Election 2013 media panel

Never too late for policy debate

The great challenge for the Australian political media this week will not be that of accurately predicting the outcome of Saturday’s election. Rather, it will be to maintain public interest in what has become one of the most one-sided races in the nation’s history. Following the brief honeymoon spanning Kevin Rudd’s return to the premiership and the judgment of most observers that Tony Abbott had won the first leader’s debate, the outcome of the campaign has been beyond reasonable doubt.

Competing explanations for that fact will occupy politicians, publics and journalists for weeks and months to come, but for the next five days media organisations have to fill the expanded space a digital environment gives them with content which keeps audiences engaged.

So this Monday morning we see the attempt to turn Abbott’s ‘baddies versus baddies’ remark into a much more important story than it deserves to be. Such language has been in use by leaders in the US and the UK since 9/11 and the outbreak of ‘war on terror’, and Mr Abbott’s rhetorical simplification of what is a horrendously complex conflict is entirely in that tradition. Like the Coalition leader’s comment to military commanders while in Afghanistan that ‘shit happens’, there’s nothing to see here, and serious journalists should move along.

The attention given over the weekend to Abbott’s views on good guys and bad guys is a symptom of the lack of tension and drama in this final week. A story-telling vaccuum such as that now settling on the campaign enhances the newsworthiness of issues and event which might not otherwise register as headlines. When so many media outlets have so much space to fill, so many platforms to be present on, every morsel of potential news nourishment is seized upon. To paraphrase a well-known aphorism, news expands to fill the space provided for it. We can expect more of the same before the week’s out.

This is a pity, given the huge stakes involved in such questions as the future of the NBN and refugee policy, not to mention management of the economy. One might wonder how it could be that the Coalition could get away with providing such scant detail on costings until the last possible moment. How it could be that the government’s record in handling the GFC has been so marginal an issue for most of the media. For this writer, who lived through the credit crunch and its immediate aftermath in the UK, this is a genuinely surprising feature of the 2013 debate.

I spoke to two Aussies in the Hong Kong airport departure lounge on Saturday night. They were en route to Ireland, which has teetered on the verge of bankruptcy for five years. I wondered aloud, given their destination, why the ALP had failed to take the credit for managing Australia through the GFC with relatively few adverse impacts. No mystery, they replied. The ALP inherited a strong economy, and have gone on to screw it up for six years. Time for a change.

They may be right, but the immensity of the issue has not been reflected in rigorous, sustained, detached media coverage of the contenders’ economic arguments. Instead, we get acres of coverage of Tony’s views on ‘sex appeal’, or Rudd’s rudeness to make up staff in the studio, or whether ‘baddies’ is an appropriate term for a potential prime minister to use.

Maybe I’m being unfair. There has been a lot of excellent election coverage across the variety of platforms, and there is still time for more. And personality does matter, as I’ve argued previously in this space. But so do policies.

Kevin Rudd will appear on Q&A, and Abbott will address the press club with a keynote speech. There will be opportunities there for the media to scrutinise policy, and let us hope they are taken.

Tony Abbott has surprised many in this campaign with the quality of his media performances, and now looks set to take government away from an underwhelming Rudd. In the remaining days before that happens, Australia’s political media owe it to their readers, viewers and listeners to be as thorough and tough as they can on the policies of the challengers. After Saturday, after all, it will be too late.