Playing the post-election blues

A long time back I went on an eight-day directed retreat. I don't remember much of it except for the quiet reading, sleeping and long talks over meals with my Capuchin spiritual director.

Playing the post-election blues

What stands out was a line he used almost every day. It's become something of a mantra. As you move forward in life, he said, after every episode of challenge or significance, ask yourself, ‘What have I learnt and what have I become?’

 

The last three years have been a period of political significance and challenge. It's only right that we ask ourselves ‘What have we learnt and what have we become?’

 

Let's deal first with perhaps one of the more distressing aspects of the last three years. Was Australia ready for its first female Prime Minister? What should we make of the hostility that greeted Julia Gillard's rise and remained throughout her leadership? Gillard was routinely and regularly disparaged by sexist slogans and rants now all too familiar and well documented. Chants of ‘dump the witch’ and ‘Juliar’ mixed in with claims by talkback hosts that women were ‘wrecking the joint’ became regular political fare. The attacks on social media were even more vicious.

 

Some have blamed the nature of Gillard's political ascendancy for prompting the animosity that came her way. After all, hadn’t she taken Rudd down in a back room coup d'état? Leaving aside the annoying fact that Australian Prime Ministers are not made at the ballot box, would Wayne Swan or any other Labor frontbencher have fared as poorly had they done the same as Gillard? When Keating replaced Hawke or McMahon replaced Gorton, did anyone question their legitimacy?

 

It seems ambition is expected in our male politicians but derided in our female leaders. Peter Costello never challenged for the leadership in the dying days of the Howard era. He’s been at times criticised for his lack of political courage. Would anyone have questioned his legitimacy if he had challenged?

 

Gillard of course played into the nonsense when in the months between deposing Rudd and the 2010 election she refused to occupy the Lodge, signalling that she too doubted her own right to govern. Perhaps she was poorly advised. Nevertheless when Gillard does no more than countless men before her have done, she is denounced as a ruthless schemer beholden to faceless men. This says at least as much about us as it does about her.

 

In the aftermath of the election it is hard to avoid this sad commentary on our civic maturity; sexism and misogyny have played a leading part in our recent political life. A sorry admission when one considers that New Zealand, whom we often like to unfairly disparage as some kind of country cousin, has had two female Prime Ministers; Jenny Shipley (1997-1999) followed by Helen Clark who stayed in office for nine years until 2008. Little misogynist rancour could be heard from across the ditch.

 

Perhaps it was Julia Gillard's poor fortune to face off against one of the most successful opposition leaders in Australian history. Tony Abbott's energy, his constant campaigning, his ability to distil the issue of the day into short, sharp slogans that cut through the political white noise, combined to make a fearsome opponent.

 

The electorate has given Abbott a chance to show he is capable of dealing with the complexities of government and prove he is bigger than the negativity and gainsaying that characterised his leadership in opposition.

 

Should it not concern us though that our newly-minted Prime Minister has spent much of his time since the election apologising to our Asian neighbours for the very style of leadership that won him government? Is it good enough to laugh off the ugliness of the last three years with a smile and a grin, claiming that's how we play our politics? What does this say about him and what does it say about us that we have rewarded such tactics?

 

Commentators have remarked that ‘election mode Abbott’ was speaking to a domestic audience; that these comments were not geared for foreign consumption. But shouldn’t we be concerned by a style of political campaigning that says one thing to one audience while crafting a different message to another? Are not the contradictions inherent in such campaigning the very opposite of integrity?

 

What role did the media play in all of this? Over three years of minority government and later in the 2013 campaign, the Murdoch press broke new ground in partisan political reporting. Murdoch’s The Australian, described by academic Robert Manne as a ‘remorseless campaigning paper’,[1] relentlessly pursued Labor, the Greens and anything you might describe as progressive politics. A Commonwealth Parliamentary Library study of political coverage in The Australian undertaken over twelve years of editorials (2000 to 2011) identified five that were positive towards politics of the left and 188 that portrayed them negatively.[2]

 

With front-page banner headlines declaring ‘Kick this Mob Out’[3] and portrayals of the Labor leadership as a comedy ensemble from Hogan’s Heroes,[4] the tactics of Murdoch’s Daily Telegraph would dwarf even the The Australian during the 2013 campaign.

 

Australian print media frequently endorse political parties and candidates. This normally takes place on editorial pages or on opinion pages. The Murdoch press however has departed from this routine and acceptable practice to embed its political bias within its news coverage. Selecting and shaping content to advance a political argument is to enter the political debate not as an honest broker but as a propagandist. When you consider the reach and dominance of the Murdoch media machine, this is a frightening development.

 

Regardless of the change in government the critical issues of Australian politics have not gone away. Third World citizens continue to seek refuge from both political and economic hardship. The climate will continue to warm. State schools remain underfunded. The National Disability Insurance Scheme is not bedded down. Infrastructure is ageing. Housing affordability in our cities is at an all-time low. Income inequality is rising. The benefits of our mining wealth are not shared equally.  Will the new government respond to these issues with a focus on the common good – or with an eye to protecting status quo interests?

 

What have we learnt and what have we become?

 

 

Michael Elphick is a consultant and a freelance writer. He welcomes comments on his writing at michael.elphick@bigpond.com



[1] Manne, Robert Bad News, Murdoch’s Australian and the Shaping of the Nation. Quarterly Essay No. 43 2011, 3

[2] Ibid, 101

[3] Daily Telegraph, August 5, 2013

[4] Daily Telegraph, August 9, 2013

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