Rats still blind one year on

Monday, 24 November 2008 

The deeply dull first episode of The Howard Years that aired last Monday was so because it trundled through the same old tired narrative about the Howard government. It was also dull because that narrative didn’t happen to be true. Fran Kelly said she let the interviewees do the talking, which is ironic because her own lazy cliché-ridden voice-over actually ignored what the interviewees were saying. To the accompaniment of the standard ABC ominous theme music, Fran Kelly gave the impression that the Howard government started its first term on a crisis-ridden ride as it sought to transform Australia.

There was only one political crisis in Howard’s first term – and that was a government that had come to power without a clue what to do. Howard had sat in Opposition and watched Labor bring in his anti-union, deregulation agenda and the very thing that brought him to power, the exhaustion of Labor’s program, also signalled the exhaustion of his. It was that perception that the political classes on both sides were irrelevant and out of touch that spurred the rise of that anti-politics phenomenon, One Nation. (It was this rather than racism that rattled both sides of Australian politics, racism being a much less politically partisan issue than some commentators like to think – as shown by last year’s ready acceptance right across the political spectrum that indigenous parents were abusing their kids.)

Howard’s initial response was to grab at symbols summed up by Howard’s not-so-bright Chief of Staff at the time, Grahame Morris:

He was always a great believer in those symbols. He’s a sort of a nationalist, which was a bit odd for a Liberal party leader (eh?). Whether or not the Australian flag or things like Gallipoli he had a real passion for ‘em.

Howard spent the first term desperately grasping at issues and symbols to try and give his government a sense of purpose and political authority. Flags, the waterfront, the GST, illegal immigrants were all crises made up out of thin air to make the government look decisive and with purpose. Costello was also in on the game and their first Budget was designed to give a sense of reform, which it didn’t have, and so later, the cuts were largely reversed.

Howard’s lack of an agenda was not missed by the media, Mumble has found one nice quote by The Australian’s Paul Kelly at the time that noted that Howard was more spin than substance:

During the 1980s there was an orthodoxy about Howard – that he was the reforming spearhead of the Coalition, but weak on politics. Yet the orthodoxy today is more likely to be the reverse that Howard is an adept politician with doubts about his ability to implement genuine change.

Sometimes Howard’s search for an issue that he could use to establish political authority bordered on the tasteless. One of the few positions of Howard’s over which the left gets rather mushy was that on gun control after Port Arthur. Some idealistic readers might think that Howard thought it important not to back off from Nationals opposition to his gun laws because he needed to keep people safe. Howard had a more accurate way of putting it:

I mean if I’d backed off I’d have looked hopeless and weak and people would’ve thought well you know, he’s not fair dinkum, how many more people need to be murdered by a madman to convince the Government to do something. Those sort of things, if you don’t deal with them decisively, they weaken people’s faith in the institution of governance.

Howard drifted on, scraping by on the back of an equally purposeless Labor opposition and it wasn’t really until international events intervened on 9/11 that Howard had the cover provided by the US to look decisive. Even here, Howard’s Iraq position was more spin than anything as he pretended that Australia’s miniscule military commitment made him one of the ‘Big Three’. Thus was not only the conviction politician born, but suddenly represented by the media as having been with us all along.

The media’s re-writing of the conviction story is not just a matter of bias. As we have seen this year, the media must have a narrative and are uncomfortable with this idea that the major political parties might not have one anymore. So we have seen them complain in Howard’s and Rudd’s first year when they don’t see one and ask no questions when one is presented, as it was during the War on Terror, no matter how insubstantial it may be in fact.

The rats have paid the price for going along with this pretence. It is striking over a decade the deterioration in Australian political reporting that can be seen in the decline of great papers like The Age, that would never have countenanced someone like Jason Koutsoukis in election year, or in the ABC having a journalist like Chris Uhlmann as its chief political correspondent and in the contrast of quality between The Howard Years and Labor in Power.

The media’s desperate need for a narrative not only made them create a conviction politician where none existed but blind to when that pretence fell away in Howard’s last year and why it was that Rudd came to power a year ago today.

For the media, Rudd could only have come to power being a younger version of Howard, when in fact he was quite different. Rudd faces the same problem that Howard did in is first term, the lack of a program and a weak social base. But Rudd represents a very different response. Whereas Howard ran around pretending the old framework was still in place creating phoney left-right issues and cultural wars out of thin air, Rudd’s response has been more pragmatic. Every policy position is up for review (literally) and Rudd is happy to acknowledge that the old politics on both left and right are bankrupt as he did with his 2020 Summit. Rather than being about symbols, he has tended to more depoliticise them. Instead his agenda comes from only one place now, overseas.

Yet the moderately positive reviews of the Rudd government’s first anniversary suggest that the media attitude to Rudd is starting to change. Partly this comes from Rudd’s post-political style now being reaffirmed on the global stage with the US election. But it also comes from a view that with the global financial crisis, Rudd finally has the issue on which he can define his government.

They are wrong. Leaving aside the fact that the last year has already defined his government, if they just cared to look, this is not a War on Terror against some vastly over-hyped threat or some trumped up Howard-esque non-issue. This is a real crisis over which governments around the world have shown no sign yet of getting to grips with. Furthermore, they enter it with their political authority weaker than it has been in all the downturns of the last century.

It is this political crisis, which has been bubbling under the surface in Australia for the last fifteen years, that the media continues to refuse to see. Rudd may have pragmatically responded to the problem of political authority but he has not resolved it. This is why the response to the GFC has veered between warning of ‘a rolling national security crisis’ and ‘don’t you worry about that’. It is a government that is faced with a crisis that demands a profound financial restructuring but can’t even bring itself to say the D-word on the Budget, let alone the possibility of the R-word, which if something is not done, could even turn into that other D-word.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 24 November 2008.

Filed under Media analysis

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