Australian media is that the Murdoch are geniuses, and that they can run a media company while others can only imitate. The farting bobbleheads atop News Australia are credited with being in touch with Everyday Strains in some mystic way, yet they give the impression that any oaf could do what they do. The financial performance of Murdoch and non-Murdoch media is about the same, but when something big and important happens the last place you go is to a Murdoch outlet. Lachlan Murdoch offers little to remedy that, and James Murdoch offers nothing at all. Why all this stuff about them when there's so much more going on? If they're so wrong about their own industry, about what might they possibly be right?
By focusing on trade agreements, Bob Carr, and Lachlan Murdoch, the Australian media seems to have slipped the surly bonds of a phantom of its own collective imagination, the "24 hour news cycle". None of those stories are particularly urgent. None of them affect our nation in any real way, nor the manner by which it is governed. There is no such thing as a Slow News Day, only Lazy Journo Day or Dumb Editor Day. The only leading story in the Australian media that remotely resembles a rolling, anything-could-happen-anytime story is the disappearance of MH370, but after a month non-journalists are right to be tired of "Breaking News: Still Nothing ... Breaking News: Still Nothing ...", etc.
What now? When will the traditional media realise that its power to focus on some inane thing or person, and foist it on the rest of us as The News You Need, is waning? Perhaps it will stop blaming The Internet and start realising that audience-repellent content does more damage to their prospects of survival than whatever comfort might come from journo cliches. After the last few days, any journalist complaining about the "24 hour news cycle" should have all the credibility of a sailor wittering about mermaids, and about the same career prospects.