LAURIE PATTON. Overexposed – let’s hear from someone else!

In the film classic Casablanca, whenever a crime is committed the local police captain orders his officers to round up the usual suspects. Political commentary, in fact public commentary in general in Australia suffers from the Casablanca effect. The same old bunch of over-opinionated fringe players who see themselves as instant experts on anything and everything. Never slow to pop their heads up with a controversial quote for the media.

Over the weekend Tanya Plibersek suggested – not for the first time as it happens – that our school children should be required to pledge their allegiance to the country in the same way people becoming Australian citizens are required to do.

Tanya is one of our most high profile politicians. Someone who has done her time and faced the electorate. In that respect she is entitled, arguably expected, to have a view on matters of public importance. Repeating her long-held belief on Australia Day placed Tanya in the firing line of a bunch of keyboard warriors emerging from their online trenches. Fair enough, the Internet has provided an electronic town square where anyone can have their say. My only caveat is I don’t think we should allow anyone to post anonymously. Those who slag others on social media in the safety of their anonymity are rightly called ‘keyboard cowards’. Newspapers have never run letters to the editor written by people whose identity is unknown to them. Why should social media platforms do so?

What I most object to is mainstream media’s over-reliance on comments from people who are largely famous for being famous. The Casablanca columnists and those derogatorily known as ‘media sluts’. As a working journalist and later news editor I always encouraged colleagues to look for new sources rather than keep interviewing the same ‘go to’ experts – the ‘rent-a-grab’ crowd.

The New Year’s honours list has even drawn blood, with the highly regarded but arguably well-used Rosie Batty critical of veteran Casablanca queen Bettina Arndt receiving a gong. I’m not taking sides on that one. Both have had things to say with which I agree and if I looked hard enough they’ve probably uttered comments that I don’t support. But was it really a necessary intervention on a day when (at least some) Australians are trying to appear united and respectful?

There’s plenty wrong with the world we live in and plenty to be cross about. But who gets an award that seems to go to a very motley crew at the best of times is hardly of great importance to most of us or particularly in need of public comment. Unless you are on a heavy course of medication for relevance deprivation syndrome I guess.

Australians, it seems to me, vote with much the same thinking as we buy lottery tickets or play the pokies. Nobody realistically thinks they are holding the winning ticket. And as I frequently remind others, if the house didn’t always eventually win casinos would not exist, and there’d be no poker machines in pubs. But for a short and exhilarating moment or two when we bet we can envisage a better life for ourselves and our families.

Voters routinely cast their ballot more in hope than any expectation that things will change. History tells us, and the old joke has it, that no matter who you vote for a politician will be elected. But where does that hope spring from? The mutterings of the usual suspects in the media.

Right now we are dealing with the worst peace-time catastrophe in many decades. Bushfires the experts say they warned about but had their advice ignored. Sadly, we heard much less from them than the ubiquitous tabloid media mouthpieces, some of whom are still telling us that what just happened is normal.

The Coalition ran a very effective campaign against Labor’s franking credits policy in last year’s federal elections. It bit hard apparently. Pretty much everyone now concedes it was what Sir Humphrey from the TV series Yes Minister would describe as a courageous decision. But in reality very few of those who changed their vote on that issue would have been affected, either because they don’t actually own shares or owing to other provisions of our labyrinthine tax system. On the other hand, the billions of dollars in ‘refunds’ of taxes that very rich people didn’t pay in the first place, but would have been forced to forgo, would have had a significant impact in terms of better funded hospitals and schools.

One of the biggest con-jobs to get the Casablanca treatment – and regrettably something that both Labor and Coalition politicians fall for – is the obsession with financial surpluses. Funding for measures to reduce the risk of bushfires and actions to improve firefighting capabilities is one area where money should have been spent as opposed to the Government’s abstemious insistence on balancing the Budget. Who do we see routinely perpetuating this bogus line? The usual suspects.

In the words of the late Julius Sumner Miller, why is it so? Why do voters have so much trouble working out what’s in their best interest and in the best interest of the country? Well, guess what? They receive most of their jaundiced opinions from the usual suspects. It would be good if we could please hear from someone else.

(Laurie Patton is a former public servant, ministerial advisor, journalist and media executive. This article first appeared in The Lucky General.)

POSTSCRIPT. 25.2.2020

Whatever your position prior to the award Ms Arndt appears to have done her best to antagonise more people, judging by this and other articles. Federal Parliament has voted to strip Arndt of her Order of Australia honour over her calls for police to keep an open mind on whether Brisbane killer Rowan Baxter had been “driven too far” before he doused his wife and three children in petrol and murdered them. 

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Laurie Patton is a prominent public interest advocacy and marketing/communications practitioner. He is a former political advisor, journalist and media executive.

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