The rats’ problem with Rudd

Monday, 16 June 2008 

As the media continues to portray the Rudd government as the most popular ever to stumble from crisis to crisis, it is clear that something has happened to the media’s relationship with the government. Since the Budget, its honeymoon with the government is clearly over, even if the electorate’s isn’t.

One of the fascinating sub-themes of the political changes over the last year has been the media’s relationship to it. This has tended to be too narrowly understood by the blogosphere that poses as its alternative. For example, the tortured reading of the latest Newspoll to suggest that it spelt a meaningful drop in government support, was seen merely as just pro-Liberal bias from right wing hacks.

This won’t do. The view that the petrol price kerfuffle was a setback for the government was widely held across the media even by more balanced journalist such as Grattan (in fact it was even possible to discern some nerves from the Labor supporting blogosphere over its impact). Besides, even the most loyal coalition supporters in the press would not want to make fools of themselves by getting it so wrong. Clearly there is something more going on.

For a start, it is pretty evident that the press does not understand what Rudd is about. This can be looked at by reviewing each of three main planks of Rudd’s agenda; sidelining the political process, acknowledging the impotence of government and opening up to the international stage, all of which are causing the media problems.

1) A strange naivety

If fifteen years ago, a major left wing faction boss opposing Keating’s union reforms had been hauled over the coals by the Labor leadership for being rude in a night club, it would have been pretty widely viewed as not just about social etiquette, but politics. Certainly Rudd’s slap down of union boss Dean Mighell last year was viewed as such. Yet a pretty straight forward stitching up of a major faction boss by the two main power bases he is opposing, in Canberra and Macquarie St, is seen as a trivial distraction.

Even ignoring whether the toppling of a major faction boss is trivial (contrary to how the media portays it, his future is not dependent on the police enquiry. Now that Iemma has shown he can stand him down, Della Bosca’s influence is over), the problem seems to be that the media cannot grasp the politics that lies behind it.

It probably doesn’t help that this is not being posed in the usual right v left way. For want of labels, the battle is really between right v technocrat, as the Labor leadership sets about re-making the ALP by cutting its links with the union bureaucracy in the last state where it still has influence, through attacking what is pretty well the party’s last faction. It is the technocrat agenda, made up of politicians from the right (Rudd, Iemma) and the left (Gillard, Tanner) that the media appears blind to.

Part of the media’s problem seems to be that the technocrats don’t really have a message other than an anti-politics one. This is what is making Iemma look weak and indecisive. He can’t really say he wants to get rid of Della Bosca because he is in the way of cutting Labor’s last link with its now irrelevant social base. Rather Iemma has to move carefully, talking about mates and loyalty, and the wrong types of apologies, none of which makes much sense in themselves, but gets him where he wants to be. Anyone who thinks Iemma is weak is ignorant of Della Bosca’s internal power that has now been cut off at the knees.

Given the sensitivities of this for the Labor leadership, the media hoo-hah has been a useful excuse for taking action. Being the self-absorbed institution its is, the media thinks it is they who toppled Della Bosca, rather than Iemma and Gillard using the media for getting them the result they wanted all along.

This blindness to the technocrat agenda is really blindness to the collapse of the political process, something that was a feature of the last government when the media continued to see the implosion of the Liberals as a Costello challenge. Now that this collapse is much more a way of operating (e.g. like the ‘inflation crisis’) the media are struggling to do anything but take the government’s announcements at face value (and so making life easier for them).

2) Sticklers for convention

With the collapse of the political process, a lot of the rituals of Australian politics have lost their meaning. The media’s failure to keep up has meant they often getting caught up in what seems like business-as-usual but finding the end result was not as expected. A classic example is the Budget, a Parliamentary ritual that last year the coalition ticked all the right boxes for – to no effect – and this year was supposed to reveal the real Rudd agenda, but never came. Both times marked turning points in the media’s attitude to the government of the day. Last year, the failure of Costello’s Budget was when the media finally started to seriously countenance Howard’s defeat. This year it marked the start of the media’s disillusionment with the Rudd government.

Another variation of this is analysis-by-history, i.e. because it happened before it will happen again. The latest variation is that of course Rudd will last three terms, without bothering to explain why because that’s just what governments do (except of course when they don’t).

3) International politics is bunk

Obviously politics here is influenced by international factors as much as any other country’s, its just that in Australia it has traditionally not been polite to mention it. Rudd has changed all this. While admitting there is less he can do domestically, Rudd has been keen to be seen as much more pro-active on the international stage.

To the media, Rudd’s foreign policy pronouncements have been ill-prepared ‘thought bubbles’ that he cannot hope to follow through. But Rudd is all about process than the end result and what he is doing here is shifting the debate firmly on to an area where he can politically operate and where it is harder for the opposition (both in the government and outside of it) to pose an alternative.

An example is Rudd’s announcement that he will try and get OPEC to increase production and get Asian countries to cut petrol subsidies. Internationally these may not make much sense, but what it does is make the petrol price issue into an international one and re-emphasise that the government’s role here is limited, so defusing the thrust of the Liberals’ attack. The media here have confused a natural law that all politics is local with what had been the political class’s best attempts to try and make it so. To them Rudd is defying gravity seemingly putting international issues as more important than local ones. The trouble is, they can’t actually pinpoint what that local politics is any more.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 16 June 2008.

Filed under Key posts, Media analysis

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