Media the weakest link

Bookmark and Share Governance & Service Provision | John Roskam
The Australian Financial Review 11th February, 2011

So, in 2011 this is what Australian politics has come to. Prime Minister Julia Gillard looking
"wooden" during the Queensland floods versus Opposition Leader Tony Abbott not talking for 12 seconds during a television interview. Why would anyone bother doing policy? Pop psychology deployed against your opponent is easy to do and entertaining for the public.

And for the media, it's more fun to discuss the imagined emotional state of our leaders than to dissect the regulatory framework governing Australia's telecommunications industry for the next 20 years.

The most popular politician in Australia at the moment is Queensland Premier Anna Bligh. If there were a vote tomorrow for president of an Australian republic, she'd probably win easily.

It speaks volumes that a series of competent performances at recent press conferences has made people forget that as treasurer and now as Premier, Bligh has presided over a state that has had an abysmal economic performance.

In the days immediately before Abbott's perceived media gaffe, the big issue for the Canberra press gallery was whether it was appropriate for the liberal Party to send an email soliciting donations to fight the government's flood tax. The email received more attention from journalists than such questions as why the Queensland government didn't
have disaster insurance (un like other states) and why the federal government has agreed to pay for,75 per cent of the cost of repairing its infrastructure.

We know the Prime Minister has appointed committees to check how the $5 billion is spent, but we don't know yet what that money is going to be spent on. (There was a delicious irony in having a Labor prime minister appoint a former liberal premier to oversee how a Labor government spends money.) At a press conference on Monday when the Prime Minister was asked about Queensland's lack of insurance, and she ignored the
question and changed the topic, no one bothered to follow her up.

No one is brave enough to ask why the rest of Australia should foot the bill for the failure of the Queensland government to take out insurance.

This week provided a clear demonstration of the misplaced priorities of the parliamentary press gallery. Trivialities (like Abbott's media interview and the liberal email) were regarded as more important than a substantive policy point (government spending on flood recovery).

To be fair, many journalists covering Canberra politics don't have much experience in analysing issues such as the quality of government expenditure for projects like the national broadband network, the Building the Education Revolution program and now natural disaster spending.

The press gallery is quite used to government spending that's little more than a political rort or a bribe to a favoured constituency. It's the stock-in-trade of the gallery and these things are written about in a world-weary way by people who have seen it all before. But waste on the sort of scale of the school building program is something new.

Until it actually happened, most people would have been thought it impossible that up to $2 billion out of a $16 billion program could be wasted.

The global financial crisis produced a federal government very willing to spend a very large amount of money in a very short space of time.

The Rudd government's stimulus package produced a larger growth in government outlay than even Gough Whitlam was able to achieve.

Ministers and the bureaucracy were completely unprepared to deal with a situation in which government spending was increasing at an annual rate of 20 per cent and the media were ill-equipped to report on what was happening. The media were unable to deal with the shock of something new and unexpected. In addition, there was hard work involved.

Much the same thing happened when Kevin Rudd was toppled as prime minister. Because the press gallery had never seen anything of its kind before, it almost refused to believe that a prime minister, perceived to be successful, could be removed overnight.

One of the favourite topics of discussion for political commentators last year was how the federal election was a policy-free zone. Allegedly it was a contest between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. And for this the politicians were blamed, which is not surprising given that politicians get the blame for most things.

But maybe the media should look a bit closer to home. What's happened this week is a good example of the quality of the coverage of politics and policy in this country.