Here’s a note to all the news directors around the country: Do you want to save some money? Well then bring home your journalists following Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard, because they are not doing anything of any worth except having a round-the-country twitter and booze tour.
It is a sad thing to say but we could lose 95 percent of the journalists following both leaders and the nation would be none the poorer for it. In fact we would probably be better off because it would leave the 5 percent who have some intelligence and are not there to run their own narrative a chance to ask some decent questions of the leaders. Some questions which might actually reveal who would be the better leader of this country.
Emma Rodgers writes decent copy for the ABC, so she can have one spot on the bus, and AAP’s Sandra O’Malley ends up writing most of the copy that gets put on the main news’ sites (before it gets twisted by the slant the organisation wants) so let her have the other spot (also she is resplendent in her vivid red jacket that always seems to make an appearance on TV just before the press conference is about to start). Maybe there are one or two others (guess the nightly news needs someone, so how about let Hugh Riminton do all three networks), but for the most part you might as well not bother.
This morning John Bergin tweeted that Tony Abbott was making an announcement about disability support for students. As I noted yesterday I have a vested interest in the topic so I quickly put on the Sky News stream to watch the press conference. He announced that:
[severely disabled] students would be given a $20,000 education card, with the measure costing $314 million over four years.
the Coalition would also nationalise disability definitions across the country in a bid to ensure people in different states are treated the same way by authorities.
They are good policies. They don’t “trump” the ALP’s policy of yesterday because the ALP’s focuses on early intervention for pre-school aged kids. Both are good, and in fact in my dream world both would be introduced (and expanded).
But I had some issues – what is meant by “severely disabled”. Now my daughter has Down Syndrome, and it might sound surprising to people, but I don’t actually view her as severely disabled. I assume she would come in under the clause, but as someone who just views her as my little girl and often forgets about the DS, I was wondering if she would qualify.
So I waited for some questions from the journalists. They came and guess what, they were all about politics. They were about Mark Latham’s comments about his believing Kevin Rudd leaked to Laurie Oakes. They were about foreigners owning our farms and whether he disagreed with a National’s senator. They were about nothing to do with the press conference. Did they test the policy? Did they ask who will qualify and why? Nope. Not at all.
You see my wife is a school teacher. She has a student who though in Year 6 has the reading Level of a Grade 1. He does not have an “intellectual disability” – he’s probably one of those kids who is just called “slow” – but he needs special help. The school however doesn't get any extra funding for him because he doesn't have a specific intellectual disability. Would there be any money for him? If not, why not? And why not all disabled, and not just ”severely disabled”? And don’t let Abbott just say that, oh we have to pay off the debt and deficit. When he uses that line, how about calling him on it and pointing out that Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz on the 7:30 Report said of the stimulus and supposed questions of waste:
JOSEPH STIGLITZ: If you hadn't spent the money, there would have been waste. The waste would have been the fact that the economy would have been weak, there would have been a gap between what the economy could have produced and what it actually produced - that's waste. You would have had high unemployment, you would have had capital assets not fully utilised - that's waste. So your choice was one form of waste verses another form of waste. And so it's a judgment of what is the way to minimise the waste. No perfection here.
And what your government did was exactly right. So, Australia had the shortest and shallowest of the downturns of the advanced industrial countries. And, ah, your recovery actually preceded the - in some sense, China. So there was a sense in which you can't just say Australia recovered because of China. Your preventive action, you might say pre-emptive action, prevented the downturn while things got turned around in Asia, and they still have not gotten turned around in Europe and America.
But no, we had none of that. It was all politics.
Now I don’t write this to criticise the policy – because it looks good (and you know I don’t say that often about the Liberal Party!), but I really don’t know enough about the policy because the media has given me next to bugger all information on it. I can’t get anything from the Libs themselves, because it isn’t up on their website yet – their most recent policy on the site is still their anti-gang idiocy of yesterday!
So here I am, a guy with a genuine interest in the policy, a guy who lives on news websites and I couldn’t find anything. Over on The Oz (that champion of the any news but policy news style of media) had instead a story by the always consistent Matthew Franklin:
Labor's 'waste' has left little money for campaign promises, says Tony Abbott
the other story he wrote was a bullshit side issue that had seen the Libs and Nationals in a bit of a split (but seriously, who gives a damn):
Abbott to keep tabs on foreign ownership of farms but rejects need for register
Over in the Julia Gillard camp, today they found themselves in Perth where she was announcing the NBN was to encompass 93% of the population and not just 90% as was previously announced. They were also going to release the maps outlining where the optical fibre would be rolled out, where there would be wireless coverage, and where there would be only satellite coverage.
As guy who grew up in country SA, I was eagre to find out more – to see the maps, to see if my old town where my parents still live would get coverage.
I wondered how NBN Co could now get to 93% instead of just 90%. I wondered if the Government was going to consider the impact of the net filter. I wondered, and so I waited for the end of the press conference so the journalists who are apparently at the top of their profession could grill the PM over this policy.
And the first question to Julia was about Cheryl Kernot running as an independent for a spot in NSW for the Senate. The second question was about Mark Latham. And on and on it went. One journalist in a moment of utter self-importance asked Julia if she was annoyed that she kept getting asked questions about Kevin Rudd, and if it was distracting to the campaign.
Yep a member of the media who keeps asking Julia about Kevin Rudd asked if it was distracting that the media keeps asking her about Kevin Rudd. Kieran Gilbert back at the Sky News desk prior to Julia’s press conference said in response to his co-host suggesting the policy will be a good positive message for the ALP that it would be “if it got coverage”. Yep a member of the media was suggesting it would only be a good story for the ALP if the media decided to cover it. I looked on news sites for links to the maps. I couldn’t find any – but go have a look, they are quite fascinating – especially when you look at just how much work is going to be involved. This my friends is infrastructure at its finest. Once the NBN is finished you will all wonder how the hell we ever did without it.
But the journalists? Nup. Not one question of policy. The closest they came was to ask given the BER and Insulation scheme “bungles” how could the public trust that the ALP could do this on budget. But that’s not a policy question – it’s a political one. There were none about the actual nitty gritty of the policy.
As I say 95 percent of you can go home. You are, as they say in the army, a waste of rations.
And when it was announced that Kevin Rudd was in hospital to have his gall-bladder removed,well that was definitely it for the day for policy. The news was gone for the day. Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard might as well have spent the day playing tennis and golf.
And to top it all off, the journos decided to then have fun at Rudd’s expense on twitter trying to make up joke song titles about his having surgery. Because yeah surgery is such a laughing matter. Classy.
This blog to be honest was spurred by my reading of one of the best articles you’ll read this year. It will come as no surprise to many that it is by Laura Tingle. She writes of the media during the RSPT period, and of how the role of lobbyists has changed since the Hawke and Keating days:
Keating’s argument encapsulates much of what has changed since 1993 in the way public debates about policy and politics are conducted. In the age of major reform in the 1980s and 1990s, it was policy that ruled. These days it is politics.
Then, the community assumed governments would act in the interests of the community as a whole while business would act in its own interest. A reforming government made policy the base from which its political performance was assessed.
The ramifications for the way the media worked, for the way lobby groups worked and, as a result, for the way politics worked, cannot be underestimated.
A policy issue would be put up and debated not primarily on the basis of whether it was good or bad for the government’s fortunes, or whether industry groups would like it, but whether it was good or bad policy.
Lobby groups were seen as rent seekers or, pragmatically, as groups seeking greater advantage from a policy outcome, not ‘potent political opponents’ or representatives of the national interest whose claims about the impact of policy could go unquestioned.
In such an environment, Keating was able to assert Canberra’s better grip on the country’s needs and get away with it despite the devastation of a savage policy-induced recession.
This started to change under the Howard government.
It is fascinating reading from a journalist who, unlike 95 percent of her colleagues, has a memory that goes back more than 6 months. Read it!
Tingle is the pick of the very few journalists in this country who has the intelligence and wit to be able to understand policy. You see it is easy to suggest the media doesn’t cover policy because it is boring. I don't think that is the reason. I think they for the most part ignore it because analysing policy is hard – you actually need to have some understanding of the issues and how they will affect the economy, the people, the Government. It is even harder to then crystallise it in to an informative and interesting 1000 words.
Many in the media when they try analyse Government documents get it completely wrong.
Take for example The Oz’s recent coverage of the Auditor General’s report on the Regional and Local Community Infrastructure Program. They screamed “rorts!!!!” Though their argument lacked any logic or intelligence. You see it is not enough when analysing such things just to read the executive summary and re-write what you see there – or even what you will find on page 35. You actually need to pause and think it all through. To see how it is done – go over to Possum at Crikey – it is brilliant work.
Of the journalists who are any good at policy I only rate Laura Tingle, George Megalogenis, Peter Martin, Bernard Keane and Ross Gittins for domestic/economic issues (and Possum of course!). Greg Sheridan sadly is about the only decent one who can write about foreign policy – though Philip Dorling for The Canberra Times is also very good (but The Can Times doesn’t get much of a reach, and he reports more than he analyses – which is a pity).
The rest such as Michael Stutchbury or Terry McCrann bring with them such prejudice that 99 percent of what they write is easily dismissed. I find it very hard to dismiss any of the five mentioned earlier. They all will criticise either side, and when they bag the ALP more often than not I find myself thinking, bugger, they’re right.
That’s not to say all other journos are useless. Not at all. I’ll read anything Lenore Taylor, Laurie Oakes, Phil Coorey and a few others write. I’ll sit up to watch Leigh Sales and the Lateline crew, and Lyndal Curtis each morning on AM gives sharp interviews. (By the way Oakes’ opinion piece today is spot on.).
But policy? There’s a dearth of ability to write and comment about such things in Australia's media. It is why blogs such as Possum’s and others flourish. And it’s why 95 percent of the media following Julia and Tony around are pointless – they don’t know what questions to ask, and lack the ability to explain the complexities in a way that non-specialists would be able to understand or find interesting. And so we get “The NBN: How much it will cost you” or some such.
If I had one wish for all the journalists following the leaders around it would be this: Before you ask a question say to yourself, “What would Laura ask?” And do likewise.