In his 1991 study, The Courtesans, Derek Parker examined the relationship between the Canberra Press Gallery and the Hawke Government. Parker observed that in its 1990 quest for re-election Labor could count on three valuable assets.
The ALP possesses the same three today and, if not effectively countered, they will influence the outcome of the next federal election.
The first asset Parker identified was money. “A great deal of money.” In the 1990 election campaign, Parker noted, Labor outspent its Coalition opponents by a factor of almost two to one.
The Liberal Party’s honorary federal treasurer Michael Yabsley recently reported that, according to the Australian Electoral Commission, “in the financial year ending June 2008 the ALP raised $48.1 million from business, individuals, unions, investments, associated entities and industry associations.
“The Liberal Party raised $16.1 million.”
Yabsley said, “The gap in fundraising places the Liberal Party at a significant disadvantage in a campaign against Labor and is, ultimately, a threat to the health of our democracy.”
As reported this week, the Labor Party coffers are so healthy, it can invest its own money in an advertising campaign designed to sell the 2009 Budget.
The second and third ALP assets that Parker nominated were media-related.
Parker noted that, second, Labor “had little compunction in using tactics which can only be called dishonest”. There were no constraints in tactical terms for Labor – for example, making spurious claims and telling outrights lies about the Opposition were cost-free in terms of media criticism, he wrote.
“The Hawke Government could depend on the Gallery to give it the benefit of the doubt” and it did not extend the same terms to the Coalition.
The asset Parker considered to be most vital was one that has been present throughout the life of the Rudd Government and was especially noticeable over the past few weeks.
“Perhaps most importantly,” Parker wrote, “the Hawke Government could depend on the press gallery to provide an environment which was benign, if not always enthusiastic.
“Without this implicit support, the Government’s strategy of making the Opposition into the central campaign issue while itself avoiding detailed analysis of policies, could not have worked.”
We have seen this asset working for Labor in the present economic crisis where Rudd Government prescriptions are accepted at face value and the media blowtorch is applied to Opposition objections.
The ABC’s Lateline presenter Tony Jones announced that the Rudd recession was the one “we had to have”. He described the Rudd deficits in exactly the same way.
This week it was almost laughable, in the face of a Budget that promises a $58 billion deficit, to see the ABC’s Kerry O’Brien asking, “Where is the real horror?”
The ABC’s economic commentator Alan Kohler passed off the Budget as a “non-event”.
The week before, O’Brien berated Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull for not supporting Kevin Rudd. On Insiders, Barry Cassidy hounded Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey over the question of what size the deficit would be under the Coalition. Cassidy’s interview theme was completely in tune with what would be Labor’s own post-Budget line of attack in the Parliament later in the week.
In his News Limited column, Laurie Oakes briefly acknowledged the Rudd Government’s post-Budget media manipulation and then went on to devote most of his commentary to criticism of Malcolm Turnbull and other Coalition members.
The Sydney Morning Herald’s Annabel Crabb is one courtesan who doesn’t even bother to try to deny a double standard. Discussing the Rudd Government’s Budget announcement that the retirement age will be raised progressively to 67, a jovial Crabb asked fellow panellists on Insiders, “Can you imagine John Howard doing this? Can you imagine the fuss we would have made if he had put the retirement age back …?”
Derek Parker wrote that the 1990 election result was “intensely dispiriting for the conservative parties, especially given the economic climate”. He argued that “the attitude of the press gallery was the foundation on which the re-election of the Hawke Government was built.”
The Canberra Press Gallery and a number of influential commentators outside of Canberra have always given Labor the same kind of support Parker described 18 years ago. However, the difference has been that the Coalition fought the last four federal elections from a position of incumbency.
With the next federal election almost certainly less than 18 months away, the Coalition parties face a difficult task. One of the big questions will be, as the economy declines, whether or not today’s more media savvy electorate will see through what will be, most certainly, a very dense fog of Labor and media spin.
John Styles is the editor of Australian Conservative.