Rats go down with the ship

Monday, 1 October 2007 

The Australian can be an enjoyable read.

The ideological bent of its columnists is often more interesting than the burnt-out liberalism of the Fairfax stable that seemed to have lost its spirit somewhere in the Labor years.

It has been especially enjoyable reading The Australian this year, as like most ideologues, they get it wrong as things change. Throughout the year, they have consistently underestimated the resilience of Labor’s lead and overestimated the impact of government attempts to claw it back. As an editorial defending its view gave away in July, their reading of this year has been hampered by a constant expectation that Howard’s past will repeat itself, when any objective observer would see how conditions in 2007 are very much different from 2001/04.

Part of The Australian’s problem has been precisely what is has liked to boast about in recent months, its close political contacts. By political contacts, of course, this means mainly from the government side and here is where its problem lies. As the government loses its grip on power and therefore clarity on what is happening in the political landscape, so do some of The Australian’s political correspondents. Most notable is its chief political correspondent Dennis Shanahan, whose analysis increasingly reflects the lack of reality that comes from a government now holed up in its bunker. Expectations back in March, the Budget in May, the periodic Rudd gaffes through the year have all pointed to a recovery in the government’s polling that has not happened. It is not so much how Shanahan interprets the polls that is the problem, but that he does not seem to know what drives them.

Dennis Shanahan is hardly alone in getting things wrong. Right across the media, and the political spectrum, commentators have struggled to get to grips with this year’s developments. In 2007, all the political ‘truisms’ (and excuses) used to explain the Howard years; the power of terrorist scares, the hip-pocket nerve, the character issue, voters that don’t want to vote for the same party in state and federal elections, the incumbency factor, have all turned out to be rubbish. Both left and right have tended to over-estimate the political power of Howard and his programme, and under-estimate his reliance on the international situation and an opposition that had lost its historical role.

However, while The Australian has joined others in distancing themselves from Howard, what is distinguishing commentators that have tied themselves to the Howard incumbency is their growing inability to see what is coming. This has been especially evident last week. Anyone who has listened to what Rudd has been saying and watching what he has been doing over the last year will know that we now have a very different Labor leader compared to what has gone before. It is also not hard to conclude that it also must be a very different Labor party that has chosen him to be its leader.

Just looking at the distancing from Beazley’s previous strong opposition to Workchoices over the year (despite the apparent electoral winning appeal of that opposition, according to some) and the public displays of union-bashing of Mighell and McDonald shows that relations between this first non-union sponsored leader and the unions is very different than before (Gillard’s role in this also shows how the Labor left is changing). A more important sign was last week’s declaration by Rudd to end a century of Labor practice and over-ride the factions with the appointment of his ministry, which again should come as no surprise from someone who took the unusual step of no longer attending faction meetings and over-rode the factions over his shadow bench from day one as leader.

Yet while the Fairfax press is picking this up, there is hardly any sign of this new Labor party from columnists in The Australian (with the possible exception of Matt Price but certainly not its Labor-supporting columnist Phillip Adams who seems to be waiting for the return of Gough). It is all very well for the Liberals to talk up the threat of union influence in a new Labor government as a political ploy to prop up its core support base, but to see the same view reflected by what is supposed to be the paper’s chief political correspondent shows how far removed from reality The Australian has become. The thought that unions will see a significant recovery of influence in a Rudd Labor government must be something shared only by the most deluded traditional left-wing Labor supporters (and the late-night participants of a very curious on-line poll that The Australian ran last week). To share the world outlook of such a marginalised group in Australian politics should not be a comfortable position for a paper that wants to be a journal of influence. Even if it has plans to be a voice of opposition if the Liberals lose power, the trouble with analysis like that is that it will be opposing a government that doesn’t exist.

Back in August, an article in The Australian seemed to be advising Australian political bloggers to be more like their US counterparts in gathering alternative news. Joining the conspiracy theory hysterics of the US may not be the best advice but here, in the spirit in which it was given, is some in return. The Australian might like to get a bit more touch on what changes are now underway, otherwise someone might take a break from sorting out the staff of a New York financial paper and sort out those closer to home.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 1 October 2007.

Filed under Media analysis

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