(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, September 11.)
Right to the very end – even after he had convincingly won the Australian election, dealing his Labor opponents their most crushing defeat in a century – some of the Australian media continued to treat prime minister-elect Tony Abbott as a figure of ridicule.In fact one of the most striking aspects of the election across the Tasman is that it demonstrated very clearly the extent to which the Australian media have become politicised. It also showed, not for the first time, how out of touch Australian political journalists are with the public they supposedly serve.
If the Australian Labor Party needs to examine itself thoroughly and honestly in the aftermath of the election, then so too do the Australian news media.The Australian press has become arguably the most politically partisan in the Western world. Broadly speaking, the state-owned Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the influential Fairfax Media papers – the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Age – threw their weight behind the Labor government while the Murdoch press backed Abbott’s Liberal-led coalition.
The snarling feud between the leading media outlets – which of course are bitter commercial rivals too – became almost as much a theme of the election as the contest between the politicians.Tough luck for Australian voters wanting a detached, objective assessment of the parties, the politicians and the policies. In my view this was a fundamental misuse of media power.
It was impossible to avoid the conclusion that many journalists – even those who accepted that the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd government had become terminally dysfunctional – couldn’t stomach the thought of Abbott as prime minister.Hence the continuing derisive references, even as Australians were going to the polls, to the “budgie-smuggler” Speedo swimming togs Abbott was once photographed in.
For heaven’s sake, that was in 2009. That journalists continued to mock him over what they perceived as an offence against good taste said more about them than it did about Abbott. It not only exposed their sneering antipathy towards him, but also their warped notion about what mattered to Australian voters.And it revealed a strong streak of elitist liberal snobbery – as did the ridiculous fuss made over harmless comments made by Abbott on the campaign trail.
So he commented that a young female Liberal candidate had sex appeal, and on another occasion mentioned his good-looking daughters. You’d think, from the ensuing media hysteria over these supposed “gaffes”, that he’d advocated the bombing of boats carrying asylum-seekers.To their great credit, Australian voters refused to be distracted by these media diversions. They recognised, even if the Canberra press gallery didn’t, that Australia urgently needed to be rescued from a desperate Labor government that had lost its way and was being led down a blind alley by the increasingly erratic, impulsive and egotistical Kevin Rudd, a man who gave the impression of being prepared to say or do anything in order to cling to power.
Don’t get me wrong: Abbott doesn’t exactly give the impression that he’s a political giant. (Then again, neither did John Howard, and he won four terms). But he certainly deserved better than to be derided in the media as the Mad Monk, presumably on the basis of his Catholicism.He is, after all, a former Rhodes Scholar who attained a Master of Arts degree at Oxford. Even former Labor prime minister Bob Hawke cautioned that Abbott was underrated by his rivals.
Now the shattered Australian Labor Party must rebuild. It promises to be a long and arduous process, but the party that produced such notable prime ministers as Hawke, Paul Keating, the wartime leader John Curtin and Ben Chifley deserves better than to be to be left in tatters by the unscrupulous, self-serving plotters and conspirators who came to power in 2007.In New Zealand, of course, Labour is going through a similar reconstruction process, having tried two leaders and found them wanting since the formidable Helen Clark stood down following the election defeat of 2008.
As in Australia, the party is dogged by factionalism, though not nearly to the same extent (or with such corrosive effects).In both countries, Labour faces something of an identity crisis. Traditionally the party of the working class, it has been taken over by university-educated, middle-class, urban professionals – teachers, academics and the like – whose concerns are often far removed from those of Labour’s core constituency.
It’s largely due to the tension between the progressive and traditional wings of the party, which Miss Clark adroitly managed, that Labour has been destabilised. Whether the current three-way leadership contest will resolve matters remains to be seen.The difficulty of reconciling the two factions is neatly personified by Grant Robertson, who is said to be the caucus favourite for the leadership.
Robertson is gay, which sits very well with the fashionable identity politics embraced by the party’s liberal wing. But Labour depends on the brown vote, especially in South Auckland, and church-going Pacific Islanders are hostile to homosexuality. A gay leader could well drive them into the arms of New Zealand First or the Conservative Party.And there are other problems on the way. Eager to convince the party rank-and-file of their socialist credentials, the contenders have been busy outbidding each other in their determination to show how far to the left they are.
But far-left policies that play well to party stalwarts are unlikely to appeal to middle New Zealand. So whoever becomes leader must either moderate those policies further down the track – and face accusations of betrayal from Labour hard-liners – or risk annihilation at the ballot box.Former leader David Shearer – a man whose intelligence is not in doubt, even if he lacked leadership skills – alluded to this danger in a candid interview with TVNZ political editor Corin Dann on Sunday.
Shearer, who clearly blames the party’s left wing for undermining his leadership, made the point that the activists want to take the party further left when it should be moving to the centre.Nothing would give the National government more comfort than for the Labour left to prevail. I imagine that prime minister John Key and his strategists are delighted with the course events are taking.