Forget the economy, there's blood in the water

The disconnect between economic and social reality and raw politics is likely to continue as the inevitable shenanigans of politicians are captured in brighter lights than ever before.

There’s often a sharp disconnect between today’s political discourse and actual reality and fact.

It was writ large in the nation’s home of democracy over the last few days as a ferocious and inelegant display of political bile took hold.

We watched as a 'class war' budget which redistributed taxes was taken apart; as a personally directed, but politically astute, prime time speech from the opposition leader was greeted by whoops and a standing ovation; as the pressure and exposure on the curious Craig Thomson was taken to new territory and as two old Liberal bulls went head-to-head in Melbourne in an utterly meaningless spat.

It all made for shrill headlines, more regime change commentary from lobbyists, hacks and even a defeated former prime minister, as well as the usual tabloid baying for an early election to end the crisis, the malaise and the torpor.

And somewhere in the midst of all this comes the flaky monthly unemployment figures.

Economists were at one: confidence was down, retailers were hurting, the economy was slowing and sure as night followed day unemployment would increase to 5.3 or 5.4 per cent. Even the salivating talking head on Sky News at 11.29am couldn’t wait for this fatal blow to be announced in one minute. Well, no – by some weird miracle the rate actually fell to 4.9 per cent.

So, it was another boring reminder: national growth at around 3 per cent, not unreasonable public debt, inflation beaten, an unprecedented investment pipeline, the books in fair shape, an envied (by other world leaders) credit rating, a socially cohesive society, and now one of the world’s lowest rates of those unemployed. And all this created in the world’s 13th largest economy.

But pure politics beats public policy, any day.

Peter Slipper, lamenting "trial by media” stands before his MP’s and solemnly steps aside from his role as speaker so he can deal with civil and criminal charges bought by a staffer. Craig Thomson – with three seconds to spare – also stands to announce he will come clean with a Parliamentary statement about all the extraordinary and detailed 156 FWA findings against him.

They were moves forced by a disciplined opposition scenting blood, numbers, wavering independents, a no-confidence motion and an election. It was all cleverly directed at the TV cameras, the online newspaper blow-by-blow coverage and radios across the land.

It’s not a revelation to make the point that today’s media landscape is unforgiving territory. Accusations are taken as fact. Rumours are news. (Just read Rupert’s tabloids yesterday and ask: why?) Opinion is preferred to news gathering and accurate reporting. News and analysis is instant. Answers are demanded, now.

Even Thomson fell into the media cycle trap in a revealing Saturday morning TV interview with Laurie Oakes in which he attempted to explain the unexplainable.

The media environment has never been more open and competitive. And it all means that the inevitable shenanigans of politicians are captured in brighter lights than ever before.

For any incumbent government, the heat is never off. This leads – in the case of the Gillard government – to timid saleswomanship, to a defensive mindset, to a seeming lack of conviction and, inevitably, to a seeping loss of public faith and trust.

A telling example has been its efforts to argue the historic case for taxing emitters of pollution as a disincentive to pollute.

The price on carbon which morphs into an ETS after three years is unarguably good public policy. It should be added to the list.

Yet the government’s budget – as well as its political pitch – on this issue is meek, mild or even non-existent. It seems afraid to face the consequences of good public policy. It prefers to hide behind a plea about "compensation for families”. It won’t admit the rationale for the policy was the long term human environment, not the short term hip pocket.

In other words, on this – as with other issues – it’s been spooked by the new media storm and by a focussed and relentless opposition.

Nothing much will change between now and the election. It won’t be Peter Costello and his denied unrequited ambitions but rather Slipper and Thomson – or even the ghost of Kevin Rudd – who will dominate the media hole for months yet.

We know front pages will always be about raw politics and polls – good, bad or indifferent. As an example, the quite remarkable front page of last Saturday’s Age newspaper tells us how political journalists are now central players in the business of running the country. That front page was nothing more than a vehicle for personal opinion and grudge.

What is inevitable in Australia is that disconnect between economic and social reality and raw politics will continue, unabated – and our nervous, frail politicians in government will pay the ultimate political price.

Alister Drysdale is a Business Spectator commentator and a former senior advisor to Malcolm Fraser and Jeff Kennett.

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