It is a shame that at a time when government is so hollow, only a handful of journalists can escape the cliché and find a basis for critical analysis of policy, which ought to be the basis for judging a government’s performance.
While media might boast that they are the ‘watchers’ in the political process, this claim is little more than self-congratulation. On one hand, media are part of the quest for power. On the other, sometimes media do not pay attention at all. The coverage of Question Time in the House of Representatives on 8 February suggests that Australian media are besotted with power plays. Yet the lack of serious analysis suggests that media do not understand how astute politicians exploit them. Media failed to report that key members of the Turnbull Government had shown disrespect for parliament directly and the people indirectly. They failed to note that the Government has again evaded scrutiny of its policies.
Newly elected members of parliament invariably speak of the privilege and honour of representing their constituents. They say that they feel humbled by being chosen for this honourable task that lies at the heart of democracy. On 8 February two Government members showed wilful disrespect that they have little regard for the institution. The prime minister and the treasurer were so desperate to play politics that they happily – smilingly – abused the forum of parliament and so showed disdain for the people.
The prime minister attacked the leader of the opposition in terms which should cost him dearly in the eyes of any Australians who regard him as a man of integrity and good manners. While accusing Bill Shorten of playing politics, Malcolm Turnbull demonstrated very clearly that he is just another politician.
Unfortunately, media coverage of Turnbull’s performance was far from critical. News referred to a ‘Shorten smackdown’ and sought comparisons as though this were a great moment in parliamentary history. While Fairfax was less supportive it managed a heading – perhaps with an attempt at irony – ‘Turnbull attack lights up parliament’. The ABC referred to a ‘heated’ exchange. Perhaps because of veiled threats made when Turnbull was the Minister responsible for communications, the broadcaster has given him a dream run. Incredibly, ABC television ran a ‘promo’ during the 2016 election campaign featuring footage of a smiling Turnbull while a sickening tune assured us that he had the whole world in his hands. He certainly has the ABC where he wants it.
Few journalists refer to the standards of parliament because generally they like blood on the floor. They assume that their readers lack the ability to understand arguments about ethics. The reference to Turnbull’s stunt as containing heat is nonsense. This was an orchestrated attack and Coalition members were eager to join in, even if only as a badly mannered claque.
Nowhere did mass media outlets report on the domination of Question Time by the Government. In this digital age, it should not be difficult to count the number of words recorded in Hansard for Labor and Coalition members. Nor should it be difficult for journalists to remind the public that parliament should be a means of holding governments accountable. Oppositions cannot be blamed for their ineffectiveness if media support the government’s strategies to distract and obfuscate. It suits the government perfectly that most coverage of the Turnbull rant has been so superficial.
The treasurer knew his stunt with a lump of coal was unparliamentary. Choosing to scoff at the criticisms of the opposition rather than answer them is bad enough. Employing a ‘prop’ which he knew to be against the rules is an insult to Speaker Tony Smith, the parliament and the people. These desperate tactics are probably a response to recent poor polling by the Turnbull Government.
The unparliamentary prop was a hunk of coal and Turnbull’s attacks on Shorten – in response to several questions on different issues – repeatedly mentioned air-conditioners. As well as being silly, these tactics showed clearly enough where the Government stands on climate change. The treasurer later celebrated his moment of dubious glory on a radio program with a ‘shock jock’. At least the Guardian reported on this bizarre event.
When governments justify their actions by attacking predecessors we can be sure that they have lost their way. Sadly when government suffers policy paralysis we all suffer. This government has abandoned issues such as global warming, stimulating employment and closing the gap in favour of pure spin. It could not get away with this tactic without media compliance.
Traditionally when Liberal state governments complain about the inefficiency of the public service in comparison with the private sector, they have had just one approach to management. Instead of making reforms to show how they can run a service efficiently they simply sell the service off and deliver us all into the hands of entrepreneurs.
Today’s federal Liberal government is behaving in an eerily similar way. Australia’s assets are being sold to overseas investors. Decisions about the country’s future are becoming hedged around with the ‘commercial-in-confidence’ excuse that privileges the demands of the market over the needs of the community. While wanting to restrict the access of individuals to courts and tribunals that can protect their rights, this government wants to ensure that majority shareholders of coal mines can use Australian courts to overcome community opposition to their practices.
It might be good politics to manipulate the agenda so that the opposition and extra-parliamentary critics seem either weak or strident. As the centre of the political balance has moved to the right Labor has found it difficult to adjust. While the Coalition’s tactics might work they will do nothing to address those issues which desperately need attention. It is a shame that at a time when government is so hollow, only a handful of journalists can escape the cliché and find a basis for critical analysis of policy, which ought to be the basis for judging a government’s performance.