What the Rudd rumours really tell us

Pigs would have to fly backwards before Kevin Rudd led Labor to the September election, and such speculation by the media only confirms a dearth of real policy analysis.

It was with some horror that I read the words ‘Rudd’ and ‘leadership’ in the same sentences, appearing in several articles by national commentators, in the press over the past two days.

It’s the fantasy that will not die – Kevin Rudd will come back and restore order to a Labor Party that really, really has lost its way this time. Well, no he really, really won’t.

Then again, if pigs flew backwards and Rudd did take the party to the September election, it would tell us less about Labor and more about a news-media industry that is day by day letting democracy slip through its fingers.

The Canberra press pack is whipping itself into a frenzy at the slightest sniff of Labor’s blood in the water. While that might provide thrills for the daily news cycle – ‘Labor MPs already packing up offices!’, ‘Wounded Ruddite’s happy to slag off government!’, ‘Mark Butler melts down in Senate estimates meeting!’ – it does nothing to advance the voters’ knowledge about policies that will likely change their lives in 2014.

And naturally enough, Labor MPs are furious that, day after day, the story is Labor, and not policies or their economic successes.

While George Wright emails followers telling them “Tony Abbott and the Coalition are peddling a lot of crap”, too few journos are actually raking over that “crap” to give voters, not journos, the chance to make up their own minds that Abbott’s offering something better – he may well be, but he resolutely won’t tell us what it is.

We have the NBN plan, the paid parental leave plan and a few bits and pieces, but the real plan – particularly fiscal austerity and tax hikes or tax-cut deferments – will arrive when there’s scant time to examine it before the election.

And it has become orthodoxy to skate over the little things Labor has got right – such as the unprecedented backing of the three major credit ratings agencies, low unemployment, low inflation and reasonable GDP growth. While it’s true that no government can take much of the credit for creating these conditions, plenty of governments in the past have shown themselves capable of stuffing them up.

As a kind of proxy of the frustration of Labor MPs in the house, it’s worth looking at comments made by one of caucus’s best and brightest – Andrew Leigh, a former professor of economics at ANU, who holds a PhD in economics from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

At a doorstop, where he was being grilled about Labor MPs packing up their offices well in advance of the election, Leigh said: “...the choice is between focusing on gossip and flim flam, which have filled too much of the airwaves this week, or on the sort of things that matter to my constituents, like the important reforms passed in the parliament on schools reforms, even like the Australian volunteers going abroad that I spoke to last night.

“Happy to talk to you about the book on inequality I’ve got coming out next month. All of these things are matters of substance and I think bear a little more reporting than gossip and other stuff that’s floating around this week.”

One journalists replied: “It’s not gossip; we’ve confirmed it.”

To which Leigh added: “There’s serious questions and there’s flim flam. And yesterday, I sat in a Beyond Blue event watching an AFL footballer tell a powerful story about his battle with depression and his near brush with suicide.

“Part way through that a hoard of camera folk rushed across the room to chase a parliamentarian. If that’s your priorities then I think you’ve got it backwards. I think Australians are far more concerned about the issue of suicide than about the gossip that might be floating around inside this building.”

Is the nation’s news-media industry simply bewitched by the psychological force that is Tony Abbott – too entranced by his pugnacious attacks to ask questions, or simply not able to ask them as he maintains the classic-small target campaign strategy?

When I caught up with Andrew Leigh he was philosophical.  Complex policies, such as carbon pricing, the all-fibre NBN, or the Gonski education reforms are, he said, harder to distill into short slogans than the idea that all the complexity must hide incompetence. “ ‘Yes’ is a longer word than ‘no’,” he joked.

Hence ‘stop the boats’ doesn’t encompass the growing strain that phrase is placing on bilateral relations with Indonesia.

Phrases such as ‘Great big new tax’, ‘wrecking ball through the economy’ or ‘python squeeze’ don’t explain that Labor’s carbon pricing scheme is not a tax, that it seems to be working (Clean Energy Future Plan – one year on, June 6), and that economists say it’s the lowest cost way to deliver a bi-partisan carbon reduction target.

And an NBN delivered now for ‘less money’ doesn’t mention the cost of doing it all again in a few years when data volumes overwhelm the copper part of the Coalition’s broadband plan.

I asked Leigh if he thought job cuts, and a fresh round of cost-cutting at Fairfax were to blame for less attention to policy reporting, and more on naked politics. Or was it the exodus of senior staff – George Megalogenis from The Australian, Lenore Taylor and Katharine Murphy to an uncertain future at The Guardian’s new Australian web site?

Leigh sees it more as a structural decline, rather than something happening at Fairfax (where, nonetheless, editorial morale is very low). He points to the 24 news cycle, and the morning story-filing demands of the online news media as generally reducing the time journos have for working their contacts and analysing policy.

Well yes, we get up early these days. And as colleagues across the industry disappear into other industries, the question must be raised where all this leaves democracy. Without a critical, independent media all kinds of ‘crap’ – from Left and Right – will shower down on us all.

The 2013 election is likely the poorest yet in terms of serious policy analysis in the national media. Meanwhile, a whole lot of medals will be earned for “flim flam”. 

And you can expect to see “Rudd" and "leadership" in the same sentences a lot more between now and September.