Political journalists pride themselves on being watchdogs who prevent abuse of power. Watchdogs are supposed to bark when they smell something suspicious. So how do you explain the news media sleeping through the exposé of suspicious secret correspondence between powerful friends in the Liberal government and the big banks? Are the watchdogs getting old and no longer have a scent for a story? Or worse, have they been muzzled by the powerful interests they are supposed to be watching?
This story is fascinating because the red-meat delivered to journalists came from an unusual source: – ACTU Secretary Sally McManus. On Tuesday afternoon 5 February 2019, the day after the Banking Royal Commission findings were handed down, the ACTU released letters they discovered through a Freedom of Information request.
These letters revealed a cosy friendship between the Liberal government and the big banks; so cosy the banks had a discussion with the Treasurer about how their possible misconduct would be investigated in a Royal Commission.
Recall on 30 November 2017 Prime Minister Turnbull and Treasurer Morrison announced plans for a Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry. The day before, on 29 November, the ACTU found Morrison received a letter marked DRAFT and ‘for discussion’ from then NAB chairman Ken Henry.
This letter laid out for Morrison the bank’s recommendations on the Royal Commission’s terms of reference, the type of person the Commissioner might be, how long the Commission would last, and assurances the banks were well behaved businesses, nothing to see here, move along.
The next morning, the day the Royal Commission was announced, an almost identical letter was sent to Morrison signed by the heads of the big four banks. Low and behold, the Banking Royal Commission was relatively short. McManus pointed out it was a year as compared to two years for the Abbott government’s Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption.
Of course there is no proof the Liberal government took advice from the banks in their design of the Banking Royal Commission. But the existence of the letters sent immediately before the Liberal government finally bowed to pressure from the Greens, Labor and their own backbench to hold a Banking Royal Commission, are highly suspicious. ACTU Secretary McManus said the letters were “another piece of evidence that the Morrison Government is protecting the big end of town.”
Social media audiences lapped the story up. In one week the ACTU’s video was viewed 210,000 times on Facebook and 73,000 times on Twitter. All this red meat, and the watchdogs slept through it. Two days after the social media release, the ACTU emailed union members asking them to share the video since they reported ‘Just one media outlet has covered this story – the ABC’. News.com.au and other News Ltd websites published the syndicated AAP video with a short caption, but never allocated a journalist to cover the story.
Where were the masthead watchdogs? Where was The Australian? Where was Fairfax? Or is Fairfax gone now? Where were the shock jocks and A Current Affair? Where was The Guardian? Where were the questions for Morrison about his correspondence with the banks? What could explain the media ignoring the ACTU’s investigation? In a week where journalists were barking for stories about the Banking Royal Commission, how was this story not a relevant contextual piece for how the Banking Royal Commission came to be? Asleep perhaps? Or muzzled by their owners who, as it turns out, also have a snug relationship with the powerful political class they’re supposed to be watching?
What makes this sleeping-dogs situation even stranger is the news media’s usual paranoia about news breaking without their input. Ever since the rise of social media, journalists have feared the threat of the audience finding news straight from the source and therefore bypassing the business model of the news media.
The ACTU’s decision to do their own journalism should be a worrying sign for the news industry. Freedom of Information requests are relatively easy to do. The ACTU showed any citizen journalist can place important information in the public’s hands by publishing it free-of-charge on the internet. Journalists chose to ignore this story, despite it being handed to them on a platter, but the ACTU reached a huge audience regardless.
There are plenty of journalists looking for work having lost their jobs in mainstream news rooms. Perhaps they will find homes in the media teams of political groups and organisations who have learned news stories don’t necessarily need to be mediated by traditional news media outlets; they can go direct.
If the old-school watchdogs are going to ignore red-meat, others will do their work for them. The public need the powerful to be held to account. If traditional journalists refuse to do it, someone else will fill the void.
The Liberals are playing the ref by tagging Labor’s dividend imputation policy a ‘retirement tax’. It is not surprising they see this as a productive strategy since the same thing worked with their carbon tax scare campaign.
Political journalists self-identify as watchdogs for democracy who hold the powerful to account by shining a light on the political system. This position places them between opposing political parties much like an umpire or referee neutrally enforces the rules of the game by calling out infringements.
But what happens when a team is infringing and the umpire fails to blow their whistle? Football fans know the loudest boo is reserved for bad umpiring. The rules are sacred. When they are flouted, the game is not fair, the cheaters prosper and sometimes it can even feel like the opposition has an extra player.
If rule-breaking becomes a winning strategy, umpiring business-as-usual needs an urgent review. Even with the best of intentions, if umpires are emboldening rule infringements or even encouraging blatant cheating, something urgent must be done to bring civility back to the game.
There is much discussion of journalism in crisis. Technological disruption, the rise of independent and social media and unprofitable business models are often cited as the problems. There is less analysis of how journalists’ media routines might be contributing to their own harm.
One of the most common routine formats which is supposed to represent balanced umpiring for reporting of politics is what media critic Jay Rosen refers to as ‘he said, she said journalism’. This style, however, turns journalists into stenographers rather than critical analysts of politics and is akin to an umpire ignoring the holding-the-ball rule while protecting their own credibility through the alibi of quotation marks.
Politicians take advantage of this media routine. They have learned they will get away with tucking the ball under their arm and striding boldly through the goal posts unencumbered by the whistle. The Liberal’s tagging of Labor’s dividend imputation policy as a ‘retirement tax’ is such an example of them successfully playing the ref.
By any definition, it is demonstrably false to depict Labor’s dividend imputation policy as a tax. No doubt journalists can see this for themselves. However, they have backed themselves into a corner by quoting directly Liberal government spokespeople and advertising which uses the phrase ‘retirement tax’. This coverage convinces the public Labor is introducing a new tax, thereby representing a distortion of reality.
The words ‘retirement tax’ are now in the public lexicon. The fake tax becomes a thing which is basically impossible for Labor to get rid of. The voting public rely on news media to tell them about politics. When the umpire fails to do their job, there are consequences not only for the health of democracy, but for the health of the journalistic profession. Who will ever trust the ump again?
It is not like journalists haven’t been here before and seen the damage for themselves. The Labor government’s Carbon Price was not a tax. Yet, from the very first day it was announced, the name of the policy was interchangeable with Tony Abbott’s tag of ‘carbon tax’. Using The Australian as an example, from the day Labor released the Carbon Price policy on 27 September 2010, the newspaper has referred to the carbon tax 7,735 times, as compared with the Carbon Price 2,260 times.
To add insult to injury, Gillard’s ‘failure’ to win this policy argument was then framed as her responsibility. For example, Ross Fitzgerald writing in The Weekend Australian on 30 July 2011 said the carbon tax debate was negative for Gillard because of her ‘flawed political judgment and poor communication skills’. By blaming the players for their poor result, the umpire maintains their self-perception as a neutral arbitrator of the rules and fails to see how their own actions have influenced, sometimes decisively, the terms of the debate.
In 2017, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s chief of staff, Peta Credlin, admitted the Carbon Price was not a carbon tax. She confessed the coalition ‘used that label to stir up brutal retail politics’. The players knew they were cheating. Why not if cheaters prosper? But what is the role of the umpire in brutal retail politics? According to The Australian’s Chris Kenny, ‘Scare campaigns are to politics what tough defence is to footy – an unavoidable part of the contest if you want to win’. When the umpires put down the whistle and see clear-as-day infringements as just par for the course, it is no wonder footy supporters are walking away from the game.
There is no such thing as Labor’s ‘retirement tax’. The Liberals are playing the ref by using journalists to pervert truth and in turn legitimise their misrepresentation. The Guardian’s Katharine Murphy said on ABC’s Insiders that Labor is ‘facing a battle to explain’ their dividend imputation policy. Labor have explained their policy numerous times. Of course it is up to journalists how they choose to frame such information.
Murphy agrees that calling the policy a ‘retirement tax’ is clearly not an accurate description. Outlets who parrot this Liberal phrase are misrepresenting and constraining public debate about the policy, serving no one’s interests except the Liberals’.
Journalists are under no obligation to uncritically repeat and adopt false information from the Liberal government. Footy is a game, but politics is not. The public need journalists to blow the whistle in the interests of democracy. If they continue to fail to do this, they are forgetting the very reason they exist.
They say a week is a long time in politics. Australia has just proven three weeks is an eternity. Although the days of the Liberal government seem to quickly be coming to an end, it’s still a shameful fiasco which reminds us that we’re just pawns in Liberal power games. That is why this post is a call to arms, a call to action, a call to the collective: a call for Solidarity Sunday.
So, what has happened in the last three weeks?
In a car-crash we couldn’t look away from, we saw Turnbull, Morrison and Dutton kick, scratch, claw and bite their way through a Morrison-orchestrated mud-wrestle. The Liberal Party was satisfyingly smeared with mud in the process, which was the major up-side. The major downside, however, has been watching Morrison simultaneously flooding the airwaves with vomit-inducing puff-piece-PR, while simultaneously invoking the-stuff-of-nightmares culture wars.
The Daily Telegraph has been running the charm-offensive, with ‘middle-Australia’ daggy dad photo ops and Howard-like-lowest-common-denominator waste-of-time media stunts, starting off on drought-stricken farms, moving to less than impressed toddlers, and of course the obligatory rugby-tackle-macho-press-conference. At the same time, this apparently happy-go-lucky larrikin Aussie bloke, who promised his happy-clappy religion wouldn’t interfere with his politics, has been proving me right when I said he most certainly was not a moderate. He’s gone turbo-charged-bigot by encouraging Australians to bully bisexual and trans teenagers. He’s asked a secular nation to pray that it rains. He’s brought up religious freedom again, to remind us that he didn’t want gay marriage, and he is willing to legislate to allow gay people to be discriminated against. Oh, and while this is going on, he’s also plagiarising his predecessor’s obsession with trade union bashing by calling for the deregistration of the CFMMEU, over a naughty word in a tweet. Morrison is literally trolling Australia.
These are just some of the lowlights of an extraordinarily bad start to Morrison’s term as PM, which includes the sick joke of making Abbott a ‘Special Envoy’ to Indigenous People, appointing an anti-wind-farm loony as Energy Minister, saying he wants to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, and of course standing by while Dutton heaps scandal on top of visas-for-rich-mates scandal, with no end to the potato-head-who-misled-parliament in sight. Just when we thought the Turnbull government couldn’t get any worse, Morrison popped up to show us that things can always get worse, and that when we said we wanted to see the back of the wet-lettuce-leaf-inept-Turnbull, we should have been careful what we wished for.
While this has all been going on, there have of course been other reasons to group-hug, to pull together, to show bravery in the face of adversity, to stand our ground: the Murdoch unravelling.
Again, the fireworks were fun, the popcorn was buttery, and the tweet stream as distracting as it’s ever been, but still, we face an uphill battle. This unravelling started with Chris Ulhmann’s on-air rant about Murdoch and shock-jock friends influencing the Libspill. Then Bruce Guthrie, ex Murdoch-editor jumped in and told us what we already knew: that Murdoch uses his media empire to campaign against his political rivals. Then, just to be sure, Kevin Rudd said – yep – totally true, the Murdoch media is run as a political party and is a ‘cancer eating at the heart of democracy’.
Amazing, isn’t it, how Murdoch can campaign against Labor every single day for my entire life, and suddenly when he decides a Liberal PM has to go, he’s crossed a line! Well, at least we’re talking about this now, and it’s all out in the open, so I can stop being called a conspiracy theorist.
The bad news, of course, is that Labor still has to deal with the fact that whether Murdoch wants puppet Turnbull, Morrison, Dutton or Abbott in the driver’s seat of his political arm, he most definitely does not want Bill Shorten. Now that the dust has settled, Murdoch’s minions are back obediently carrying out the core-business of ‘Killing-Bill’. That’s why all us tweeps need to protect our country, protect our collective interest, to stand together like a wall of ‘we will not be fucked with by the Liberal-Murdochracy’.
We need to defend ourselves against the oncoming anti-Labor onslaught that the Murdoch-media will heap onto us as we head into the next election, and we need to do this like never before. This could be Murdoch’s last chance at influencing an Australian election, so let’s make it his most disappointing result ever. Let’s kick Scott Morrison and his Liberal accomplices so far from office, they will never have a chance at screwing over our beautiful country ever again.
Who’s with me? #SolidaritySunday
No matter who wins the ultimate cage fight victory, we all know who the real leader of the Liberal Party is. Whether Turnbull prevails to limp wet-lettuce-leaf-like to defeat at the next election, whether ScoMo blusters and lectures his way into high office, or whether the potato-man leaps triumphant from the boiling pot without being skinned, we know none of them hold any authority. No, the real leader all along is Rupert Murdoch. Always was.
Don’t believe me? Watch this rant by Chris Uhlmann who is being called brave by many other senior journalists who never had the guts to say the same. In a nutshell, Uhlmann has admitted that media commentators and journalists have become players in the political process, making themselves part of the story, and changing political outcomes because of it.
Uhlmann seemed fed up that powerful right-wing commentators have been helping Dutton to spill Turnbull’s job, suggesting that the game has gone too far. This reminds me of when I was a child. My sisters and I would be skylarking around, and my mother would say: this is going to end in tears. Uhlmann is crying because he doesn’t like the way Dutton’s media supporters are behaving, but that’s not to say Uhlmann isn’t a player too. He knows the game well. How else do you think he’s got where he is?
It’s lucky I don’t mind saying – I told you so – because I did tell you so. I’ve been talking about the disastrous impact of media ‘playing’ in the political arena for as long as I’ve been blogging. All the while, I’ve been criticised by the very few journalists who engage with me, for being a conspiracy theorist, for being ‘a broken’, for not knowing what I’m talking about.
There’s this idealism amongst media players about their role in society. They see themselves as the ‘Fourth Estate’, as watchdogs on democracy, holding the government and the opposition to account, all in the name of the public interest. We’ve been told that this leads them to be pure, objective observers of reality, and that they provide fair and balanced coverage of all things political, in order to help voters decide which leaders are worthy of our votes. This idealism tends to result in some fairly arrogant attitudes amongst journalists, such as believing they know better than the public, that they can see political events more clearly than us, and that they are un-biased in their analysis of news, unlike us ‘cheerleaders’ who take a side and can therefore not be trusted to have credible views on anything.
The clash between folk like me, who question whether journalists should be reporting leaked information from, say, disgruntled staffers in a Labor MPs office, when there is clearly a political motivation behind the leak, and the journalists who constantly claim everything is above board and there’s nothing to see here, move along, has become more and more toxic in recent weeks. I’ve been blocked by many senior political journalists for complaining they are inserting themselves into political games rather than being the objective and fair custodians of truth that they claim to be. I’ve complained that they, intentionally or not, bias their reporting towards ready-made narratives, without hearing, or seeking alternative explanations. I’ve complained that balance doesn’t mean ‘he said, she said’, it means investigating both sides of a story and giving the reader a fair assessment of the credibility of both claims. If one side says it’s raining, and the other says it’s not, it’s the job of a journalists to look out the window and tell us which is correct. I know it’s not always as easy as that, but at the very least, journalists could try.
I know there are good journalists out there, but there are also terrible journalists out there. Lot’s of them. Let’s get this straight. You are not a watchdog on democracy when you are a player in the political process. This whole situation has been made worse by the number of media players who have stepped straight out of political roles, and into the news media. There are media players who gleefully talk of vendetta journalism, like it’s totally normal that a journalist would campaign against political opponents (I’m looking at you Sharri Markson). Sharri, incidentally, doesn’t appreciate Uhlmann’s comments, what a huge surprise, and claims she can single-handily assure the public that News Corp has had nothing to do with Dutton’s campaign, because apparently she knows everything that is going on in that entire organisation, and the Daily Telegraph are pure news reporters who don’t play political games, and also there are fairies living in my bathroom cabinet.
The point is, the cat is now out of the bag, and we all knew it was there all along. So what? You don’t need to be writing a PhD thesis on this stuff, which I currently am, to understand why it’s dangerous for media players to be so tangled, twisted, intertwined and meddling in the political process. These people claim to be speaking the truth to power, when really they’re distorting the only version of political reality the voters can realistically access, using the voice of the powerful. This means that powerful people, like Rupert Murdoch, can, on a whim, decide to change the Prime Minister of Australia, and his media-playing-employees go about making that happen. It’s the stuff of dictatorships. It’s the stuff of corrupt, fascist, bullying regimes where the public are misinformed in order to control them. This is not small fry. This is our country, and Rupert Murdoch is pulling the strings.
I’ll finish on this. Jacinda Ardern, the young, optimistic, proactive, kind, authoritative and competent Prime Minister of New Zealand is paving a truly impressive progressive agenda for her country, and she is doing so with popular support from the public. New Zealand doesn’t have any Murdoch media. Enough said.
On Monday night, I had the pleasure of being one of the first ‘people’ to sit on the Q&A People’s Panel. I had a great time telling Matt Canavan that he has to break up with coal. The one thing I did not enjoy, however, was Mitchell.
Mitchell Walton, one of the other ‘people’ on the panel, is a certified troll. Here is some of his skin-crawl-inducing-work from his now defunct social media feeds:
You might think the point of this post is to call out the Q&A producers for having a person with such deplorable views (yes I chose that word on purpose) on the People’s Panel. But, I actually don’t think it’s the ABC’s job to sanitise the cross section of the community for the television audience. The reality is, there are Mitchells out there-a-plenty. And the scary part is I don’t think Mitchell is as ‘fringe’ or ‘extreme’ as you might think. Have you been on Twitter lately? Watched parliament? The Q&A producers chose Mitchell to represent the right wing of politics, and I think he did that in spades. Sorry to break it to you everyone: Australia is still a very bigoted country.
I got to meet Mitchell in the green room before the show, and he was a fairly nondescript person who showed absolutely no clue of the dark resentful mess that spews into his social media feed. He mostly stood quietly, so I can only presume he was hyping himself up to be as controversial as possible.
It was fairly clear from the outset that he was on the show to bring the bigotry. His video entry mentioned his dislike of paying tax – an amusing statement by an ex-police officer who has a school teacher wife, and I was relishing the opportunity to discuss the inherent contradiction in these positions. But, alas, tax fell by the wayside when it came to his A’s for the Q’s: he brought with him a cocktail of misogynistic and homophobic views in his bigotry handbag (see above tweets), but he chose racism as his priority insult.
His overarching narrative encapsulated the simplistic (and entirely incorrect) scapegoating of every problem in the country as being the fault of non-white immigrants. It didn’t matter when people like me made the point that the Australian economy relies on immigration for economic growth (even the Australian says that!), because Mitchell, I can assure you, is not changing his mind. He clearly doesn’t like black or brown people, and appeared to get a wicked thrill from accusing them of wrecking everything, at every opportunity.
Most of what Mitchell said was a mix between babble and uninformed resentment aimed at immigrants. He tied his argument in knots by trying to overlay overt racism with a patronising tone of conciliatory reasonableness, which meant his statements petered out into vague dog whistling. Sound familiar? Mitchell surely learned from the best of them: Donald Trump. Or maybe he had tutors closer to home – he voted for Australia’s very own Trumpet – Tony Abbott, and said he has considered voting for Pauline Hanson or Cory Bernardi.
And why do you think Mitchell applied to be on the panel? He never said, but I can guess he hoped to build a political following. Perhaps he wants to be a shock jock. I’m sure Sky News would have him. Or, perhaps more likely, he wants to run for parliament – maybe as a One Nation candidate, or side by side with Cory Bernardi. Why wouldn’t Mitchell aspire to lead a nation that has leaders like Matt Canavan, who happily nodded along in agreement whenever Mitchell spoke, and joined his racist chorus in saying:
“But now, today, I’m worried that most of our migration gets concentrated in our major cities and there is a certain ghettoisation in some aspects of this, where there is parts of cities that are different cultures. Now, I want to maintain one culture in this country. We should have… We’re multicultural, but we should have one Australian culture we get behind, and I think it would be a lot better if we could spread our migration patterns around the country, perhaps like we did do in the past”.
Don’t think for a moment that Canavan doesn’t know his right wing base. He knows he is speaking to hundreds of thousands of Mitchells when he says ‘ghettoisation’, ‘one Australian culture’, ‘we’re multicultural, but…’ These are lines straight out of the ‘how to win votes by being racist’ song book. So, the problem is not that the ABC allowed Mitchell a platform. Don’t shoot the messenger. The problem is that the country elects people like Canavan, Hanson and Bernardi, who further embolden the worst side of our country – the Mitchells – to believe their most bigoted ideas and their most offensive thoughts make for great campaign material.
As I said in response to the first question on the panel, we get the government we deserve. If we democratically choose to undermine the values and civility of our great nation by laying down with dogs, we deserve all the vile fleas we get.
One of my daughter’s favourite bedtime stories is The Beast Beneath the Bed. The little boy in the book is scared of the beast beneath his bed – his scratchy snarls and little growls echo in the dark. These are the sounds of the beast messing up his room at night while he’s asleep. The boy loses his temper when the beast crosses a line by gobbling up his teddy bear; he yells: ‘stop it now, you fiend, you’ve messed up all my precious things and I like to keep them neat’. He then realises the beast is just as scared of him as he is of the beast. Once the boy gets to know the beast, they agree to compromise and get along, and end up wishing each other good night as they live happily ever after. The moral is, they each had different priorities in life – the beast likes mess, the boy likes order – and if they could just both compromise and find a common ground, they could get along fine.
I thought of this book as I watched the delicious live telecast of the Banking Royal Commission on Friday. For many years, left-wingers like me have been worrying and fearful about the capitalism beast beneath the bed. We have been watching the messy damage the beast has left in our communities, but we’ve been finding it difficult to articulate what to do about it. We’ve been too scared to address the idea of a beast so big, and struggled to give it a name. But, now that we’ve finally had our chance to meet this beast, to put it on the stand and interrogate its intentions, we find it is just a tanned celebrity Financial Planner by the name of Sam Henderson who lives on the Northern Beaches, loves surfing, skiing and crossfit. Once we meet this Sam, and we look at the damage he has done, and why he has done it, we, as a community, can see how things must change if we are to safely live with this beast, side by side. Now that we understand what led this beast to eat our teddy bear, we can finally understand what it will take for us all the get along with capitalism.
Don’t get me wrong, the Sam Henderson capitalism beast is a messy little shit. And, he is representative of a lot of other messy little beasts throughout not just the banking industry, but no doubt any industry with the profit motive. So, basically all of them. What we learned from our little delve into the world of Sam is that, if a capitalist can make money out of something, they will do it, and they will make whatever mess it takes to do it, as long as there is nothing standing in their way.
I thought of the beast beneath the bed swinging across the room on the boy’s lampshade, and falling bump onto the floor, as I watched Sam be probed, in excruciating detail, about how he came to almost lose $500,000 of Donna McKenna’s super balance. The only reason Sam failed in this planned-financial-ruin is because Donna, who is a Fair Work Commissioner, was savvy enough to check the recommendations of this financial planning ‘Practice of the Year’ before signing on the dotted line and picked up the ‘error’ the messy Sam had made while racing to charge her big bucks for financial advice.
Sam’s mess included him having to admit he knew one of his employees impersonated Donna between 6 and 8 times to get her super account details from the fund she was in, while simultaneously claiming he didn’t know why his employee would do this. The mess included Sam admitting he advertised himself as having a Masters of Finance degree he had never actually graduated from. The mess also included Sam referring to the complaint Donna made about him to his professional body – Financial Planning Australia (FPA) – as ‘knit picking’. We saw evidence of Sam threatening the FPA that if they didn’t treat him well throughout the complaint process, he would make life hard for them with fellow-FPA-member colleagues.
Here lies the problem. Since when has it ever been a good idea for beasts to join together in a beastly fashion and investigate their own beastly mess? Taking a wider view, as I’ve said, Sam is just one of many beasts, in just one of many beastly capitalist industries. Now that we see the mess these beasts are making, and the failure of their bullied-self-funded-so-called-professional-beastly-bodies to clean up this mess, the little boys – the community – the society in which we live – must take back control of this capitalist beast. If they won’t behave, we need to set down some rules for us to live happily side by side. If they don’t follow these rules, they should be banished from our bedrooms.
The little boy compromises with the beast by making a special deal: he would ‘let him play with all his toys, if he promised not to steal’, and the beast agreed not to eat the boys shoes if he left him out some bread. So, as a community, represented by our government, we should agree with the beasts that we will let them keep making money by giving financial advice, let them keep eating their bread, if they agree to adhere to strict, legislated regulations which protect the community from their wilful disregard for our needs. Our needs include not being ripped off. Not having our teddy bears gobbled up. Not being screwed over in the role of consumer, and worker. Not having our lives made a mess by unconstrained-greed-from-messy-capitalist-beasts.
I’m so glad we’ve now met this beast, and we can urgently begin the process of legislating regulations to keep it in check. The only way the community can sleep well at night with a beast beneath the bed, is if that beast is forced to behave correctly. We live in a capitalist society, and whether people like it or not, this system is not about to change. The point is, we don’t have to be fearful of capitalism, and in fact we can get along with capitalism, once we name the beast, and rein in its mess. Now we understand how this mess is made, we’re in a much stronger position to do this. Bring on the regulations, properly and independently enforced. Let’s change the rules.
Some say the purpose of the Greens is to pull Labor to the left. This strategy is justified by Greens voters as a way to ‘keep the bastards honest’, and is often coupled with misleading and unthinking statements such as ‘Labor and Liberals are just as bad as each other’.
I understand the theory here is that the more MPs Greens get into parliament, the more they can hold Labor to ransom on environmental policies and asylum seekers. But, when the reality of this position is that Greens block environmental policies such as Labor’s ETS because ‘it doesn’t go far enough’, yet then help the Liberals to pass pension cuts, I’m not sure how this is successful in practice.
When the Greens refuse to work constructively with the Gillard government to develop a regional solution to manage asylum seeker arrivals, because ‘it is not onshore processing’, only then to have Sarah Hanson-Young admit later that a policy like the Malaysian Solution, where asylum seekers are processed overseas before being flown to Australia, might be something the Greens would consider, it appears the Greens are less interested in working constructively with Labor to ensure policies are ‘left wing’, and instead are more interested in blocking Labor’s attempt to make progress.
The other problem with this ‘pull Labor’ theory is that it doesn’t pull Labor to be more left-wing. This is because most of the people who have left Labor to support the Greens, are from Labor’s left-flank. So, by losing numbers on the left, Labor’s right-flank is strengthened, which clearly won’t do anything to pull Labor to the left.
Others, like Ben Eltham in New Matilda, claim the Greens exist to govern in Coalition with Labor. This is a far preferable option for a Labor supporter like me, as rather than having the Greens constantly fighting against Labor, it would be to everyone’s betterment if Labor and Greens worked constructively as a team. However, the only hole in this theory is that, as far as I can tell, the Greens aren’t trying to steal seats off Liberals to make the Labor and Greens coalition unbeatable on the floor of the parliament. Instead, they are putting all their energy and resources into taking Labor’s inner-city seats.
Apart from a strong attempt at unseating Kelly O’Dwyer in the wealthy inner-city Victorian seat of Higgins, with the Greens candidate Jason Ball placing second in the 2016 election, the biggest recent campaigns from the Greens have been in Labor-held inner-city seats. Bandt took Melbourne from Labor after Lindsay Tanner retired in 2013, and in 2016, focused on taking the seats of Labor’s Tanya Plibersek in Sydney and Labor’s Anthony Albanese in Grayndler. So, if the Labor Greens coalition is going to happen, clearly the Greens want Labor to do the heavy lifting of winning seats off the government. Not really helping.
What about the Green elephant in the room that not many will admit is there? This, I would argue, is the real reason the Greens exist, as evidenced through their behaviour, and that is to replace Labor as the major party of the left. Bob Brown himself admitted to this when he said ‘we don’t want to keep the bastards honest, we want to replace them’. This week, former Queensland Greens candidate, Ben Pennings echoed Brown when he wrote ‘Rather than drag Labor slightly to the left, maybe it’s time for The Greens … to ‘cut out the middle man’ and replace them…?’.
Now the elephant has been identified, I want to talk about it. How exactly do the Greens plan to replace Labor as the major party of the left? Do they want to develop attractive progressive policies that address wealth inequality in order to persuade voters through real-life outcomes to make Australians better off? Judging by Greens leader Richard Di Natale’s cynical grab for conservative votes in Batman by calling Labor’s dividend imputation changes an ‘attack on so many people in this community’ the answer to this is no. Do they want to focus on local issues in each electorate, dependant on the varying needs and wants of the voters there, and do the hard yards work of incrementally improving their circumstances through the slog of parliamentary negotiation and legislative advancement? Not that I can see. Or, do they want to campaign with ‘stop Adani’ sloganeering and by framing the Liberal’s inhumane treatment of asylum seekers as the work of the Labor Party, without offering any alternative policy solutions to actually help solve these complex policy issues? I think you can answer that one. So, if they’re not doing the policy work to replace Labor, what exactly are the Greens doing to win Labor’s inner-city seats?
The Greens are waiting for inner city suburbs to gentrify to the point where working-class Labor voters no longer live there. It’s the demographics stupid. Let’s look at the Batman by election. A lot was written about the Bell Street divide, such as this New Daily article aptly titled ‘The hipster-proof fence’.
The map of booth results from the 2016 election shows clearly that the northern side of the Bell Street divide, furthest away from the city, are still committed to Labor. According to Real Estate.com, the Batman suburb of Reservoir in the north has a median house price of $825,000. A suburb on the southern, inner-city Greens side of divide, Northcote, comparatively has an average house price half a million higher at $1,325,000. That’s quite a wealth-divide.
So, do the Greens claim it is just a coincidence that their voters live in more expensive houses, on the richest side of the electorate? When commentators, ad nauseam, say Labor’s inner-city seats are ‘under threat from the Greens’, do they realise what they are really saying is: traditional Labor voters have been priced out of this electorate and the class who have moved in don’t align themselves with Labor working class values and are therefore not buying what Labor is selling?
I have always found it odd how offended people get when their privilege is pointed out to them, but the truth is, Greens voters, by and large, are in the privileged position of not needing, and therefore, not caring as much as Labor voters do about Labor’s policy priorities.
Where Labor campaigns to save Medicare, to raise the minimum wage and save penalty rates, to fund public schools and to make work more secure, Greens voters needs are met in these areas and therefore they aren’t turned on by this message.
Greens voters, by and large, are less likely to be living in public housing, less likely to be struggling to pay the rent, and are much less likely to have seen their manufacturing jobs disappear, and are more likely to be in white-collar professions where wage rises are negotiated without union involvement. How else do they afford million-dollar homes in gentrified inner-city seats? So, with these needs met, they look elsewhere for a political message to resonate and they find it in the party promising to focus on humanitarian issues and environmental protection.
There is nothing wrong with being privileged. I would far prefer rich inner-city voters chose Greens than Liberals. And there is obviously nothing wrong with caring a lot about asylum seeker policy and environmental problems like climate change. I’m a Labor supporter and I care deeply about these issues too. But, when Greens focus solely on these issues as an electoral strategy to divert progressives away from Labor, with a narrow view of political progress that excludes the most disadvantaged in society, people who couldn’t dream of affording to live in Northcote, are they really helping the progressive cause? Are they really helping to make Australia a more progressive country to live in by stealing gentrified seats from Labor? I don’t believe they are.
You often hear Greens voters say ‘Labor lost me with XYZ asylum seeker policy’. Perhaps what they’re really saying is ‘Labor lost me when I lost the need for Labor policies’. The sad part is that while Greens take Labor policies for granted, and battle to take Labor seats, even when Liberals are in government, trashing the environment and doing all manner of vindictive harm to asylum seekers, who is really winning? It sure isn’t Labor. And it’s not the Greens. So how did we end up here again?
During the recent South Australian election, take a guess how many Labor policy announcements made the front page of The Advertiser, the State’s only major newspaper? If you guessed zero, you would almost be right. In fact, there were only two – a promise by Labor to invest in TAFE, and even then it was half a tiny corner article, worth 36 words, with the other half given to a Liberal election pledge, and Labor’s loans for solar panels and batteries, again a handful of words, and sitting beside a Liberal promise. You’ll need a magnifying glass to spot the articles on the front pages below:
So, what happened to all Labor’s other policy announcements? Why didn’t any of them make The Advertiser front page? And how many times were they mentioned in the rest of the newspaper?
Between the end of January, up until election day on March 17, Labor launched a whole suite of policies which never made headline news in The Advertiser. Some of these big announcements included a new renewable energy Virtual Power Plant consisting of solar panels for 50,000 low-income households, the removal of seven level crossings, extending the tramline to the eastern suburbs, the success of job creation policies to bring multinational companies to SA to which Labor attributes 9,000 new high skilled jobs, access to a superfast NBN for Adelaide households and businesses, an interest-free loan scheme to help give first home-buyers access to a 25% deposit, labour laws protecting workers’ from unsafe workplaces and exploitation, investment in 600 new housing trust homes, waiving stamp duty and registration for 5 years for electric vehicles, laptops for high school students, and free meningococcal vaccinations for all babies.
Not one of these major Labor election announcements made the front-page of The Advertiser during the election. Sure, I’m a Labor voter and a member of the party, so I would appreciate the steady stream of progressive policy announcements filling my social media feed. But, I’m also a South Australian. Whether I’m a Labor voter or not, these policies benefit the entire community. That is why the public have a right to know about them before they go into a polling booth.
If you would like to review the front pages for yourself before you call me a self-interested hack, here they are:
There are health failures (all Labor’s fault!) Oakden coverage galore (Labor shame!), over-crowded classrooms (Labor mismanagement!), you get the drift.
So, what coverage did Labor policy announcements get in the rest of the paper? A search of Labor policy announcements in The Advertiser during the election campaign from February 1 to March 17 provides some truly alarming results.
- 8 mentions of Labor’s Virtual Power Plant, including letters to the editor
- 4 mentions of Technicolour’s announcement of 500 new jobs
- 3 mentions of Labor’s plan to remove level-crossings
- 2 mentions of Labor’s free meningococcal vaccinations
- 3 mentions of Labor’s superfast broadband plan
South Australian voters who rely on their political news from The Advertiser would have had to scour the paper every single day to find news of Labor policy announcements. The information that was useful to them in the election booth just wasn’t provided.
But, there were plenty of Labor stories – they were all mostly about one thing. The Oakden aged care facility ‘scandal’. The Advertiser had 89 articles specifically about or mentioning Oakden, including 5 front-page articles, making this ‘Labor scandal’ the election-topic-priority for Labor throughout the election campaign. Here it is on the front page – OUR DAY OF SHAME.
The Liberals, who ran a small-target campaign, riding off the 3% redistribution and the ‘Labor’s been in too long’ narrative, didn’t make anywhere near as many election policy announcements as Labor. But, even so, the Liberals still managed to get their laughable ‘the tram will now turn left’ infrastructure announcement on the front page (where Labor’s tram extension to Norwood was absent), and a full front page for their plan to create an Indigenous Art Gallery.
And of course, Xenophon, the shiny-stunt-man, who is apparently very good at tricking journalists into over-egging his election chances, got his Labor-bashing demand for a Royal Commission into SA Health on the front page and had three full front pages positioning him as ‘King Maker’. Let the record show he came third in his own seat and picked up zero lower-house seats. This is the man touted as the possible future Premier?
Then there are the other stories missing from the front page. You can guess which ones. The bumps in the Liberal’s election campaign, which if they were Labor stories, would be wall-to-wall coverage. The ‘mysterious’ Sally Zou tweeting a $1.2 million cheque made out to the SA Liberal Party, where mystery means ‘we have no idea where her money is coming from’. No coverage. The $800,000 already donated by Zou to the SA Liberals, and Steven Marshall hosting Zou numerous times at his home. No coverage. The SA Electoral Commissioner ruling the Liberals had mislead the public in promising a $300 power bill reduction. No coverage. Again, you get the drift. Imagine if Labor had even a whiff of any of this going on during the election campaign? What would the front-page look like then? I don’t have to imagine.
I also want to pay particular attention to the one time Labor’s renewable energy agenda did make the front page, in this report about Labor’s previously announced 75% renewable energy target. Note the framing here. The photo of Jay Weatherill deliberately chosen to appear negative and surly. The mini-headline calling the 75% target controversial – see my post about the media framing Labor policies as ‘unpopular’ or ‘controversial’ or ‘facing backlash’ in order to make Labor policies unpopular, controversial or facing a backlash. No mention of the jobs bonanza from SA’s renewable energy push. No mention of the benefits to the environment. No mention of cheaper power bills. Sigh.
No doubt the ever-defensive Advertiser journos would point to the smattering of Labor renewable energy election policy coverage that was included ‘somewhere’ in their newspaper, or on The Advertiser’s pay-walled website, and claim they had the policy ‘covered’. But, they know as well as I do that the front page is where the news agenda is set, and the policy priorities are editorialised. How many voters read on page 17 that the Labor government’s Tesla battery had already saved households $37 million from their power bills in just 3 months? PAGE 17.
You might think this post is finished, but there’s more. If you can believe it, and by now, I’m sure you can, eventually a Labor election policy did make the front page of The Advertiser. Yep, you guessed it – three days after the election, after the Liberals narrowly defeated Labor, the headline on the front page of The Advertiser is this:
PROTECT OUR KIDS
EXCLUSIVE: Call for Marshall to fund meningococcal B jab program
When I pointed out the rank hypocrisy of The Advertiser urging, on their front page, the new Liberal government to adopt a Labor policy after the election is said and done, a Labor policy which only got scant mention on page 4 and 5, with less than 200 words total, Greg Barila, a journalist at The Advertiser, jumped in to defend his newspaper.
‘Probably because there more pressing issues unfolding during a remarkable election campaign’.
What, like the Oakden scandal? Face = palm.
Whether Labor’s policy announcements were ideologically banned or accidentally left off the front page and given bare minimum coverage inside, the result is the same. And remember, this is just one example, from one election – a case study which speaks volumes about the culture of political journalism in Australia, a culture dominated by the Murdoch Media. It’s not just that there are never positive stories about the outcome of Labor policies. Labor has surely become used to that. It’s that it doesn’t matter what Labor does – what policies they announce, or what the outcomes of these policies are – the Murdoch media don’t give them a fair showing in their publications.
It is impossible to prove whether the political affiliation of the staff at the Murdoch owned newspaper, or the right-wing worldview of Murdoch himself, influences the anti-Labor bias of Murdoch newspapers. It’s possibly a little from column A, and a little from column B. It is also impossible to say whether the lack of awareness of Labor’s major policy announcements amongst The Advertiser reading electorate has any influence on the election outcome. The Advertiser, now pay-walled online, like all Murdoch newspapers, has declining readership and influence, with a broken business model unlikely to outlive Murdoch himself. But that’s not the point. The point is, elections are the community’s chance to decide what they want their state to be. If Labor never get a chance to put their case forward, democracy is the loser.
Oh, and I’ll just leave this here, shall I?
There is a line in the brilliant Anat Shenker-Osorio’s book Don’t Buy It which Labor should use as their mantra when developing policies and communicating them. Attributed to political advertising expert Ryan Clayton, Anat says:
‘a winning message is one that engages the base, persuades the middle, and provokes the opposition to reveal its true colors’.
Too often, Labor seems to be trying to appease voters by being all things to all people. But this usually results in beige policy, and bland messaging which doesn’t cut through, and doesn’t rouse support.
It’s obvious why Labor does this. It’s particularly obvious to me, who is half-way through a PhD researching the way media reports industrial relations disputes and Labor policy. Labor, understandably, are wary of the media’s reaction to their policy announcements. And they have every right to be.
The patterned response by the media is the same whenever Labor offers up a progressive policy. Let’s use the example of the mining tax (which incidentally was the topic of my honours thesis).
Step 1: Labor announces the policy.
Progressives take a look and are impressed, noting that it is tackling wealth inequality and the two-speed economy, sharing the wealth from the sale of minerals owned by the entire community with that community.
Step 2: The triple-pincer-movement of opposition to the mining tax erupts.
The Liberal Nationals, mining company owners and the mainstream media commence a campaign of hyperbole, threats, doom and gloom, telling voters the latest Labor Great Big Tax is going to ruin us all, jobs will be lost everywhere, food will be taken out of children’s mouths, and the economy will retaliate against the little guys who should get back in their box and stop expecting wealth to be shared.
At this point I should note that my research showed 75% of mining tax newspaper articles from the day the policy was released, to the day the campaign culminated in Rudd being ousted as PM, shared the same ‘economy will suffer from the mining tax’ narrative as the Liberals and mining executives. So maybe not every article, but a dominant majority.
Step 3: The triple-pincer-movement discreetly shifts the doom and gloom narrative from complaining about the mining tax, to claiming it is an electoral problem for Labor.
This is a very clever strategy that certain vested-interests in the media use, fed no doubt by media ‘liaison’ from fellow pincers, to generate public opposition against Labor policies.
Simply, the media reports there has been a ‘backlash’ against the policy, and that creates a backlash against the policy. In a subtle form of agenda setting, the media know the news audience takes more notice of an issue when it is costing Labor votes than they do when it’s just the mining executives complaining about having to pay tax.
Where else have I seen this strategy used recently? Oh yes – Labor’s dividend imputation changes. Of course with any taxation change, there will be ‘losers’. In this case, Labor announced on the same day as they launched the policy that 200,000 non-tax-paying shareholders would stop receiving dividend cash back from the government. Immediately, journalists raced to find evidence of ‘backlash’ against the policy by framing these 200,000 shareholders as victims of a Labor policy.
Immediately, Labor was framed as villainously engaged in a ‘$59b grab’ – you grab something you’re not entitled to – therefore Labor was in the wrong for grabbing money from poor shareholder victims. And these victims were given various soap-boxes to tell their sad tale of victimhood, as evidence of the backlash against villainous Labor.
Then the narrative quickly shifted, in time for elections on the weekend to ‘how dumb of Labor to release a policy which incurs backlash on the same week as a state election and a Federal by election’. Greens leader Richard Di Natale piled on, trying to ‘capitalise on the backlash Labor has received’ and it certainly didn’t end well for him. History will show Labor won the by election and lost the state election, albeit with a 1.5% swing towards. But I digress.
The point of the imaginary backlash, or the focus on a very small number of unhappy well-off-people in the great scheme of things, which is to be expected when inequality is finally being addressed, or the focus on just the downsides of the policy, and not the upsides, is that the media is bringing about a certain response to the policy, by manipulating their reporting in favour of that certain response to a policy.
Back to the mining tax. In fact, the policy was broadly popular. As this Essential poll shows, the Minerals Resource Rent Tax, after the pincer-movement-sky-is-falling campaign against it, and by the time the Liberal Party got their wish of using the promise to axe the tax to win an election, was supported by 52% of the population. Not exactly a mandated backlash then.
But there’s something even more important in this poll, which takes me back to Anat: ‘a winning message is one that engages the base, persuades the middle, and provokes the opposition to reveal its true colors’.
Look at the mining tax poll figures broken down by parties:
Approve of mining tax:
Labor voters: 76%
Greens voters: 79%
Liberal voters: 33%
Disapprove of mining tax:
Labor voters: 12%
Greens voters: 12%
Liberal voters: 55%
The base is clearly engaged. The middle is being happily persuaded; 33% of Liberal voters approve of the policy and therefore it can safely be assumed some of them might vote accordingly. Remember, Labor only needs a very small margin of people to stop voting Liberal and vote Labor in order to blitz the next election. A 3% swing would give Labor 14 additional seats. And the last bit – making the opposition reveals its true colours?
This is where Labor needs to embrace the obvious, predictable and reliable scare campaign that is thrown at them every time they introduce a Labor-values policy. And that includes the media. What do I mean by this? In the initial policy release, Labor should state in no uncertain terms that they expect the triple-pincer-movement – the Liberals, big business (the very rich) and their cheer squad in the media – to be enraged by the policy. Shorten did this nicely on the Today show, saying ‘I’m going to choose the battler over the top end of town’.
When the triple-pincer movement strikes, this just shows how the policy is the right thing to do. Because they would say that, wouldn’t they? The pincers don’t want to do something about inequality (show their true colours), and Labor do. The pincers always stick up the top end of town, and never the little guy (show their true colours), and Labor do. The media don’t report Labor policies in a fair and balanced way – and Labor should make this point clear.
ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr says he is over the mainstream media, and I agree with him. There are thankfully growing opportunities for Labor to bypass the traditional news, to reach the voters directly, opportunities they are clearly embracing. But, while they still rely predominantly on the mainstream media to inform the public of new Labor policies, the best way to develop a winning message – to engage the base and persuade the middle, is to heap the mainstream media in with the other pincers, who show their true colours like clockwork every time.
Case Study 1: Jean is retired with a large self-managed super fund. She receives $29,810 in dividends from bank shares and $130,000 from other assets. As the fund is in the pension phase, and pays $0 tax. Jean is currently entitled to a $12,775 rebate. Under Labor, Jean would lose that.
Now, let’s just get something straight right up front. Jean only ever got this cash back in the first place because Howard and Costello wanted to sure up her vote in case she was tempted by racism to vote for Pauline Hanson. This is not a usual way for governments to manage shareholders and company tax – Australia is only one of four countries that offers such a scheme and the original dividend imputation policy designed by the Keating government had no such rort, I mean perk. I meant rort actually.
But, now that we know about Jean, who ‘would lose that’, I think this is the perfect time for us to talk about Jean. We should thank the Herald Sun for kicking off this healthy discussion.
Let’s start at the beginning. We knew the Liberals, in concert with their media arm, the Murdoch press, would launch a propaganda scare campaign against Labor’s very sensible, fiscally responsible, wealth-inequality battling policy to no longer give self-funded retirees cash they don’t need. How did we know? Because that’s what the Liberals and their media arm, the Murdoch press, exist to do. The sky is falling. Everyone is ruined. The economy will rise up like an angry god and smite us all for hurting those who have bestowed trickle-down wealth upon us. And so on and so forth.
I must admit, it’s a sad turn of events that the likes of Leigh Sales on ABC’s 730 is also playing this game, seeking out Lyle-we need those dividends to live-Essery, to show their sad sad faces on TV, to tell Labor how naughty and mean they are for hurting Jean and Lyle, who did nothing to deserve this. But that’s the thing. Jean and Lyle did do nothing to deserve this magical cash-back bribe from Howard and Costello, other than possibly considering voting for Pauline Hanson, and no one should be rewarded for that dirty idea.
But, now that the likes of Jean, and the ABC’s Lyle, are all over the media sharing their suffering, and being given a national audience to urge people not to even consider voting for the possibly-Communist Labor Party who want to spend Jean and Lyle’s cash-back on evil things like schools, healthcare, income tax cuts for workers who haven’t had a pay rise in years, and have the highest house prices and power bills of any generation ever, I have three questions:
1) Why am I meant to be sympathetic to Jean and her poor share portfolio, but I’m not being asked to be sympathetic to people with disabilities and the unemployed who are constantly being bullied and threatened by the Turnbull government who is working as hard as they can to pull their social safety net out from under them, leaving them destitute and possibly homeless? Could they possibly move in with Jean?
2) Related to the above, why is cutting welfare spending framed as a perfectly legitimate government policy, responsible in fact, in order to do the ‘heavy lifting’ job of ‘budget repair’ in response to a supposed ‘debt and deficit disaster’, but saving billions by not giving people with share portfolios most of us could never dream of owning, nor the tax accountants to minimise our tax to zero to help fund it, is apparently bad bad bad?
3) Why does Lyle get to tell his sad ‘my share portfolio might need to be rearranged’ story on TV, but we don’t get to hear the stories of workers who are locked out of their work for asking for a pay rise, or the people being villainised for being unemployed, or the families of children who attend underfunded schools, or the single-mother who can’t afford to take her child to the doctor because of Liberal cuts to Medicare? Why do the Liberals and the media, not just Murdoch-run, but Fairfax and the ABC as well, give Jean and Lyle a run, but don’t tell the other side of the story?
I would like to talk about this please. Because, the problem is not just this story. This same situation happens time and time again, political story after political story, the frame is always the same. I think Jean is just the wakeup call this country’s political landscape needs. What is the society we really want, and how are the Liberals, their media-arm and their rusted-on self-entitled Liberal voting Jeans and Lyle’s stopping us getting that? And if we’re really serious about doing something about wealth inequality, how are we going to get there with this tsunami of elite and powerful opposition against positive change? Answers can be posted below, cheers.