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Australian Current Affairs

New Australian government adopts policy of media silence


Anthony Albanese and Bill Shorten

Anthony Albanese and Bill Shorten

You can tell that something has shifted in Canberra. The hourly, daily thunder of the hung parliament and campaign and the whirl of the election result have been replaced with something more subdued, even mild-mannered.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has signalled a desire to take politics off the front pages. Parliament may not be back until November. He has given just three press conferences since he won government. The Coalition has stopped announcing each asylum-seeker boat as it arrives. And Abbott’s press secretary has issued a directive instructing ministers to check their media appearances with his office.

Things have also piped down in the press gallery. The Nine Network‘s Lane Calcutt discovered this first-hand after he posted a “flatmate wanted” ad for his daughter’s apartment. Once the notice went up, Calcutt began to field numerous calls from people such as “Clive Palmer” and a husband ringing on behalf of his entire family, who wanted to express faux interest. Down the corridor, a camera crew put a coin on the ground and had a camera filming the results, hooked up to a variety of fart sound effects.

Things must also have been quiet over at News Corp, where the spring clean was so thorough that original Fightback! documents were unearthed. But the vacuum created by the media-shy new government has not just been filled by archaeological policy digs or prank calls from homeless mining magnates. The Labor leadership contest has also jumped in to stop the void.

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Logic would have it that if a party loses power, it becomes less newsworthy – at least in the short term. Yet here in Australia, the opposite is the case. The contest between Anthony “Albo” Albanese and Bill “Bill” Shorten, coupled with the fact that Chris Bowen is acting as interim leader, has ensured a steady supply of Laboring.

The debates between the two wannabe leaders have been televised, tweeted and blogged live, their campaign launches around the country dutifully reported on, their doorstops scrutinised. Along the way, the three-leader phenomenon has elicited mixed responses.

While ALP members are delighted that they are now more involved in the power playing within their party, and Bowen certainly appears to be enjoying his time in the interim gig, others have expressed dismay that the moribund horse of the Labor leadership continues to be flogged well beyond the election.

But the situation suits the Coalition just fine. Eyebrows have been raised at Abbott’s anti-front page approach – whatever happened to transparency? – yet scrutiny of the Coalition has been muted by Labor’s public manoeuvering. It is perfect “look over there” stuff. And it feels nice and comfortable, because it is very similar to the dynamic of the Gillard years.

The ongoing urgency of Labor’s leadership woes has meant it has long been doing Abbott’s job for him (who was it that said Labor was both an opposition and government in one?) The Coalition has been well aware of this, often letting Labor’s wranglings go and be the story, rather than wade in and create one of their own. As of October 13, however, this shows signs of changing.

Provided there is not some sort of funniness between the caucus and the membership votes, the opposition will have a leader to unite behind. Even if you don’t buy the argument that the process will strengthen the party’s support for the leader, Kevin Rudd’s reforms will make it extremely difficult to dislodge the leader just because people decide someone else would be better.

What this means for the Coalition is that in two weeks’ time, they won’t be able to count on Labor running interference for them. And then what?

Abbott wants to take a step back from the 24/7 media cycle but this will be mighty difficult in an age when the media is 24/7. You can’t legislate to stop the internet.

Abbott may seek to run a government like John Howard or Robert Menzies, but he cannot replicate the very different media and technology circumstances they governed in. Howard was still in power when social media like Facebook and Twitter launched, but not when they became such powerful sources and distributors of news. Similarly, Howard was not in power when humble doorstops were routinely beamed live around the country.

Abbott can choose to do fewer press conferences, and clamp down on ministerial appearances. But that will not necessarily mean journalists – and punters – stop asking questions. Or stop being critical. Indeed if they are not distracted by a publicity-friendly government, they may even go on to do more investigating of their own.

Source: Sydney Morning Herald – Media vacuum a prank likely to backfire on Abbott
 

About Craig Hill

Teacher and Writer. Writing has been cited in New York Times, BBC, Fox News, Aljazeera, Philippines Star, South China Morning Post, National Interest, news.com.au, Wikipedia and others.

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