Inside Story

Current affairs and culture from Australia and beyond

Election 2013: The view from up above

Britain’s media coverage of Australia’s election is lively but limited, finds David Hayes

David Hayes 28 August 2013 4029 words

Deeply connected: Boris Johnson fact-finding for his London Daily Telegraph column at the Melbourne Writers Festival last week. David Crosling/AAP

AGGRO blokes, fluffed lines, daggy moments, spoof videos. Asylum rows, TV jousts, spending worries, poll trends. London’s news grinder – and this goes for both broadcasting and print – processes Australia’s election into a daily blink-and-you-miss-it snapshot. By turns lurid and sober, each episode features a testy leading character, his snappy rival, and the occasional eccentric extra. The audience is wholly unseen. The producers do their best to squeeze sense into the seconds or column inches available. Then the shutter comes down – until tomorrow’s glimpse.

At the opposite end of the content spectrum, a borderless deluge is just a click away. It includes two London-generated “brand extensions” – Guardian Australia and Spectator Australia – spraying welcome and punchy, if also hectic, commentary. Easy to find, undemanding to read, hard to love.

The combination of morsel and glut can leave the reader gasping, like Grace Kelly in Hitchcock’s Rear Window: “Tell me what you know, and what you think it means!” So it is a relief to find occasional sustenance in a more reflective or detailed piece from a reporter. Here, for example, is how David Pilling, Asia editor of the Financial Times, begins his column on the economic context of the choice between “an unlikeable narcissist” and “an unpopular misogynist”:

For two decades, Australia has deserved its reputation as a “lucky country.” Alone in the developed world, since 1991 it has been recession-free. It admirably weathered the global financial crisis thanks to a sound financial system and a made-in-China mining boom that has turbocharged the economy. As well as massive coal and iron ore deposits, it has huge reserves of natural gas ready to liquefy and ship to energy-starved Japan and South Korea. It continues to enjoy low public debt, low inflation and, for now, relatively low unemployment.

The term “lucky country,” however, has an addendum. Coined by writer and social critic Donald Horne in 1964, the full phrase is less breezily optimistic. “Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck.” Next month’s general election, in which voters must choose which of two flawed politicians should steer them through the choppier economic waters ahead, will test Horne’s aphorism to its limits.

And here is the opening of Kathy Marks’s account from Sydney (where she is the Independent’s correspondent) on a newcomer’s travails:

When a party that espouses human rights and social justice appears to be in cahoots with gun nuts and neo-fascists, that’s not a good look. When it loses a star candidate two weeks before an election, that’s careless. And when the same party, supposedly synonymous with democracy and transparency, is accused by its own members of secretive decision-making, that could spell electoral oblivion.

The party in question is the WikiLeaks Party, established in March by Julian Assange, the founder of the whistle-blowing WikiLeaks website. Despite his indefinite sojourn at Ecuador’s embassy in London, Mr Assange hopes to win a seat in the Australian Senate. “When you turn a bright light on, the cockroaches scuttle away, and that’s what we need to do to Canberra,” he told Australia’s Nine Network recently.

Last week, a bright light was shone on the party itself, and it illuminated, at worst, something rather unsavoury, at best, rank incompetence. Whichever, it prompted the departure of Mr Assange’s articulate and glamorous running mate, Leslie Cannold, along with four members of the governing national council. And there may be more desertions before the 7 September election.

THE good news in all areas, though – broadcasting, print and the net – is that there is commitment to the story, even amid a high English summer and big overseas crises (Egypt, Syria, and the National Security Agency and Edward Snowden) that jostle for page space. Australia’s turbulent recent political history takes most credit. The Julia Gillard–Kevin Rudd melodrama, and Gillard’s viral “misogyny” assault on Tony Abbott, give the contest a rare definition here. Lynton Crosby’s high-profile role as a strategist for David Cameron’s Conservatives, and to a degree the rotation of other advisers such as John McTernan, are a reminder of significant links. (Crosby, by order of the National Federation of Headline Writers and Sub-Editors, must be referred to in every article as the “wizard of Oz.”) Julian Assange’s presence in London’s Ecuadorian embassy, and his own candidacy, provide another ready-made theme. Even the serendipity (if that’s the word) of the Ashes series creates a positive feedback loop. So when Rudd fired the starting gun, reporters and editors were ready to run.

The attention has held up, matching if not exceeding that devoted to Germany’s simultaneous campaign. Reports have variously focused on gaffes, polls, policies and (above all) leaders. In respect of the first, Peter Dowling, Stephanie Banister, Jaymes Diaz and Mark Latham have all had their two minutes of notoriety, but Abbott – widely viewed as an accident waiting to happen – provides the most copy. It’s not all unfriendly. The Sunday Telegraph’s Jonathan Pearlman turned the Fiona Scott comment into a tale of daughterly maturity, under the bewildering headline “The girls guiding ‘daggy’ Dad Abbott” (11 August) – which on the paper’s (now paywalled) website was helpfully translated as “Tony Abbot’s [sic] secret weapon in Australia election: his two daughters.” Beneath another baffling clunker in the Sunday Times, “Rocky and the finger crusher in battle for Oz” (11 August), the inimitable Nick Cater – last encountered in Frank Bongiorno’s delicious profile – was upbeat: “In contrast to Rudd, Abbott – an athletic former amateur boxer who trained as a Catholic priest – has been running a low-key, low-risk campaign, promising to restore sanity and stability to government.”

The polling trends, too, and especially the gradual erosion of Rudd’s numbers since his second coming, are a regular hook. Policy less so, though the asylum issue had a good run in the campaign’s opening week. Its clear echo of similar British concerns makes it appealing, though there is no similar interest in Australia’s health and education, or even climate change and foreign policy. Where China is mentioned it is in the context of questions over commodity prices and Australia’s trading prospects, mostly aired on the business pages (as are intermittent reports on the National Broadband Network, mostly in the Financial Times and Rupert Murdoch’s Times.)

As for the party leaders, Kevin vs Tony is the story. Constituency and Senate contests, regional variations, even party politics, don’t – the WikiLeaks story aside – get a look-in. Were it not for the rare constitutional reminder, the election could be taking place in a presidential republic. (In a sense this is London’s comfort zone: across the media here there is far more material on every race for the White House than on all world elections combined.) The TV debates are an obvious focus, so far seen as confirming Rudd’s proficiency in this arena and the essential dullness of the would-be gladiators.

BEYOND the daily dramas, Britain’s cacophony of political columnists is largely holding fire, a situation certain to change as the climax nears and the votes come in. The few outriders already visible have set the template by – what else? – inspecting the Australian terrain for domestic lessons. Most come from the right, which may reflect both confidence in an Abbott victory and a turn in Westminster’s mood.

Adam Boulton, the been-there-seen-it-all political editor of Sky News, used his robust column in the Sunday Times – on the same day as Cater’s story, which despite its assertiveness was in the news pages – both to highlight the election’s importance and to make a wider point about the insecurity of modern party leaders. “Australia is the place to be for politicos unable to switch off,” he writes, for its election is “the biggest democratic contest this year in the English-speaking world.” After noting that “Australia’s business hotels are clogged with carpetbagging consultants” who are part of the Washington–London–Canberra carousel, Boulton wonders if, after the Rudd comeback, “an Aussie-style leadership change could bring about a similar change in political fortunes for any of our contenders.” The answer is yes, and here Australia is showing the way:

The lessons you can learn from Australia are about democracy. Even if Abbott wins, he may not last long… and could soon find a dagger in his back. That’s as it should be, our political leaders are never quite safe and their enemies are right behind them.

Boris Johnson, as the mayor of London, has been the recipient of more Australian votes than any other British politician. He may also be able to exert a degree of influence on Australian voters across Britain. Fresh from a well-reported visit to Australia, his Daily Telegraph column reheated the classic argument (mainly the copyhold of anti-Europe Tories) that Britain’s global policy should look beyond the European Union to the Commonwealth. One country, in particular, for “we British are more deeply connected with the Australians – culturally and emotionally – than with any other country on earth.” He cited the deficient employment rights of expat Australian teachers as compared with their European counterparts to argue for more open movement between the countries via a “bilateral Free Labour Mobility Zone.” The key proposition – wrapped up in a bit of flim-flam about “giving a fair suck of the sauce bottle” to an individual teacher who pressed her case to him in Melbourne – is that this “would be an assertion that we are no longer thinking of ourselves as little Europeans, run by Brussels, but as a country with a truly global perspective.” A typical Boris firework, guaranteed to receive maximum publicity – and favourable notice within the party he longs, after David Cameron, to lead – before disappearing without trace.

More substantial, if more ambiguous, is Tim Montgomerie’s column in the Times, which assesses the leadership styles of Rudd and Abbott in the context of broader democratic changes. Montgomerie, who founded the successful Conservative Home website before becoming the Times’s comment editor, mentions other Abbott embarrassments – the Katy Perry exchange, the “suppository” – only to dismiss them. For “there is only one fashion-chasing politician in Australia’s looming and closely fought election and that is Kevin Rudd. There is no perfect experiment in politics – there are far too many variables and complexities – but Australia’s election is as close as we get to a lab contest between the politics of followership and leadership.”

Labor’s “Groucho Marxism” – we’ll change our manifesto if you don’t like it – is reflected in Rudd’s reversals over the carbon tax, same-sex marriage, and his earlier embrace of what Montgomerie calls “a permissive approach to immigration.” This makes him a symbol of “a powerful trend in contemporary politics,” the rise of “weathervane politicians, who are more followers of opinion than shapers of it.” In this, he is closer to Germany’s Angela Merkel, Canada’s Stephen Harper or Britain’s David Cameron (who “regularly junks unpopular or difficult policies”) than to Margaret Thatcher or late-period Tony Blair. Abbott is “more Thatcher than Merkel” and a victory on 7 September could make him “a hero for grassroots Conservatives in Britain and farther afield,” for he will “represent a different and important future for conservatism.”

But this doesn’t imply, as the reader might think at this stage, that Abbott is merely an inheritor of the kind of unbending politics that Thatcher is held to embody. Rather, Montgomerie sees him on one side of a new contest between “a consumerist approach to politics that gives voters what they want and a conviction approach that tries to give them what they need.” Abbott understands that voters “don’t mind traditional conservative views on tax, immigration and welfare,” and largely want “a more compassionate conservatism rather than a more liberal one.” Here, he is ahead of Cameron, who “chased the votes of liberal Britain when he wanted to increase the Tory vote” – and failed, while alienating the core. Abbott is in the place to be: on the side of “the little guy,” and that includes being prepared to cut “big business or big government or other vested interests” down to size. “If he wins the keys to Kirribilli House” he will need to be pragmatic, he will need above all to be competent, but “the global importance of Mr Abbott” is that “he represents the only kind of conservatism that can ever win a majority: a mix of traditional values with outreach to the working classes.”

Montgomerie’s high hopes are clearly a reminder to Tory voters and MPs to be thinking hard about a successor to David Cameron in the (still likely) event he fails to win a majority in 2015. (Here there is an overlap with Johnson’s piece.) They also register the sense of interconnectedness between the Australian and British polities that animates influential Conservatives, something reflected too in the Daily Mail columnist Simon Heffer’s lengthy and – for him – restrained censure of Kevin Rudd by way of an extended comparison with Tony Blair. (“Rudd does a passable imitation of Blair’s smoothness and reasonableness, but lacks Blair’s advantage of a useless opposition,” Heffer writes in the Spectator. “Rudd, like Blair, sees running a left-of-centre government as a mission to create a client state, whose votes will return his party to power again and again.”)

By contrast, the left has been largely silent on the election. Those with Australian connections, such as Labour’s policy coordinator Jon Cruddas and his co-thinkers, seem to have fallen down a culturalist intellectual rabbit-hole, whose political applications are ever less evident. The field is thus open to the charge of the heavy brigade. The vainglorious Labour MP Tom Watson, scourge of News International who recently resigned as Labour’s campaign coordinator, is in Australia, where – puffs the ever vehement Mirror columnist Kevin Maguire – he is “exposing how Rudd’s right-whinge rival Tony Abbott is a puppet of Aussie-American media mogul Rupert Murdoch. Ed Miliband’s loss may prove Rudd’s gain.” John Prescott, Labour’s former deputy leader, uses his own Mirror column to hold open the option that Lynton Crosby “should be sent back Down Under where he belongs.” Readers can also enjoy the relentlessly withering (and therefore ineffective) polemics of John Pilger in the New Statesman and Guardian, or the self-consciously hardboiled counsel of John McTernan in the Telegraph and Scotsman.

McTernan, drawing on his experience as communications director to Julia Gillard, muses on the “very different tradition of Australian parliamentary politics,” the role of shock jocks in the public arena, and the “strangest possible” role of climate change in politics, concluding that the importance of the climate issue “is a reflection of an unmodernised Tory party in Australia.” In turn this highlights the way that compulsory voting and preferential voting, plus tight party management, “regularly [deliver] decisive results.” If a party is serious about politics, which is “a contact sport,” then “the will to win” is essential. But that’s less true in Britain, as evidenced in the “assassination of Tony Blair,” which “baffles Australians.” After all, “Australians play politics like they play sport. Ruthlessly, and to win.”

The establishing devices in this column – brutality, sport, difference itself – also appear in a piece for the South Wales Echo by Rhodri Morgan, the former Labour first minister of Wales. “Australian politics is a rough old trade… Australian Labour politics is unique. You don’t find this behaviour pattern in New Zealand or British Labour politics.” There is an ancient reductiveness at work here, which goes in all directions, though perhaps its greater prevalence on the left just now is another small index of mental retreat. Compare Boris’s “just like us,” however calculating the sentiment. When talking about Australia (and not only there), the intelligent right sounds not just more confident than its counterparts – that is politically understandable – but also readier to connect its language to a sense of everyday lives, interests and choices.

AUSTRALIA’S economy is one of the election debate’s most important themes. Larry Elliott, the Guardian’s economics editor, outsources his familiar one-note catastrophism under the deathless headline, “Ashes to economy: why Australia may be on the brink of a new collapse” (18 August) and photo caption, “Australia captain Michael Clarke kicks at the turf in frustration during the 2nd Ashes Test. But there are signs that his country’s economy may also face problems.” The evidence is then press-ganged into the ultra-laborious metaphor. Australia’s sound longer-term policies and the fortuitous timing of China’s rising demand made it “the Ireland of the antipodes” – but now, less favourable trading conditions and the larger global slowdown in growth mean that Australia’s export-dependent economy is being “propped up by the one remaining source of growth – an overvalued real estate market.” Australia thus “could go the same way” as busted Ireland:

Australia now bears all the hallmarks of a country where its industrial base has hollowed out. The decision by Ford Australia to close its manufacturing plants at Broadmeadows and Geelong is evidence of what economists call Dutch disease: a natural resource boom drives up the exchange rate and makes all other exports deeply uncompetitive…

The Reserve Bank of Australia is now cutting interest rates and talking down the currency in an attempt to rebalance the economy. That is easier said than done when your economy amounts to a large hole in the ground ringed by some expensive property. The risk is of a sudden Aussie collapse of the sort that has become all too familiar on English cricket grounds this summer.

Other overviews, such as Neil Hume’s in the Financial Times, before the election was called, offer a more nuanced picture of the slowdown. He concludes:

[Most] economists believe Australia will avoid recession because the RBA still has scope to lower interest rates. After years of under-building, there is scope for more housing construction… [A] weaker Australian dollar could give a welcome boost to domestic tourism, higher education and manufacturers. Along with a rise in consumer spending, this could be enough to boost growth next year, but possibly after a slowdown to 2 per cent in the second half of the year.

There are other reasons for optimism. The surge in resource investment will eventually start to bear fruit in the form of higher commodity exports. As production from Australia’s new LNG plants comes on stream in 2015 and 2016 they will add about 1.1 percentage points to real GDP, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

However, the transition away from a resource-dominated economy is unlikely to be smooth. And whoever wins the election… Australia is in for a bumpy ride.

LOOKING at the coverage as a whole, with the proviso that much more will flow until voting day, three things stand out. First, there is enough easily accessible material for any interested person to acquire both a good understanding of the main elements of the campaign and exposure to a range of views. That includes BBC radio, where expatriate Australian Trenton Oldfield – who interrupted the annual Oxford–Cambridge boat race in 2012 in a protest against “elitism” – can be heard describing Australia as a “colonial state.” Second, the reference points in Australian political experience, beyond the party leaders and other high-profile figures (Crosby, Murdoch), are few and thin. This reinforces the British media tendency to spend a lot of time giving readers/viewers a variant of what they already know, which is perhaps most disabling in the area of foreign news. Third, and consequently, much of the output lacks essential context, including provision of the most basic facts about Australia’s political system and culture. Here is an impromptu list of what’s missing:

An explanation of how the system – federal, state and local, institutions, voting – works. The aforementioned policy areas. Key dates and landmark events. Australia’s regional and security challenges. Demographics. Geographical, gender, class and ethnic variants in vote patterns. A sense of the country as a whole. Important or revealing local contests. Serious, thoughtful candidates – not just the loons. Ideas. Women. Indigenous Australians. Young Australians. The constitution. Electoral and party history, including splits, alliances and outstanding figures. Political language and electoral lore. The condition of Australian democracy. In short, the kind of rich otherness that challenges but also promises intimacy: an encounter with true “difference,” because difference is always a relationship – and a mirror.

It can be objected that such depth of attention is not the job of fast-paced daily media outlets with many other stories to cover; that information can be found in specialist local sources such as the ABC’s impressive election website, or others such as the websites of the Parliament of Australia or the Museum of Australian Democracy; and that only a tiny minority of Britain’s population would expect information on these topics as part of a news service. In turn there are counter-objections, which start from the sheer information poverty that is the curse of much modern journalism.

In light of all this, the most resonant article I’ve read in these weeks is the Financial Times’s “Outback and beyond,” about a forthcoming exhibition of Australian art at London’s Royal Academy, simply entitled Australia and promoted as “the most significant survey of Australian art ever mounted in the UK.” The art critic Jane Ure-Smith, whose uncle Sydney Ure Smith curated An Exhibition of Australian Art at the same venue in 1923, considers how the country has been portrayed in London galleries across these ninety years, the evolution of arguments about aesthetic focus and “Australian-ness,” and the emphasis of the new exhibition on landscape (albeit broadly defined). She quotes the curator Anthony Bond: “It seems like a very English view of what Australian art is – which doesn’t seem to have shifted much from the Whitechapel show [in 1961].” And Nancy Underhill, biographer of Sidney Nolan, comments that the theme contains inbuilt expectations: of the embodiment of a sense of place, of a certain exoticism. Yet, “Australia is the most urban continent. People live in cities. We’ve been presented in a false way and it has stuck.”

What’s hinted at here is a way of thinking with deep roots, of which Australia is but one, well, repository. A strong media outlet that tried consistently to report the world from another foundation would have endless riches to discover. Somewhere, over the rainbow. •

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