It’s About Muckraking, Not Kingmaking

The Abbott Government’s expenses scandal has been a wonderful natural experiment.

Most political scandals are three-pronged contests, pitting opposition against government against media. Each vie against the others to pursue their goals: winning office, keeping office, selling eyeballs to advertisers.

So usually it’s hard to tell which faction is the driving force behind the controversy – political party dirt units, muck-raking journalists, or partisan commentators.

But not this time. The Labor party has dealt itself out of the expenses debate. (Fair enough, too. They’ve been busy with a leadership ballot. Nor has Labor wanted to expose itself to charges of hypocrisy. See, as an amusing exception to this discretion, Mark Dreyfus.)

Labor’s absence has left the whole expenses scandal as a simple, clean contest between media and the government.

That seems to have made it more frustrating for the Coalition, rather than less. There has been no way to dismiss the allegations as the product of Labor dirt. But more importantly, this natural experiment reveals just how indulgent the debate over the influence of the media was during the Rudd and Gillard years.

Left intellectuals have spent the past six years obsessing over the wickedness of Australia’s press corps. First we were told the press didn’t care about policy, then that the press was speculating about leadership tensions that didn’t exist, then how it was trying to secure government for Tony Abbott.

At its most lucid, the obsession with the media was displaced frustration with Labor’s hapless performance turned into anger about Rupert Murdoch. At its worst, it produced the sort of mad conspiracy of the #ashbygate crowd.

The expenses scandal demonstrates how off-target all that outrage about the media really was. It turns out the press is more interested in muckraking than kingmaking.

Those Labor supporters who imagined Abbott to be the media’s darling must be very confused.

Remember being told that Abbott was a former journo himself, he provided great copy, and therefore journalists in the press gallery had taken a personal liking to him?

Contrast that with the obvious frustration the new prime minister has had trying to deal with the expenses story in the middle of the APEC summit in Bali.

It’s not like the expenses affair is a particularly scandalous scandal. Parliamentary expenses are one of those stories that journalists can pull out of their pocket on a rainy day.

Questionable expenses claims are regularly reported. They will be with us forever. And compared to the British expenses scandal a few years ago, it’s all a bit pathetic. No Australian politician has billed taxpayers for cleaning their moat.

If the Coalition thought the press was on their side before the election, they no longer do now.

Hopefully there’s another lesson the Coalition will learn from this episode – there’s no such thing as media management.

It seems like yesterday that commentators were telling us just how calmly and quietly the Abbott Government was going about its business. This was apparently a revolutionary change from the media hungry style of Kevin Rudd.

One week after the election, Laurie Oakes wrote that Abbott had shunned the demands of the 24 hour news cycle and gotten on with “working rather than talking”.

They say a week is a long time in politics, but, really, it’s not that long. When all this was being said, the government hadn’t even properly formed. Technically Kevin Rudd was still prime minister.

And, in retrospect, the argument that the Coalition had invented a brilliant new style of media management is pretty funny. The government has wasted two entire weeks trying to bat away the expenses affair.

Politics cannot be willed off the front pages. The media cannot be managed. It can only be defended against.

Kevin Rudd’s infamous one-announcement-per-day strategy was less about controlling the news cycle and more an attempt to out-run negative publicity. But the negativity caught up.

And a good thing too.

Most people say the media should aim to rigorously scrutinise government actions. But it should do more than that: the media should be openly hostile to the government. It ought to be fickle. Sometimes even unfair.

After all, the government is the single most powerful institution in society. Australian governments consume or redistribute over a third of the total resources of the nation.

With such power concentrated in one institution, the real risk to liberal democracy isn’t that the press is unfair to the government, but that it is too indulgent.

During the Labor years, nobody could accuse the press of that sin. And, if the last fortnight is any indication, this term of government will be the same.