Why does Anthony Albanese persist in trying to appease News Corp and the Coalition?

Jun 14, 2024
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese

It is pitiful to think that a Labor Government elected in its own right two years ago might be running scared of a depleted Opposition party and its public relations arm, News Corp, but that is what appears to have been happening on a number of fronts.

Disclosure

As a voter who lived on the boundary of the Goldstein electorate in 2021, I arrived on a beautiful Spring morning during November of that year with hundreds of other like-minded voters at a designated reserve on Sandringham beach. We witnessed there the launch of Zoe Daniel’s candidature for a seat in the federal parliament. Daniel gave a speech that focused on doing something about energy policy, gender equity and corruption, policy positions that became known as the teal trifecta. She also said she was reluctant to put her family through the trouble of an election campaign at their stage of life, but was persuaded to stand when the children said to her: “Mum, if not now, when?” Like many others on that sun-drenched beach, I was conscious of the dark spectre of incompetence, corruption and criminality that hung over the Morrison Government, so I took home a Zoe Daniel corflute, affixed it to my front fence and saw it vandalised within two days. Its replacement was also vandalised as was its replacement, but like Daniel herself the sign stayed the distance until 21 May 2022.

Confession

In late 2022, when the Labor Government was finalising its contentious model for an anti-corruption commission whose default position was to conduct its investigations in secret and hold public hearings only in ‘exceptional circumstances’, I was an outlier among the passionate voices who were pushing for a more combative body than Labor proposed. My support for the Albanese model strained some of my friendships and lost me followers from my Twitter (X) following at the time.

I admit to being persuaded that investigators needed to be wary of showing their cards to potential offenders under investigation, and believed they required secrecy for that purpose. I was also persuaded that the Commissioner would be genuinely independent and would be free to exercise his or her judgement about when it was appropriate to display transparency by holding public hearings. I was not fully persuaded by the argument that powerful people who had met a threshold for naming them as parties under investigation needed their reputations protected. Nor was I much impressed by the argument that the anti-corruption model needed to be bipartisan to prevent it being abolished by an incoming Coalition Government. Nevertheless, on balance I went along with the government’s position on the National Anti-Corruption Commission model as put at the time by Attorney General Mark Dreyfus.

I now realise that on all counts I was wrong.

What now?

A number of things contributed to arrival at that realisation, the final one being the decision announced last week by an unnamed Deputy Commissioner that the NACC saw no value in pursuing an investigation into the six people named under seal by the Robodebt Royal Commissioner Catherine Holmes, and referred by her to the NACC on day one of its operation on 1 July 2023. The realisation was helped by the NACC Commissioner, Paul Brereton, having recused himself from the decision on conflict-of-interest grounds.

No details on the grounds for Brereton’s recusal were stated but it was widely presumed it was connected to his long-standing association with Kathryn Campbell, the former Secretary of the Department of Human Services and robodebt co-author in concert with the then Social Services Minister Scott Morrison. The Royal Commission revealed that the scheme to collect more than a billion dollars of ‘debts’ from 800,000 vulnerable social security recipients was spawned by the united activity of Campbell and Morrison, having between them eliminated the need to seek legal advice to get the legislation through Cabinet hastily as a prominent item in the 2015 budget. Morrison used the brownie points he won for that revenue item to bid for a promotion to the Treasury portfolio in the Turnbull Cabinet against the wounded Joe Hockey. By September 2015 Morrison had accomplished that objective.

The announcement last week followed 11 months of virtual silence from the NACC about either its secret activities or its inactivity, there being no way to tell the difference. Were NACC investigators paddling intently like ducks under still water or was the still water a sign that little or nothing was going on? Instead of openness and transparency, the NACC was giving us more of the secrecy that had been customary during the Morrison years, and which led to revelations of corruption when its many secrets were exposed.

Under those circumstances, it would be reasonable to expect that an anti-corruption body coming into existence under a cloud of contentiousness would take steps to avoid being perceived as secretive, but it has not done that. It is anyone’s guess why not, but one explanation that can’t easily be ruled out is the possibility that it’s been under pressure from government not to do anything that might upset News Corp media or its political arm, the Australian Liberal-National Party Coalition.

It is pitiful to think that a Labor Government elected in its own right two years ago might be running scared of a depleted Opposition party and its public relations arm, News Corp, but that is what appears to have been happening on a number of fronts.

The most striking example was Albanese’s adoption of the ridiculously expensive $368 billion AUKUS arrangement brokered secretly by his predecessor in September 2021, eight months before the 2022 election. Morrison had never attempted to offer a credible narrative for the adoption of AUKUS, and neither did Albanese when he quietly rolled it over as Labor policy in 2022. Murdoch’s dominant media outlets enthused about AUKUS, as did the other commercial outlets and a compliant ABC. As a fait accompli bipartisan policy that had never been taken to an election, the Albanese Government seems alarmingly comfortable with AUKUS, as it does with almost anything that Labor can call bipartisan or that doesn’t upset News Corp.

A second example has been Labor’s response to the Israel-Palestine conflict. It has played out similarly with the only real difference between the Coalition and Labor positions being measurable around the heat of the rhetoric, with Dutton white hot on support for Netanyahu’s collective punishment of Palestinians for the October 7th atrocity and Albanese sounding more measured but insisting on Israel’s ‘right to defend itself’ and adherence to the ‘rules-based order’, whatever that is. Calls by Foreign Minister Penny Wong for Israel to exercise ‘restraint’ sound half-hearted and indecisive, but every time she makes such a call News Corp let loose with a savage pile on.

Another example was when the High Court declared indefinite detention of refugees illegal. News Corp and Dutton went into outrage overdrive, so much so that Albanese fast-tracked draconian laws enabling the government to monitor every move of the released detainees.

And more recently, Albanese astonishingly agreed to extend the courtesy of the Australian embassy in Washington DC to enable Morrison to launch a memoir he wrote directed at American evangelicals and the Trump alt-right. Morrison brazenly associated the launch with a meeting he arranged with Trump who, among other things, praised Australia’s massive AUKUS cash splash.

The common thread linking these policy curiosities is that Albanese appears keen to bend over backwards to accommodate Dutton and News Corp. The effect is to validate their high dudgeon and faux indignation without causing much noticeable difference to the ferocity of their attacks.

Albanese’s reluctance to take stands on principle if they don’t align with Dutton or Murdoch agendas is an uncomfortable reminder that his leadership group of Richard Marles and Penny Wong joined him in August 2022, three months after the election, to meet with Lachlan Murdoch and News Corp executives in Sydney. No one is prepared to say whether Albanese requested that meeting or was summoned to it by Lachlan, nor is anyone prepared to say what was discussed at it.

Given what has since passed, Albanese appears not to have negotiated anything like a deal that involved Lachlan’s news outlets being fair to his government. On the contrary, they continually play down or ignore Labor successes, often characterising them as failures. That was evident early with Albanese’s achievements in improving relations with our Pacific island neighbours, winning back $20 billion of trade with China and easing tensions with the superpower that Morrison and Dutton had created and inflamed. Those achievements were characterised by NewsCorp as Albanese taking holiday frolics. News Corp’s mainstream media acolytes, including the ABC, repeated similar story lines.

Given the determined silence following the 2022 Murdoch meeting, it’s more than reasonable to ask again from a PM supposedly committed to transparency what transpired on that occasion. Given no answer will be forthcoming, it’s also reasonable to ask why Albanese continues to make efforts to appease a media empire that is dedicated to angertainment as a business model.

To further that corporate mission, News Corp outlets work hand in hand with hard-right political leaders such as Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Peter Dutton to serve their readers an unremitting diet that arouses rage, resentment and blind fury. Chief among the objects of resentment are vulnerable minorities, especially minorities that can be characterised as grasping or whingeing about their lot, such as indigenous citizens, asylum seekers and refugees, women, and welfare recipients.

The 400,000 victims of robodebt fit the profile of Australians that News Corp delights in demonising. Joe Hockey happily labelled them “leaners” in contrast to hard-working “lifters” like himself and his associates. Similarly, Morrison told Australians “If you have a go, you get a go”. Therefore, undeserving social security recipients must not take an extra dollar from the taxpayer while billionaires like Gerry Harvey are excused from paying back unearned taxpayer enrichment of $22 million because the media permitted Morrison to say without a modicum of shame that he was “not into the politics of envy”. Pulling off yet another a brazen language twist, Morrison calling on Harvey to return his windfall would amount to the sin of envy, whereas calling on welfare recipients to pay back crippling ‘debts’ they didn’t owe is what a good ‘cop on the beat’ was there to do.

A Labor Government might be expected to side with vulnerable minorities, but Albanese and Marles seem intent on identifying with the powerful, despite the powerful holding them in contempt and continuing through their media dominance to show it.

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