This election will be one of the most interesting and unpredictable in Australia’s history, and also one of the most important. Two very different approaches to meeting the challenges of the Asian century are on offer, each with different winners and losers both at home and abroad. And just when it seemed that the result was going to be a foregone conclusion, with Julia Gillard leading a dysfunctional ALP into electoral oblivion for a generation, now there are two credible candidates for prime minister, leading two credible parties.
Regardless of the bizarre circumstances which brought Kevin Rudd back from the political deadzone – and no western democracy has ever shown such casual brutality to its elected national leaders as was inflicted on Rudd in 2010, and Gillard in 2013 – his re-emergence was a game changer, and no pollster can now reliably call the result.
That may change, but as of now, and the launch of this panel - set up to monitor and comment on the media campaign as it unfolds – both main parties are genuinely competitive. For that reason, the campaign will be aggressive, and intense. Most campaigns are, but given the tight polling numbers and the personal animosity which seems to fuel the respective leaderships as they compete to be seen to be tougher than each other on asylum policy, more competent on economic policy, more or less ambitious on education, disability support and broadband roll out, the 2013 campaign looks set to be a corker. Bad-tempered, coldly calculating, tricksy – and wonderfully entertaining.
The Conversation’s media panel will aim to capture those qualities, as well as taking a detached, non-partisan look at the substance of the campaigns as they evolve day to day, week to week. It will analyse the communicative strategies being employed to sell the competing programs to what is, by most accounts, a somewhat disillusioned and cynical electorate.
The focus of contributors will be on the established, mainstream media, for the simple reason that these remain the key points of entry for citizens who wish to be informed about Australian politics.
Social media will be more prominent in this campaign than ever before, used round the clock by the parties to organise and disseminate their messages, and by citizens to share and debate those messages. There exists a vast online commentariat of bloggers, tweeters, Facebookers and Youtubers who comprise a parallel public sphere running alongside the “big media” of the mainstream.
Increasingly, new and old media intersect, or collide, as they compete to set agendas and blow the whistle on each other’s inaccuracies and flaws. In the future social network and internet sources may come to dominate media coverage of political campaigns, their speed, ubiquity and decentralised nature endowing the citizen, or the amateur observer, with an unprecedented degree of access to the consumption AND production of meaningful public discourse about politics.
But we are not there yet. In 2013 the key media of influence on the Australian people as they set about choosing their next government will be those with which they are familiar, and which, even as they decline in reach over time, retain the greatest degree of credibility as information sources. Even the 24-hour news channels of ABC and Sky command audiences of magnitudes smaller than the mainstream outlets – free-to-air TV and radio news bulletins, prime time current affairs, mass circulation newspapers.
Work by Melbourne University’s Sally Young and others showed that in the 2010 election online channels and networks were used by relatively few of the Australian population to read and talk about politics, and certainly not by the great mass of “ordinary” citizens. Legacy media, staffed by professionals and resourced to a level deemed necessary for what we might call “quality” political journalism – although that resourcing is at risk as never before in the emerging business models of News, Fairfax and their mainstream competitors – are the main source of news for most of the people, most of the time. It may be that in 2013 Australia will have its Nate Silver moment, in which an online upstart proves the traditional punditocracy to be full of bluster and hyperbole, as he or she correctly calls the electoral outcome on the basis of publicly available stats.
For now, however, the mainstream media and their army of commentators, reporters and analysts will be the first port of call for most Australians as they seek to follow the campaign’s twists and turns. This panel will act as a kind of filter on the coverage, sifting and sorting for trends, patterns and features of potential significance to the outcome.