Election 2013 media panel

Why didn’t we know enough about Senate candidates?

As the nation woke up to a new Coalition government on Sunday morning, it has also gradually dawned on many of us the uncertain nature of the final vote in the Senate. Of greater concern from a media coverage perspective, however, is how much exactly do we all know about the many different candidates who stood for the Senate around the country. And why wasn’t there more focus on this during the election campaign?

This is especially so since it was clear from early in the campaign – if not from the beginning of the year when the former prime minister Julia Gillard announced a fixed election date – that the government was going to struggle to win another term.

How, exactly, the Senate was going to be made up after the election was unclear, to be sure. But how much coverage was there of preferential system and of how the many new minor parties planned to distribute their preferences? Tim Colebatch, writing for Fairfax Media, gave this issue some coverage, but he appeared to be one of few commentators focusing on it.

At the least, after Colebatch signalled with a report during the election campaign that the make up of the Senate was likely to be (a) very uncertain and (b) controlled by minor parties, wasn’t it incumbent on other mainstream news media outlets to begin focusing on it? It looks like only a few people voted below the line.

Most people followed a party’s preferences by voting above the line. But how many of us knew exactly where our chosen candidate and party were distributing their preferences? And yet, what is becoming clear is that the make up of the senate will play a critical role in the fortunes of the Abbott coalition government, not to mention the nation, in the next three years at least.

Brian McNair and David Holmes’ incisive commentary on the campaign media coverage this morning notwithstanding, it is worth asking whether the media’s focus on the presidential-style campaign from both leaders has been at the expense of fuller coverage of the prospective make-up of the Senate. We probably all should have been paying more attention to the raft of candidates and their preference flows but that is at least one of the roles of the news media.

Given that it appears most Australians voted strongly against the prospect of another three years of minority government - and that now the nation faces a related kind of instability in the Senate - this is surely pause for reflection in the nation’s newsrooms.