Laura Tingle ends her essay Great Expectations by arguing that we need a captain like Magellan to help the nation traverse the angry waters ahead. Given that Magellan died in the Philippines at around the halfway mark of his ship’s circumnavigation of the globe, this does not bode well for whoever deems him or herself brave enough to take charge of the good ship Australia.
Tingle’s essay seeks to paint Australia as an angry nation since our earliest times, but argues that the particular sense of anger pervading our recent political debates is linked to the fundamental shifts in economic policies that occurred from the 1980s under Hawke and Keating, which took the country from a closed and rather controlled economy to one where we became a cork floating on the international economic oceans.
The anger towards economic changes, however, is rather different from previous anger that has occurred in our history. I well recall in my university days in the early 1990s taking to the streets to march with supposed fury at the decision by the Hawke government to introduce HECS – shouting, “Education for all, not just the rich!” But even at the time my friends and I had little anger in us, because we realised that marching to protest having to pay for our own education was not quite the same as taking to the streets to protest the Vietnam War.
Similarly last year when the Occupy movement came to Australia, after an initial flush that provided solid numbers for a rally on its first weekend, the movement petered out and, despite an over-the-top reaction by the Victorian government, there was little evidence of widespread anger in the community regarding the changing economic nature of the country.
The anger that I see in evidence does not stir from the public at large, but mostly from an element of our society Tingle largely ignores: the media. She is right to point out that Kevin Rudd attempted to change the narrative concerning the role of government, but his great failure was to do this while keeping the words of the Howard government. When Tingle notes that one could almost hear a “sharp intake of breath among journalists in the press gallery as the treasurer was asked … whether the times might actually call for going into (gulp) deficit,” she reveals that the press gallery, too, remained hostage to the narrative of the Howard government. Wayne Swan and Kevin Rudd went to such comical lengths to avoid mentioning the “D word” of deficit that it is perhaps not unsurprising that the media have continued to regard a surplus as conclusive evidence of good economic management. It is, however, inconclusive that this failure fully to adopt a new economic narrative led to any anger among the public.
There was more than enough confected anger from various media organisations regarding the stimulus package, where a metonymic approach saw any negative part reported as evidence of the whole lacking worth. Were one to read some of the newspapers, one would assume that every school in the country has a poorly built, overpriced hall. Obviously bad news sells, but you would hope the broader picture is also worth something.
But it was after the election that we saw the full anger of the media revealed, and the predictions of Crikey blogger Possum Comitatus of a state of (as he called it) “unhinging” come to be realised. Once the government pressed forward with a price on carbon, Sydney radio stations and newspapers were only too eager to fan any flames that were around. The Daily Telegraph, in a sequel to its attempts to bring about an early NSW state election, led the calls for a plebiscite on the policy, suggesting that for the government to introduce a price on carbon was “profoundly undemocratic.” While attending one of the anti-carbon tax rallies promoted by Sydney radio, I saw a great deal of anger – anger stoked by the statements of those such as Alan Jones who would wish to see Julia Gillard and Bob Brown drowned in a chaff bag – statements that provide a lead to banners seen at the rally such as “Ditch the Witch.” It was an anger that members of the Opposition – including Tony Abbott – were only too eager to embrace.
Tingle notes that after this year’s budget the Australian reported on a family feeling aggrieved despite having an income of more than $258,000. Such a report is not “news” in the sense of reporting a public statement; nor is it really evidence that a broad section of the community thinks it should get something for nothing. What the report does reveal, however, is that the Australian believes such views are worth seeking out and reporting – a rather surprising tack from a paper that apparently favours prudent government spending. Tingle writes that, “This battler was oblivious to the idea that the rebate might have been just another form of welfare.” Clearly, when we have reached a stage where newspapers will seek out people earning over $250,000 and treat them as “battlers,” it is little wonder that such obliviousness exists. Were the battler to read most of the newspapers or listen to talkback radio in this country, she would remain oblivious – indeed, she would have her perception reinforced.
There may be anger in the community about the carbon tax, but it does not come from nowhere – nor does it come purely from our history of mistrusting politicians. The big change in the past three years is that we now have an activist media, one that seeks to make news as much as report it, one that seeks to control and determine elections – whether it be through forcing the leaders to attend “people’s forums,” criticising a particular policy, or going further and suggesting that the current government is undemocratic or illegitimate.
If this country is to find a Magellan prepared to brave the angry seas, he or she must realise that the media now takes a greater delight than ever before in a rough voyage and is doing all it can to blow off-course political parties that it does not favour. Rather than calling forth a brave captain ready to chart a dangerous passage, the situation leads me to suspect that future leaders may instead choose to paddle safely in the political shallows.
Greg Jericho is a political blogger, former public servant and author of The Rise of the Fifth Estate: Social Media and Blogging in Australian Politics (2012).
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 47, Political Animal.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY