The question from the journalist said it all.
Julia Gillard stood quietly in front of a bunch of Australian scribes in Los Cabos, Mexico just before a meeting of world G20 leaders, and dutifully took a few questions.
“Prime minister, there’s a Galaxy poll out today which shows Labor’s still behind. Why isn’t Labor getting the benefits of the boom?”
I won’t trouble you with her dismissive non reply.
It’s the nature of things in politics these days and it happened – coincidentally – within hours of Fairfax and News Limited announcing once-in-a-century restructuring of how journalism is delivered to eyeballs and ears.
Gillard and her ministers have wondered for 12 months why a nation the "envy of the world" has turned its back on the government and policies that helped deliver that sobriquet.
They wonder why the Liberals are still the preferred party to manage the economy, interest rates, health and education policy – and boats, no doubt.
They wonder privately and publically if the opposition's relentless and disciplined response to the “world’s biggest carbon tax” will be proved to be just a great big scare, nothing more.
Well, they should stop wondering. It won’t change – and part of the reason was encapsulated in that telling question about polls.
It was also writ-large in Mexico with The Australian’s shonky claims – repeated with gusto by the ABC and SBS – about Gillard being lectured by the head of the EU Commission. She’s a target and a by-product of a broader game.
Journalists in Canberra-land are fixated with politics – not public policy. They report on leadership speculation, weekly and fortnightly opinion polls, scandals, ministerial sackings (think the Howard era), operational blunders (think pink batts), staff shenanigans and so on.
The big stuff – taxation policy, nation building infrastructure priorities, the Asian opportunity, the role of modern federalism – can occasionally be found in the middle of the paper, the purview of specialist commentators, lobbyists, economists, academics and ex-politicians.
It’s all worthy, but it doesn’t connect out in mainstream voter-land. It fails to make the flimflam of the commercial networks' 6pm news – or even the ABC news these days.
Another reason the Gillard government is swaying in the breeze without, in Paul Keating’s words, “a convincing and persuasive narrative,” is even more basic – the prime minister lacks the capacity to inspire with ordinary words.
Her strengths are negotiation skills (ask Tony Abbott, who competed fiercely for the vote of the Independents after the 2010 election), her noted personal warmth and her public resilience.
But in politics, words and style increasingly matter.
Too often Gillard, Wayne Swan, Greg Combet, Jenny Macklin, Bill Shorten, Stephen Smith – you name them – seem to be on auto-pilot as they trot out the same old clichés and slogans that have been given birth in some ALP focus group of “battlers”.
The exception is Anthony Albanese who’s got a touch of the PJK’s when it comes to painting pictures and scouring the political landscape.
The only time Gillard has seemed remotely comfortable in recent times – or even herself – was on the ABC’s Q&A just a couple of weeks ago. But it was the wrong audience – hardly a viewer who would consume the morning tabloids.
Her attempts on the other side of the world to bat away those claims about her EU “lectures” lacked spark. She went through the motions, as she does these days with the Canberra press gallery.
Perhaps it’s a cheap sideline shot from an old fart to blame media fixations and political 'style' for the Governments woeful standing. Of course, many will argue that lousy policies are the reason.
But maybe the real cause is the Canberra mirror. Ministers seem so self-obsessed and swept up in the news cycle with a desperate need to be watched and heard – on any topic.
Whatever the day’s salivating issue – a miscreant footballer, a TV talent show winner, an errant Bishop, a natural disaster somewhere, a court decision – you can be sure the politician will be asked about it at a stage managed event, and plunge in. They’re happy – they’re on telly.
They’ll constantly appear on unwatched loop-to-loop cable TV shows answering dumb and irrelevant questions that have nothing whatsoever to do with their portfolio – and when they stumble it's “gotcha” and becomes news everywhere (think Bill Shorten and “I don’t know what the PM said, but I agree with her”). Of course, Twitter is now staple fare – let’s be clever and really communicate!
For the government, there’s not a vote in it. For the opposition, it’s manna.
These days even announcements of new public policy to a business audience or a think tank are leaked to a favoured scribe or scribes and are published before they are delivered. No need to attend the function Mr Businessman – the speech is already in the paper.
I can’t recall the last time, heaven forbid, a government actually used the Parliament to make a newsworthy policy announcement – and force attendance by the media. It just doesn’t happen.
So the real political debate is swept along as part of the news cycle noise. It’s just there in the background.
It goes centre stage only when we’re stopped in our tracks by terrible events such as asylum seekers drowning en masse on the high seas. We realise how low and putrid the business of Australian politics has become.
When Tony Abbott assumes the prime ministership late next year, he won’t be leading a minority government and he won’t have the big media players and editors hounding him – they will be encouraging him, especially with his “blood oath” commitment to repeal the Carbon Tax.
He’ll be operating in a world with Rupert omnipresent and Gina cheering. Even so, it will be nigh on impossible for him and his team to resist these bright lights, or alter the twittering superficial way the game is played.
Of course, it goes without saying that political reporting will remain, as ever, 'fair and balanced', objective and edifying.
It’s just that you will have to go and painstakingly search it out and forensically test it because what’s served up on today’s plate is far too often, in Gillard’s forgotten words, mere “crap”. And no amount of tilling the media landscape will alter that.
Alister Drysdale is a Business Spectator commentator and a former senior advisor to Malcolm Fraser and Jeff Kennett.
All the news that's fit to ignore
When Tony Abbott assumes the prime ministership late next year, he won’t have the big media players and editors hounding him – he’ll be operating in a world with Rupert omnipresent and Gina cheering.
The question from the journalist said it all.
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