As the Prime Minister looks over his shoulder for the inevitable challenge, the prospect of an early election must be tempting. With the New South Wales Labor Party before the Independent Commission Against Corruption and Channel 9 giving the Liberals a $10k a head fundraiser, the contest might be lop-sided.
The news on the economy has not been good. Labor seems to have largely recovered from its shock loss in the May election. Some Coalition backbenchers have been prepared to abandon the government line and speak out on issues ranging from relations with China to the Biloela family sent to Christmas Island. This combination of factors is enough to make any Liberal leader nervous.
In the state with the greatest number of electorates, Labor officials have been hauled before the Independent Commission Against Corruption to explain the circumstances of a cash donation of some $100,000 by a Chinese property developer. ICAC is interested to know whether the Labor Party accepted a donation from a source and in an amount forbidden by New South Wales electoral laws. The likelihood of specific findings might depend on the tightness of the laws but there is plenty of scandal and incidental damage to reputations.
The tragic revelation that one donor to the Labor Party committed suicide after being asked to give evidence has largely been forgotten. This donor remembers his father being interrogated in China and left a message saying he wanted to avoid a similar experience and to save his family from the disgrace and shame which he feared must follow.
The ink had barely dried on the press reports of this suicide than it was revealed that Channel 9 had hosted a Liberal Party fundraiser. It is likely that the entry fee of $10,000 to meet the Prime Minister was more than the potentially embarrassing donation which had led to the suicide. Journalists working for the 9 Fairfax media group expressed dismay when they learnt of the dinner. Clearly, such overt political involvement is a threat to journalistic integrity. It is all very well for the Prime Minister to defend Channel 9 by arguing that they also staged a fundraiser for Labor, but the journalists are right. The Liberal fundraiser raises doubts about public perceptions of editorial independence and the ability of journalists to report objectively on party matters.
Lately, press freedom has been a prickly subject for the government. Australian Federal Police raids on Aneka Smethurst and the offices of the ABC raised the issue and forced the government to declare that the AFP acts without any government prompting and that the Coalition is dedicated to press freedom. To say that these claims rang somewhat hollow is a gross understatement.
There has always been a tendency for media and politicians to develop a symbiotic relationship. This is one reason that we once had media diversity laws to prevent monopolies and concentration of sources. The problem has always been seen as market over reach, where media consumers might have little or no choice where to source their news. The potential for manipulation of opinions in such situations is clear. A couple of years ago, the government eased these restrictions. The decision might have seemed reasonable given the ‘changing landscape’ of media because of the rise of new forms such as the internet and social media. Unfortunately the effect of the loosening of the regulations has enabled the euphemistically termed ‘merger’ of 9 and Fairfax giving the conglomerate dominance in several markets to rival that of News Corporation.
Fairfax has traditionally been regarded as an important bulwark against the many biases of the Murdoch press. There was a time when Kerry Packer had his eye on Fairfax and MPs resisted his ambitions, given that he already had a television channel as well as the weekly Bulletin magazine. Whether readers can today have any real confidence that 9 Fairfax supplies fearless and independent reportage is debatable. Interestingly, several recent letters to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald made light of the possibility that their criticisms of the government might invite raids on their homes by the AFP. They probably should be more concerned about the possibility that such letters might no longer be published, considering who now pulls the strings at ‘9 Fairfax’.
With more bad news expected on the economic front and the government resisting all urgings to sacrifice the surplus and to become more interventionist, the timing of the next election will be crucial to Coalition prospects. It is not as though calling an early election would be throwing away a comfortable majority. The current majority is tiny. Perhaps the Prime Minister might even look for a double dissolution trigger in one of his dubious bills about unions or religious freedom. While there is the prospect of so easily raising ready cash for campaign funds, he could think that another election win is well within his capability.
Dr Tony Smith is a former political science academic with interests in elections, parliament and political ethics.