The age of the slogan is finally over

Healthy national debate cannot subsist on three-word slogans. Unfortunately for Tony Abbott the media isn't playing his game anymore.

Just because the national media embraced the role of he-said-she-said automatons during the 43rd parliament is no reason to assume it will continue to do so. Prime Minister Tony Abbott is learning that very quickly.

Journos and commentators who were happy, for whatever reason, to regurgitate slogans such as ‘end the waste’, ‘scrap the tax’ and ‘stop the boats’ to help chuck out the ‘worst government ever’ with its addiction to ‘debt and deficit’ are just not playing ball any more.

And they are being served up a smorgasbord of errors and broken promises to pick apart.

Abbott did promise to match Labor’s school funding model, dollar for dollar, for four years – before reducing that to one year, de-funding it, re-funding it and re-instating something like Labor’s policy again.

He did promise 12,000 public service job cuts that he now thinks are mostly covered by Labor’s pre-existing efficiency dividend. Oops.

And he did poison voters’ view of Australia’s modest federal debt – before asking to be allowed to borrow a lot more.

Moreover, having denounced the Greens as economic fringe-dwellers, the Coalition last night relied on their support to agree to a deal to remove the debt ceiling altogether in return for more transparent reporting of what’s being put on the national credit card.

There are successes, of course, though they are not without political controversy. The boats are mostly stopping, but the push to reintroduce Howard era-style temporary protection visas has been knocked back in the Senate.

The upper house will probably thwart the Coalition’s repeal of the carbon and mining taxes as well, at least until the new Senate sits in July.

In passing, it’s worth remembering that government control of the Senate beyond July is far from guaranteed. Even assuming that Palmer United Party senators vote with Abbott, he may not have the numbers if a re-run of the West Australian Senate election goes ahead – and that still looks 95 per cent certain, given that Labor, the Greens, the Palmer United Party and even the Australian Electoral Commission think the count was unfair. The High Court will make that decision in its own good time (probably early next year).

Only the Coalition is biting its tongue about the WA issue – a new half-Senate election for that state (that is, for six of its 12 seats in the upper house) is likely to show at least some backlash against the Abbott government, if only for its shocking handling of the Gonski education reforms.

And it’s all being reported by journalists. Which is a nice change.

It's as if the national media has finally realised that this is not a game. The families and communities that were not torn apart by the GFC – unlike so many abroad – still face a perilous future.

Moreover, as voters, those Australians deserve so much more from so-called journalists than calls to throw the prime minister into the harbour in a chaff bag; to replace a market-based carbon pricing scheme with a much more expensive one (in per-tonne terms); to mis-represent the size of the national debt; the belittling of world-beating economic growth ... and so much more.

The Abbott team that created those memes (all except the one about the chaff bag) weren’t doing anything wrong. It was their job to pump out these one-liners. It was the journos who accepted them that did Australia such a disservice.

And as much as the Abbott government finds it very different being in government as compared to being in opposition, one can only hope that news directors and editors around the country will wake up to the urgent need to put things in better perspective.

Treasurer Joe Hockey’s call on public debt, though hypocritical, is not the ‘fiscal emergency’ we have been led to be believe by the front pages of newspapers. Get on with it Joe.

Yesterday’s national accounts did show the economy continuing an almost unprecendented run of growth – something we should all be grateful for.

And Business Council of Australia chairman Tony Shepherd’s call, in a speech to mark the council’s 30th anniversary, for the Australian economy to be re-structured is justified, real and urgent.

Strong Asian competitors are threatening to turn us once again into Keating’s ‘banana republic’ – though 30 years on it's not because we were too lazy to build an economy, but because they were smarter about building more efficient ones. The effect – being marginalised and stuck producing low-value commodities, while begging the world to give us their high value goods – is the same.

Abbott and his team know that kind of future can be avoided. Indeed, there is still talent left on the Labor benches that know the same. But we must stop blowing minor issues out of proportion.

By world standards, we don’t have an illegal migration problem – just ask France, Italy, the US, Malaysia, Thailand and many other nations. 

By world standards, the existing carbon emissions plan is modest and affordable. 

By world standards, our public debt is small and our private debt huge. And yet, by world standards, we’ve never had it so good.

Telling the contrary stories, loudly, day after day – as we did during the 43rd parliament – leaves no room for the real policy debates that people like Tony Shepherd would like addressed. Improving productivity and competitiveness, dealing with the ageing population, catching up on infrastructure, fixing industrial relations and funding the federal and state budgets won’t be done with slogans.

Tony Abbott knows that. And with the shellacking he’s getting in the media it seems journalists are starting to understand that at last.

That might not deliver the ‘justice’ that people like Kevin Rudd, Wayne Swan, Julian Gillard and others might crave. But that’s not what it’s about. It’s about the prosperous and just Australia that was forgotten during the slogan-chanting of the 43rd parliament.

The time when we could afford that luxury is over.