Sometimes I feel like the political equivalent of Methuselah. I really shouldn’t, because I can only remember back to the latter days of the Hawke Government. There are plenty of others around who can remember even further back than me, to the Fraser and Whitlam years.
Aside from feeling extraordinarily old, the benefit of being able to remember back that far is that contemporary political events don’t feel unique but part of an evolving continuum. For those of us who’ve been watching politics a long time, it’s not often that one hasn’t seen something similar happen before.
The most striking recent example of this is the role that Steve Lewis played in the Slipper saga.
There was a lot of comment on Twitter that cast Lewis as the villain; accusing him of actively plotting with the protagonists on one side of the political drama to bring down the players on the other. In bringing down his perspicacious judgement on the matter, Justice Rares said that Lewis was simply doing his job.
Former SMH Chief of Staff and National Editor, Bernie Lagan, now writing for The Global Mail, casts a sharp but pragmatic eye over that part of Justice Rare’s finding:
If, as the judge finds, the whole of the Slipper affair was a calculated effort by James Ashby to politically damage Peter Slipper by abusing the court process, then some might say that Steve Lewis and News Ltd were remiss for going along with it by relying on the protection of court filings for their stories; that indeed Lewis should have seen through Ashby’s motivations from the outset.
But that would be naïve. More likely was that Lewis was well aware of Ashby’s motivations and those of other players, such as Mal Brough. Sources have all sorts of motivations for giving up information. What matters to the reporter is whether the material offered is newsworthy, factually correct and can be defended once published. The facts of the various sexually charged exchanges between Slipper and Ashby aren’t in question (what can be drawn from this most certainly is). And Lewis had waited to publish with the legal cover that came once Ashby had commenced his court action.
Looking at it from this perspective, one can easily think of other examples where journalists have published newsworthy stories in the knowledge that it may be damaging for the opponent of the person who furnished the story in the first place.
Laurie Oakes’ Walkley Award winning story on Cabinet leaks unfavourable to Prime Minister Gillard during the federal election campaign immediately come to mind.
As does the running commentary that Peter Hartcher provides against the Prime Minister in favour of the vanquished Rudd.
So the journalist as political player, to the extent that knowingly publishing harmful information makes one a player, is not exactly new or even considered to be unprofessional.
Unless you’re a self-styled journalism vigilante like Margo Kingston. Yes, that’s the same Margo Kingston who, while still working as a journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald, published Not Happy John, which excoriated the Prime Minister of the day, John Howard. Following her retirement from journalism, Kingston also became actively involved in the campaign run against Howard in the seat of Bennelong, which claimed its genesis in her book.
Not surprisingly Kingston’s Wikipedia entry says she may be seen as part of the larrikin/ratbag Australian journalistic tradition which also encompasses Alan Ramsey and Stephen Mayne. “This tradition is characterised by a willingness to break with convention, espouse controversial opinions and intervene in the events which the journalist is reporting.”
I can attest first hand to this: I clearly remember being a wide-eyed newbie media adviser sitting with Kingston and her SMH colleague Mike Seccombe over coffee one day, listening to them discuss what else they could do to help Paul Keating oust Prime Minister Bob Hawke. From that day on, I knew that some political journalists saw their role as shaping political stories, not just reporting them. (See comment from Margo Kingston below that she was no big fan of Keating so this might have been spoken in *irony font*).
Right now Kingston is shaping another narrative, running a campaign this time against Tony Abbott based on him misleading the Australian Electoral Commission about a slush fund back in the late 1990s. I wish her the very best in that endeavour.
Kingston has so far refrained from accusing Lewis of being a player, retweeting without comment the Lagan piece mentioned above.
She’s been less restrained in accusing other sections of the media from taking a side, railing on Twitter about the editor of the Daily Telegraph burying Justice Rare’s findings on page 17 and Latika Bourke not asking about Ashby in a recent interview with Julie Bishop. In the latter case, Margo even implicitly encourages others to lodge a formal complaint against Bourke:
Those cheering the actions of Margo Kingston now and in the past as some sort of journalistic white knight need to think carefully about how her actions are different, or not, from those of Lewis, Bourke, the Daily Telegraph, Oakes or Hartcher.
In covering the points raised by Kingston in her latest campaign on Abbott’s slush fund, Michelle Grattan recently wrote:
Obviously, there were clear differences between Abbott’s slush fund, which was aimed at a broad political purpose (the destruction of Hanson and One Nation) and the limited self-serving objectives of the AWA body, let alone the vehicle for illegal behaviour that it became. But the point is, Abbott does not bring an unblemished record to the argument.
Next time Margo Kingston is tempted to accuse a journalist of being a political player, she should remember that she does not bring an unblemished record to the argument either.
Some politicians are just accidents waiting to happen. They’re incendiary devices that, once triggered, may cause only enough devastation to harm themselves or widespread and indiscriminate collateral damage. While some are unobtrusive until their tripwire is breached, others tick loudly causing those nearby to glance anxiously and frequently in their direction.
Peter Slipper sits firmly in the latter category, and most people in federal politics know it.
In terms that can only have been triple-checked by lawyers, journalists freely refer to Slipper as “Slippery Pete”, an apparent reference to his ability to survive political embarrassment, and brazenly document his enthusiastic enjoyment of the trappings of office. Some of Slipper’s other proclivities are reported too, including late night incidents in bars, being refused permission to board a plane, and catching a few zeds in parliament. Others are not reported, protected by the code of silence between politicians and the media on matters considered to be of a personal nature.
While officially Slipper is dubbed a “colourful” personality, the unofficial consensus when he became Speaker was that the experiment could only end in tears. The only unknown was whose tears would they be?
Perhaps they should be ours. The grave lesson for voters to take from the Slipper saga is that Gillard and Abbott showed not a shred of political judgement when they made him their catspaw. They recklessly exposed their parties to potential reputational devastation, and gave no thought to the emotional price that might be extracted from Slipper.
The Prime Minister would have only had to occasionally glance at a newspaper to have Slipper’s measure before she wooed him to become Speaker. Clearly the greater temptation was to finish the 2011 parliamentary year on a high political note by strengthening her parliamentary numbers and being able to rescind the politically unpalatable promise on poker machines she’d rashly made to Andrew Wilkie.
Did the PM not stop to consider that Abbott aimed to tear down anyone or anything that stood between him and the early demise of the Gillard minority government? By making him Speaker, Gillard effectively put a huge bullseye on Peter Slipper’s head.
Tony Abbott knew too, as did successive Liberal Party leaders before him, that Slipper was a potential walking disaster zone. Even a cursory due diligence investigation, such as those routinely conducted by political parties to ensure their candidates meet constitutional, statutory and civil propriety requirements, would have set off the warning bells. Nevertheless Slipper was continually re-endorsed for election by the Liberals from 1993 until he resigned to become an independent Speaker in 2011.
In reality Abbott was no more oblivious to Slipper’s ominous ticking than Gillard was. Once Slipper was made Speaker, and without even the slightest hint of chagrin, Abbott intoned that “Slipper is Gillard’s problem now”.
Subsequently either the Liberal Party or elements within it did their best to detonate Slipper, placing Ashby in his office to entrap and then claim sexual harassment. However, things did not quite go as planned.
Firstly, Slipper proved to be an excellent Speaker, showing neither fear nor favour to any MP, and being the first to eject a Federal Treasurer from the parliament in 80 years. He demonstrated an accomplished working knowledge of the House of Representatives’ powers, practice and procedures which endured strenuous testing every Question Time. The new Speaker even won over some of the cynical Twitter crowd who’d been strong fans of previous Speaker Harry Jenkins, and his idiosyncratic return to the ceremonial garments was welcomed by many as an effort to increase respect in the parliament by reinstating some of the tradition associated with the role.
Then, when the detonation finally came, it was not simply confined to Gillard’s hands. Justice Rare’s dismissal of Ashby’s sexual harassment claim redirected much of the messy and indiscriminate destruction back on to the Liberals and Tony Abbott. If it wasn’t so serious it would’ve been funny to imagine the host of cartoonish political players with an “oh I didn’t expect that” look on their explosive-streaked hands and faces.
It’s hard not to see there was always a good chance that no-one would prevail in the Slipper affair – and no-one has. Not the PM and Labor, who made the dubious decision to offer Slipper the position despite the probable consequences. Not Abbott and the Liberals, who turned a blind eye to Slipper’s flaws when he was one of theirs but ruthlessly tried to tear him down once he wasn’t.
Not Ashby. Not Brough. Not Slipper. Not the media or even the voters. None of us have emerged from the Slipper saga with our hands or consciences clean.
In some ways we the people have chosen to be political pawns too. Even now we play our part as the chorus, cheering and hissing from the colosseum benches while our pygmy gladiators, Gillard and Abbott, continue their battle. And nary a glance is made by any of us at the carnage they continue to leave in their wake.
There’s an old fashioned quality that might be creeping back into Australian federal politics. I say old fashioned because you don’t hear it mentioned much these days. But I think it may well be the deciding factor in next year’s federal election.
I’m referring to respect. You know, that thing we used to hold for teachers, policemen, our parents and politicians. It was a sometimes begrudging acknowledgement that authority figures had our best interests at heart, even if we didn’t much like the way they went about protecting us.
I used to hear a lot about respect when John Howard was Prime Minister. While voters didn’t particularly like him, he was elected four times because they trusted him to do the right thing for the country, and for quite some time he delivered on that trust.
While it’s a truism to say that respect can only be earned, it can also be a fragile thing that is easily shattered. I’d suggest the community’s respect for Howard was his electoral strength and the loss of that respect, brought on by WorkChoices and his government’s treatment of asylum seekers, was the weakness that brought Howard down.
The Prime Ministers immediately before John Howard were more in the charismatic mold. Bob Hawke was the jovial larrikin while Paul Keating was the intellectual aesthete. In their own ways, both leaders had a George Clooney-like magnetism that made their respective supporters want to be like them. Their stock in trade was adoration, not respect. No such fan club existed for the tracksuit-wearing Howard.
Kevin Rudd brought even less charisma than Howard to the Prime Minister’s role. In fact he cast himself as Howard-lite, with bonus features such as the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices. Ultimately, the creation of this expectation was Rudd’s downfall.
Initially, even despite his lack of animal magnetism, Rudd proved to be one of the most popular Australian Prime Ministers ever. However the public’s exuberance faltered when Rudd proved not to be like Howard at all, but an über bureaucrat who reserved all political and policy decisions to himself while setting up ever more labyrinthine committees and token consultation processes. Any respect the community might have had for Rudd arising from the apology to the Stolen Generations was quickly eroded by his seeming incapacity to deliver on anything much else.
Love or respect. Hearts or minds. That seems to be what it boils down to. Having failed to win the public’s respect with Kevin Rudd, Labor power-brokers then lurched in the other direction.