Stop me if you've heard this before
Traditional media organisations represented in the press gallery came to dislike the previous government. Big reforms that had not been extensively canvassed in the media created the impression that the government didn't need traditional media - an impression reinforced by its flirtation with social media.
Traditional media panicked responded in two ways. First, the sorts of grievances and disgruntlements that occur in all governments was misreported as extraordinary, and magnified in importance.
Second, the Coalition was given a free pass; coverage like no opposition had received before, its often inane and occasionally hypocritical criticisms given credence they didn't warrant. No consideration was given as to what an Abbott government might do in office. Coverage of the government was framed by the criticism from the Opposition.
No Opposition Leader before Abbott or since received such uncritical coverage, or so much of it. He got what all politicians want: to be taken at his word. He got the 'green light', in much the same way that dodgy NSW Police in the 1980s gave the 'green light' to career criminal Arthur 'Neddy' Smith. Abbott even looks a bit like Smith at the same age.
The traditional media were aiming to preserve the two-party system. Detailed and cogent criticism of the previous government from the Greens, or Andrew Wilkie, received much less coverage than white-noise like "Well this is a bad government" from the then Opposition. Minor parties and independents tended to be framed as freaks, an unstable rabble, a framing that extended to the ALP itself.
The two-party model cannot be maintained in reporting politics today. The errors made by the government have largely been unforced, their own inadequacies more important than pressure from the now Opposition.
The government has lost the political initiative. The Opposition does not have it. The political initiative is not coming from the major parties, but from minor parties and independents. Political journalists can pick that it's been a bad week for the government, but their usual frame is that must mean a good week for the opposition. They can't admit how few good weeks this government has had, or is capable of.
Having painted Labor as so hopeless, day after day for years, they cannot credibly claim they now have the answers. Nor can they claim, given the polls, that Labor are so hopeless that the shortcomings of the government should be overlooked. Because they don't understand politics today, they will eventually respond by giving Labor's leader (whether Shorten or someone else) the green light that they gave Abbott. That won't help the public decision-making process either, and nor will it help sell advertising space - depends on what you regard as the main game.
Traditional media is trapped with a set of templates on how to report politics that just don't relate to the reality before us. Regular readers will know I hate this more than I can describe, but describing is necessary as a first step to working out how to break it. A man has to have a hobby. In mid-life this beats the hell out of hair plugs and sports cars. It is cheaper, more engaging, and ultimately more constructive than trying to get a girlfriend half my age. And unlike many other hobbies, collateral damage is not worth worrying about.
Mark Scott, the ABC and 21st century politics
An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile - hoping it will eat him last.Mark Scott is giving 21st century politics a red-hot go, mainly because he's out of options. He's playing a longer game than the government, and even the Murdoch press.
- Winston Churchill
Abbott, Turnbull and the gang though that instead of letting media organisations play politics, they'd have politics play media. As with pretty much all this government's most cunning plans, it has failed irretrievably within hours of being announced.
Former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser denounced the cuts to the ABC, and to SBS (which his government established). ABC broadcaster Mark Colvin recalled the Bland Report and jeered at what he called Fraser's "double standards". Yet, Colvin and his colleagues at ABC News and Current Affairs thought they were so clever in reporting on the Gillard government in the way the Coalition hoped they might, and for not being 'even-handed' in speculating what an Abbott government might be like. They gladly fed the (contemporary) Coalition crocodile.
Colvin still can't believe he or the ABC would ever be guilty of double standards himself. He can't imagine such an accusation even being made. Such high-handedness and selective blindness makes him the exemplar of not only what's right about the ABC (when he's on song) but also what's worst (when he's not). The extent to which the ABC relies so much upon so few makes the case for cuts stronger, not weaker.
Today, we have a government that disdains to provide journalists with any real information, and to be fair only very few actually bother seeking it out. Today we have a government that can send journalists to prison and spy on their sources. These is what happens when your first priority is maintaining journalists in their pose of balance, to the point where their actual research and story-telling skills wither from disuse. This is why merely reversing the cuts would restore nothing worth having, and increase scrutiny of government not one jot.
Spare us this 'Hunger Games' crap. Honestly. Everyone works in insecure environments these days. Get over yourselves and shut up.
It would be asinine to say that Scott is banking on Labor and the Greens to come through for him, as this shows. It's beyond wrong, it's beside the point. It's just so 20th century.
The two-party system has broken down because communities not considered 'marginal seats' felt neglected, and so are changing their politics to avoid the majors and become politically contestable, getting things done that wouldn't be done if you leave things to the 'professionals'. Denison had been a safe Liberal seat and then a safe Labor one; now it's held by an independent. Indi had been held by 'Black Jack' McEwen and by a putative minister in the current government; now it's held by an independent. Senior Labor MPs Anthony Albanese and Tanya Plibersek face little threat from local Liberals, but are forced to maintain constant vigil against the Greens. Chris Pyne won the safest Liberal seat in South Australia in 1993; now they've stopped listening to him and will chuck him next time.
Community is a thing, keenly missed when it is absent, exulted in when present. Everybody wants their community to be a marginal seat, but it takes hard work and skills that not everyone has.
The ABC builds communities, and maintains them during emergencies. Mark Colvin is a community-builder. So too are Geraldine Doogue and Robin Williams, Tim Cox and Macka. Communities gather around Peppa Pig and The World Game and Australian Story and Q'n'A. Politicians don't represent those communities. They only make their presences felt when they try to knock them over.
Scott has targeted cuts to the ABC in regional Australia. This has flushed out silly Nationals and Liberal MPs in those areas, who have all responded with the much-derided tactic of the Open Letter. They all go something like this:
Dear Mr Scott,In the old way of reporting, where bad news for the Coalition means good news for Labor, this would mean Labor's vote in regional Australia would skyrocket and ... look, it's all too silly. Restoration of ABC funding to rural Australia will not be achieved by the Coalition. It will not be achieved by Labor. It will be achieved by a critical mass of politicians who owe nothing to anyone but those who elect them.
When I voted for swingeing cuts to your organisation, it never occurred to me that you would cut services in my community, or that my constituents would complain so much. It's easy to outmanoeuvre me, and all I can do is squeal like a stuck pig because my persuasive abilities are more limited than you'd expect from someone in my current job. Peta never warned me about this; but to be fair, if she had I probably would have ignored her.
Please, please reverse those cuts, you bastard! You are so not coming to my Christmas drinks.
An ABC journalist who has given long and loyal service to a remote community - and who is about to receive a big payout, right in the middle of the parliamentary term - is a potent, direct threat to even the most well-entrenched Coalition MP. The smarter ones know this all too well. ABC presenters are welcomed into homes, vehicles and workplaces far more than even the most affable politician. They cover the gamut of local and national issues, while the Coalition MP is hamstrung by talking points. If they don't run as actual candidates themselves, those people have greater appeal and credibility than those thrown up by parties.
Imagine you're living in a regional area, and you know more about climate change than all the nose-ringed baristas of Fitzroy and Enmore put together. Imagine you're concerned about fracking. Who are you going to vote for?
- a) the incumbent Coalition MP, and Tony Abbott.
- b) Labor, oh yeah.
- c) that ABC journo who did all those 30-minute specials on fracking, teasing out the subtleties of the issue and who stands to win or lose.
- d) a Green who couldn't win preselection for their local city electorate, but who comes with a big recommendation from Senator Lee Rhiannon (whoever the hell he is).
The late Peter Andren, a commercial TV journalist in rural NSW, kept Labor and the Coalition at bay throughout the 1990s. Tony Windsor regards Andren as a role model, and even after his death he has more to offer ambitious regional candidates than, say, Luke Hartsuyker or Joel Fitzgibbon.
The social base on which the major parties were founded is wasting away. The initiative is with community-organising movements, which must necessarily be small-scale. There may come a revival of mass politics later this century, but it is hard to discern from this angle. The smart money is on independents and minor parties, with diminishing majors negotiating terms to enjoy office.
If Scott had wanted to go after the current political class, he would have axed Insiders and smashed the other mirrors in which they regard themselves. But he is playing a longer game.
The majors look silly in their denials that they will (or that they have to) negotiate with minors. They get the legislative composition that the voters set for them, and their challenge is to make the best of that. Labor is better able to get over itself in order to strike a deal than the Coalition. Not only federally in 2010 but in every state over the past 20 years, Labor has won office through a deal with Greens and/or other independents.
This is the future, baby: thumping wins and inviolable mandates will be fewer and further between.
What Scott has done is to mess with the majors, and to ensure that while they might gang up against public broadcasting, they will have to work within a political environment where maintaining and extending the ABC is a given.
Labor underutilised public broadcasting in its pitch for the NBN, and if they do so again (they'd have to resist Murdoch, and the NSW Right in particular could never stay mad at Rupert) they should talk about public broadcasting - not allow the Coalition to witter about hi-def sport and movies. Labor has an advantage in talking public broadcasting, but not much. A future version of the Coalition could peg them back if they really tried, and wanted.
Social conservatives have shown the way, clogging Labor and Coalition parliamentary ranks with churchy freaks implacably opposed to same-sex marriage and to investigating sexual abuse in the churches and the military. This makes minority-held positions look bipartisan - and to be bipartisan is the best politics can be, right?
Issues like political donations, a federal ICAC, euthanasia, gaming reform and biodiversity look scattergun and untidy to those who can only imagine politics as a duopoly. They look like a laundry list of issues which clever manoeuvring and cosy deals can sideline effectively. The recurrence of those issues in public debate looks to such people like a failure of issues management, political reflux; not an authentic expression of democracy.
In the late 20th century, the issues that became crystallised as the Whitlam agenda were like that. Urban planning, no-fault divorce, acquiescence to communist governments in China and Vietnam - I mean, I ask you. Labor only took them up in the vacuum from being squeezed by Moscow and Rome. Labor can't be relied upon to truly embrace a laundry list of issues like that, but they are better prepared to entertain them.
Labor's fading branches, and those of the Coalition parties, aren't discussing those issues - and if they are, the wide boys in those parties ensure they don't get past Conference. The initiative is coming from independents and minors. Mark Scott has pitched the ABC as one of those issues that is always with us - not batted back and forth every time there's a change of government, and neglected in between.