Tunnel vision: the media’s love affair with Craig Kelly and conflict

Feb 11, 2021

The media’s focus on divisive figures like Craig Kelly simply excuses the equally dangerous views of his less vocal, climate change denying colleagues. It is on these politicians that the media should focus.

Credit – Unsplash

Craig Kelly’s presence in the media the past week has been spectacularly successful. His corpulence has been on display especially in the more elevated print media and the digital media such as Crikey. Words such as “maverick” have been consistently used to describe him.

His encounter with Tanya Plibersek, providing wonderful contrasting pictures of Liberal Party masculinity against her feminine nuances, has apparently not harmed her chances of one day being leader of the ALP. Equally it has seemingly forced the Prime Minister to rein in one of his party’s most outspoken parliamentarians.

The media are entranced by Kelly’s activities as it enables them to focus on what they do so well: treating politics as a conflict between ambitious individuals, and between parties as warring organizations, when in truth they are very similar in policy and conduct. Journalists are now focusing on the leadership implications of Plibersek and what Morrison’s reluctance to pull Kelly into line bespeaks of the power he holds as Prime Minister against his extreme right colleagues.

For instance James Massola opines that: “Plibersek insists her focus is 100 per cent on holding the government to account and won’t even accept the premise of the question when asked about the leadership of the Labor party.” Why even raise this question, unless it is to further the ongoing drama surrounding the ALP leadership of Anthony Albanese?

Equally, Jaqueline Maley argues that Kelly is a problem for the government because he is undermining its message on Covid “which has been successful because it has been orderly, centrist and unified. Kelly is also a dangerous reminder to voters that the Coalition has often been at the mercy of its conservative right wing,…”

This is, of course, predicated on the assumption that Australian politics is dominated by factional politics as well as by conflict between parties and ambitious individuals within this party. While this is certainly true, it enables journalists to evade the deeper questions about ideas of national importance that seem so lacking in contemporary Australian politics.

Kelly holds cranky, if not conspiratorial views, on Covid-19 and is a climate change denier. But are not most other members of the LNP effectively climate change deniers, irrespective if they make solemn professions on believing in what climate scientists have been telling us for decade about the dangerous increase in carbon emissions into the atmosphere? Their absolute reluctance to take any meaningful steps to begin the process of cutting back on carbon emissions by transitioning out of fossil fuels and encouraging investment in renewable energy effectively means they are the same as Kelly. He at least has the honesty to express his opinion in unequivocal terms.

From the media perspective a focus on people like Kelly or George Christensen means they do not have to focus on the great majority of Coalition members who in their legislative action are as bad as Kelly. It is true that some mention is occasionally made of Matt Canavan and Angus Taylor as obstructing real efforts to tackle climate change, but little else. Equally Joel Fitzgibbon’s apparent reticence about climate change and his preference for coal miners’ jobs receives much attention as defining a possible split in the ALP. Yet the more muted attitudes of most other ALP parliamentarians – notwithstanding the Gillard government’s important introduction of a carbon price in 2011 – is scarcely reported.

The Kelly-Plibersek encounter has been brilliantly depicted in pictorial terms in the media, with Kelly being especially amenable to pictorial representation and the contrast between the two in gender terms and belligerence impossible to avoid. Above all, this is treated as a human interest story between one figure who the media portrays as being on the outer in his own party, and the other who is projected as being on the rise in a party less substantially dominated by men. It is easy to conflate the statements of Kelly with his bullish appearance, and of Plibersek’s reasonableness with her more elegant countenance, but this wonderfully conceals the validity or otherwise of the ideas their parties are more broadly projecting.

Australian political parties need to be covered as much for their ideas – and whether their policies are evidenced based and long-term – as for their capacity to be organizations constantly in conflict within and between themselves. A focus on figures like Kelly simply excuses the equally dangerous views of his more vocally moderate colleagues and it is these upon whom media focus should be placed.

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