The unbridled joy that comes with knowing we will never again have to deal with the entity formerly known as Prime Minister Scott Morrison is leavened by the fact that we had to put up with him in the first place. Not just put up with him but act as if the destruction he was wreaking was somehow invisible. That the studied neglect which was the hallmark of the way in which he pursued what can barely be called ‘governance’ was not obvious.
Now they tell us about the problems with the energy markets. Now they tell us about funding holes in the NDIS. Now we hear that the National Gallery in Canberra is falling down, falling down because of underfunding. Now we hear they stopped funding recovery programs for endangered plants. Now we hear all the things.
Sure, the media reported many of these instances over the last few years, but even as they did, their methodology resisted drawing conclusions. They showed us the dots, but they don’t join them.
The term ‘gaslit’ is way overused in popular culture, but it is hard to see the last ten years of media coverage of the federal Coalition governments that culminated in the Morrison Government of 2019-2022 as anything other than a textbook case of audiences screaming that the lights were dimming while media shaded their eyes.
Flagship ABC programs filled up with insiders, and representatives from the IPA, an endless stream of Murdoch-employed journalists, while nearly every ABC political program did a what-the-papers-say segment which inevitably consisted almost entirely of Murdoch news stores because they own most of the papers, and it put the whole country in a News Corps state of mind.
Every report that went along with the former prime minister’s fantasy parades of costume wearing and performative cooking; every press conference where he was able to barrel over the assembled press corps, lie to their faces, smirk, and walk away unscathed; every interview that was not followed up with an immediate fact check—all these things helped build a facade behind which the truth was kept hidden.
Had not the Labor Party, by and large, kept its head; had not the Greens redoubled their efforts; had not a band of independents with the means and motivation to recognise the neglect our democracy was falling into emerged from the teal mists and rallied their troops; had not the engaged denizens of Twitter and the other hated landscapes of social media resisted the standard narrative; had not teams of locals sat down at kitchen tables with other locals and tested the media stories against what they themselves felt and saw and experienced; had not all these things happened, Scotty would no doubt still be making curries and building cubbies and lying to our faces and talking about miracles and doing drops for his favourite pet journalists.
The before and after shots are not pretty.
As incredible as this fourth-estate neglect has been, what is even more incredible is how little self-reflection it has generated since 21 May, let alone how little it has caused a change in approach to political reporting in general.
By any standard, the collapse of the Liberal Party under the leadership of Scott Morrison, in a line back to John Howard, is one of the major political stories of the century, but as I write, it is being glossed over. We are seeing what I called in an earlier piece the ‘automatic stabilisers of political power’ kick in, and chief amongst these is the media itself.
In the immediate aftermath of the election, they have been less concerned with the Liberal Party’s immense loss of seats and credibility than the fact that the party’s new leader is Peter Dutton, and we have been treated to endless articles speculating on how he might change his public image into something more ‘friendly’. Endless pieces assure us that he really is a great guy once you get to know him. Head of political reporting at the Nine group of outlets, Chris Uhlmann, called him, ‘An endearing and nice person if you get to know [him] privately, as I have.’
Dutton has also been given ample space to espouse his vague pabulum about the ‘forgotten people’, with almost no effort expended on the fact that it was he and his party who forgot them. Or on the fact that his party had not only lost a swag of the deepest blue seats in the country but had also failed comprehensively in the outer urban ring of metropolitan seats as well.
In a recent Meanjin essay, journalist Margaret Simons quoted US historian Mitchell Stephens:
The lesson of history for those who would control the press is that the safest journalist is one with something to lose, rather than the one who has been driven into outlaw status by government repression … Once journalists have investments, good wardrobes and networks of friendship with the powerful, then they will probably be satisfied with an occasional exposé.
That’s a hell of an observation, isn’t it? The occasional exposé. Ouch.
In the same article, Simons says that she has never been more depressed about the state of her profession, and you’d have to say, her concerns are well placed.
Just look at what is unfolding, day after day.
The magnitude of the Liberal collapse has been rolled over by the presumptions of the underlying status quo, and this includes the way in which voting results have been reported—again, a long tradition of the status quo—with Liberal and National Party votes presented as a single figure. Most reports, tables and graphs associated with the election show that the LNP—that is, the combined Liberal and National Party and the LNP in Queensland—achieved a primary vote of 35.9%. Disaggregated, the figures are 3.6% for the Nationals; 8% for the Queensland LNP; and 23.89% for the Liberal Party, a presentation that gives a better idea of the demographic—and democratic—make-up of that top-line figure.
Even when journalists have acknowledged the success of independents and smaller parties, they have often framed it in terms of it being an aberration, even as a negative, seeing the story through the concerns of the major parties, as Andrew Brown from AAP News Wire did when he questioned Labor’s National Secretary, Paul Erickson, at the National Press Club.
‘We saw a bit of a fundamental shift on election night with a lot of voters ditching the major parties and instead choosing independents and minor parties,’ Brown led.
‘What part of Labor strategies going forward would you think would have to change to make sure that safe Labor seats, particularly in inner city areas, don’t suffer a similar fate?’ (My emphasis.)
This was in line with pre-election rhetoric too, where the success of independents and Greens was often presented as ‘theft’ of seats that ‘rightly’ belonged to the major parties. Josh Frydenberg accused his independent opponent Monique Ryan of being a ‘fake independent’ and ‘part of conspiracy to steal Liberal seats’, as reported by Patricia Karvelas on ABC RN, and Karvelas pushed Ryan hard on the accusation. The ABC ran a headline as far back as 2019 saying, ‘Independents looking to steal Mallee, one of the Nationals’ safest seats’. Labor party candidate for Richmond, Justine Elliot, complained on Twitter that ‘Greens are trying to beat Labor in Labor seats, and stop Labor forming a majority government’.
Even the language of ‘minor’ and ‘major’ parties, or the ‘two-party’ system hides as much as it reveals these days. Although there is some justification for thinking of Australia as traditionally a two-party town, most of the nomenclature is outdated, as a quick look at this AEC table of first-preference votes indicates (click to enlarge).
My maths isn’t great, but I count more than two.
Will the language of the media adjust? Will they rethink who is a major party? Who is a minor one? Whether expressions like ‘hung parliament’ really have any place in system of government that is obviously heading away, at a rapid clip, from two-party dominance?
Indeed, the fact that Labor has a majority of seats in the new parliament is enough to allow many to fall straight back into old habits of thinking, of the two-party mindset, and most in the media have acted as if nothing fundamental has changed, directing most of their attention at the legacy parties and their prospects.
And look, I don’t want to underplay Labor’s achievement at the election, but part of the power incumbency brings is the power to tell your own story, to create a narrative that people will listen to, and Paul Erickson, Labor’s National Secretary, wasted no time in setting up the terms of the story Labor will run with for the next three years, telling the Press Club that, ‘I don’t accept that we are in some new epoch or new era where everything is different.’
It is powerful tactic: presume as fact the very outcome that is being debated.
It also plays perfectly to the mindset of the insider political reporter, telling them that they are ‘savvy’ enough to see past the surface-level aberration to the continuity flowing beneath.
But what if that continuity has been fatally disrupted?
What if the divisions between the far-right, the evangelical right, the regional right, the teal-liberal centre-right, can’t or won’t be put back together again?
What if the warning the political class should heed is that their savviness is not a strength but an illusion, and it was precisely that frame of mind that allowed them to miss the rise of the Independents in the first place?
Because, folks, what happened on 1 May 2022, what finally manifested in ballot boxes across the country, has been coming on for years, since at least John Howard was purging moderates from the Liberal Party and most of the media was hailing his genius; since Tony Abbott climbed into and out of power, hailed by the media as authentic and a streetfighter and a Gillard destroyer; since the Liberal Party itself destroyed Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership and released a wave of teal candidates from their historic and family ties of loyalty to the party while the media wrote about Barnaby Joyce; since Scott Morrison pulled off a miracle win and then proceeded to finish the purging started by Howard, with a bonus twist of Pentecostalism, while the media hailed him a campaigning genius and told us that his religion didn’t matter, that he was practical and not at all ideological, and that Anthony Albanese lost the election with a gaffe on day one.
Unjoined dots and a carousel of irrelevancies and missed signals. I guess they could make themselves feel better with the occasional exposé.
For the rest of us, watch carefully as the next wave of independents emerge, not just at Federal level but at state level too, and watch as the ground continues to shift, and, as a citizen, do what you can to ensure that we keep heading in the same direction.
Tim Dunlop is a writer based in Melbourne. His new book, on which this article is partially based, is Voices Of Us: How Political Outsiders Rewrote the Rules of Australian Democracy (NewSouth Books). It will be released in late November. He writes regularly for The Future of Everything newsletter, and subscriptions are currently available.