06/06/2006 - 22:00

PM’s retirement just not news

06/06/2006 - 22:00


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Virtually since day one of the present century, Australians have been subjected to a steadily increasing stream of media reports on whether and when Prime Minister John Howard, who is not yet 67, will retire.

Virtually since day one of the present century, Australians have been subjected to a steadily increasing stream of media reports on whether and when Prime Minister John Howard, who is not yet 67, will retire.

Intertwined with this steady avalanche of commentaries and stories have been reports on the aspirations of the national Liberal Party’s deputy, Treasurer Peter Costello, who not surprisingly wishes to replace Mr Howard sooner rather than later.

State Scene confesses that, whenever reports on these related issues appear in either the print or electronic media, they are a signal to immediately turn right off, not read on, or not listen.

There’s nothing more tedious than having to read journalists obsessively writing as if they were fortune tellers.

An occasional journalistic guess or a predication is, perhaps, okay.

But it’s now mid-2006, meaning Australians have been subjected to six years of guessing based on ignorance, and, in some cases, wishful thinking.

Rather than reporting on the recent or immediate past – that is, the news – there’s instead a desire to push history along, dishonouring the great calling of journalism.

Last week, State Scene encountered a brief but telling comment that highlighted the obsessiveness from which such ongoing predictions appear to spring.

It was carried in a piece by witty columnist, Peter Ruehl, who recently recounted an encounter with Australian journalism.

Ruehl said that, in the early 1980s, he had the misfortune of having a meal on New York’s West Side with a group of Australian journalists who were accompanying an Australian minister to the US.

“What surprised me most was that the only topic of conversation throughout a four-hour long dinner…was Canberra politics,” Ruehl said. “I was ready to talk about disco, or rat experiments, just to change the subject.

“It was sort of like listening on a free trip to Paris, hicks from Alabama ranting on about the backroom manoeuvrings in Montgomery.”

The understandably exasperated Ruehl later told CBC anchorman, Walter Cronkite, of his torrid encounter with what was allegedly the cream of Australian national journalism.

“Australia,” Cronkite replied, “too many reporters, not enough news.”

Regrettably State Scene cannot claim ownership of that incisive gem, which so well describes an increasingly obvious feature of Canberra’s press fraternity – obsessive parochialism and tunnel vision.

Let’s hope someone shows this insightful Ruehl-Cronkite assessment of Canberra journalism to as many reporters as possible in that isolated capital, and that it slowly has the desired effect.

What many in that fraternity seem oblivious to is that most Australians simply don’t care when John Howard retires and whether Peter Costello becomes his successor.

Like everything else, PMs come and PMs go, but the nation keeps on keeping on. We all know that’s so, so why this obsession to either try and bring on or pre-empt departures by political leaders?

Australia began in 1901 with Edmund Barton. During WW1, Billy Hughes emerged to become the dominant figure, and he was still in parliament in 1952.

Among the better known PMs is James Scullin, who emerged briefly in the late 1920s; in the late 1930s Robert Menzies was PM, followed soon after by John Curtin and then Ben Chifley, until 1949. Labor’s next PM was Gough Whitlam, in 1972.

When Mr Howard’s retirement eventually arrives – assuming Labor doesn’t displace him at an election first – then a day or perhaps even two of reporting on this not-very-crucial event will certainly be in order.

And what’s more, two or so days of such reportage will be quite adequate.

So why bring down so many trees for the newsprint and expend so much on costly ink on such a tedious subject?

Unfortunately, however, Mr Howard’s long predicted demise isn’t the end of this matter, since there are several extras to this persistent journalistic practice.

The first is the fact that predictive reportage has now come to also encompass opposition leaders, which is why Kim Beazley is presently being subjected to an ongoing barrage of predictions about when he’ll be either compelled to stand down or be challenged by, presumably Julia Gillard or Kevin Rudd.

One outcome of all this is that Australia’s two senior national parliamentarians must be constantly briefed by staffers on how to respond to the inevitable questioning at each press conference or door-stop encounter with reporters on their fate in light of the latest poll.

What an utter waste of time.

If the media insists on reporting what various polls allegedly claim, then why not simply carry those polling results and let those who may be interested in the one or two point variations between months read these and interpret the information themselves.

That said, May 2006 must surely go down in Australian political history as the worst month ever for the over-usage of political predicting.

For reasons best known to himself, former Perth, but now Sydney journalist and long-time State Scene acquaintance, Piers Akerman, led off by claiming, in his Daily Telegraph column, that Mr Howard was headed for the political history books before the coming Christmas.

Other journalists, rather than leaving this umpteenth such prediction alone and waiting to see if it turned out to be correct, instead created a prediction stampede. Days and days of it.

Worse still, the Akerman claim was to haunt Mr Howard throughout virtually his entire American, Canadian and Irish trip with constant questioning on whether or not he’d be retiring soon.

And there’s little doubt that this was a signal to all journalists in Washington, Ottawa, and Dublin who share the Ruehl view of Australia’s Alabama-style journalism to steer clear of those who accompanied the Howard delegation, otherwise they’d endure what Ruehl once underwent on New York’s West Side.

But that was not the end, since this farce included an even more outrageous twist in Washington when Australia’s most famous American, News Ltd’s proprietor Rupert Murdoch, became involved in commenting on Mr Howard’s future plans.

The 76-year-old Mr Murdoch’s involvement transformed it all into high farce, since he won’t countenance stepping aside as News Ltd’s chief to make room for one of his children, or better still simply to sell-off the family’s huge stake in that global multimedia empire.

Meanwhile, back in Canberra, other journalistic predictions blossomed since Deputy PM Mark Vaile was in Paris, which meant Mr Costello was acting PM, something the predictors naturally couldn’t ignore.

But that was only part of the largely Canberra-fuelled prediction game.

A new figure had emerged in Labor’s corner – Australian Workers Union national chief Bill Shorten, who had recently returned from northern Tasmania, where he’d held court following the tragic death of a Beaconsfield gold miner and the spectacular rescue of two others.

What good fortune – a PM and his deputy concurrently away from Canberra with Peter Costello in the driver’s seat and a new, post-Beaconsfield rising Labor star. And all of this happening at the same time. Wow!

One can imagine the elation.

Not surprisingly, by the time Mr Howard’s aircraft landed in Canberra one could be forgiven for believing Mr Costello was about to move into The Lodge and Mr Shorten was on the verge of becoming Labor leader, even though he wasn’t yet in parliament.

Now, it would be quite wrong to believe that any of those named necessarily object to any of this.

If journalists want to be obsessively fixated with a single aspect of politics, so be it. 

What, however, must be recognised is that trivialising national politics means that a long list of important political issues is never investigated and thus remains unreported.


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