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The nostalgia act

October 25, 2015 - 08:30 -- Admin

More than most journalists, political journalists get caught up on the idea that their work is "the first draft of history". Laurie Oakes has a particularly bad case of it. He embodies just under half of Australia's federal political history in his own person, and while his blind spots have been shared by others in the press gallery this is not to say that they do not exist, or are trivial.What follows is not some sort of sledge on Oakes, but a demonstration of why the press gallery as a construct (including its construction of "doyens", the ultimate straw-men among people all too fond of building them) is such a lousy way to report to citizens about their government.In this trip down memory lane, Oakes uses all his yesterdays to mislead his readers about political success - what it is and how to achieve it:

IN the valedictory speech marking his retirement from Parliament on Wednesday, Joe Hockey lamented “the Abbott government was good at policy but struggled with politics”. The first part of that sentence might be open to debate, but the political ineptitude of the administration in which Hockey served as Treasurer was there for all to see.The Rudd and Gillard governments were also hopelessly ham-fisted when it came to the political basics.

When you go after a Liberal government, you apparently have to dump on Labor for "balance". To their credit, both Lenore Taylor and Laura Tingle rubbish the idea that the Abbott government was good at policy; maybe they can rise to the idea that the very prospect of an Abbott government was anathema to good policy, and that they should have called Abbott out ahead of time.

Everyone has seen Bill Shorten in action. The jury is perhaps still out on Malcolm Turnbull ...

Subtly writing Shorten off in favour of his fellow Packer retainer? So much for balance. But that's not where Oakes lets himself down. Most of his article is a book review gone wrong, where he does what a self-respecting political journalist must never do - what Taylor and Tingle didn't do with Hockey in the examples above - Oakes takes a politician at his word.OK, he mainly quotes Keating, who seems a more substantial figure and somehow more vivid than many of those who came after him. Even so, he was wrong simply to quote Keating without matching his words to actual events:

On performing in Parliament Keating says: “It’s an art form. You’re on the stage. You must maintain the psychological control.“Someone like Alexander Downer would step up to ask me a question ... I used to call Peter Costello the talking knee ... They’d all laugh. But those laughs are so off-putting and confidence-destroying.“You must be winning in Parliament; you must keep the psychological hegemony, and that means when they come to ask you the questions, you have to have the answers and be psychologically in charge.”

Those references to Downer and Costello came in Keating's final term in power, 1993-96. Look at the video of Keating from that time and you see the glum faces behind him; they knew they were shot ducks, and however little or much a bit of levity might have punctuated the darkness it didn't change this politically or policy-wise one bit. Costello and Downer did not disappear into history like, say, Jim Carlton or Peter Shack. They replaced him and undid things Keating cared about. Keating, his biographer Kerry O'Brien, and Oakes were all veterans in different ways of the 1980-83 parliament, the last term of the Fraser government. Any reading of Hansard, of contemporary press coverage, and of the growing range of books covering that period, forms a consensus that Fraser had an absolute psychological ascendancy in that parliament over Labor leader Bill Hayden and would-be Labor leader Bob Hawke. At one stage Fraser so rattled Hawke that the latter fled the House in tears. If you think that stuff really matters, look at the results of the 1983 election and consider: so much for psychological dominance. Neither Abbott nor Turnbull have achieved that level of dominance over Shorten, and would it matter if they had?Performance in parliament has never been a duel of oratory or wit. The closest the Australian parliament has ever got to that was the sparring of two fine legal minds, Robert Menzies and H V Evatt, and even those engagements were rare and featured more pulled punches than telling blows. Even in Fraser's day, certainly in Keating's and more so now, "performance in parliament" is little more than the government asserting: we won, you lost, ner-nerny-ner-ner. If the government is behind in the polls the opposition might dish it back. Apart from that, assertions by Oakes and Keating about the importance of parliamentary dominance counts for absolutely bugger-all. Keating may not want to admit that as parliamentary performance is part of his legacy. Parliament is Australia's best-subsidised but lamest performance space. Almost all of the great issues of our time are played out elsewhere, including at press conferences near but outside the actual House and Senate chambers. By the time the big issues reach parliament they have been premasticated and often predigested; they sit oddly in the mouths of those delegated by party machines to 'represent' us. The back-and-forth of Question Time elucidates nothing about the issues, nor about the personalities involved in public life today. The major parties put this on for their own bemusement; no tactical victory, real or perceived, is worth the revulsion and diminution of public interest in policy, politics, and politicians that results. You will know politics is changing for the better when it is abolished altogether. Oakes took Keating at his word, and as a result Keating has less to tell us about modern politics than Oakes seems to imagine.Laurie Oakes should be more than just some sort of polite reviewer of parliamentary theatre, or books thereon. All press gallery journalists should be - but apart from Taylor and Tingle none of them are. Parliamentary theatre is the sort of shitshow that makes real journalists suspect the story is happening elsewhere, an instinct that journalists assigned to the press gallery never had or which have to be dulled if you're going to get-along-to-go-along in that environment.You can use your dotage to sharpen your perspective, like Oakes' and O'Brien's contemporary Alan Ramsey has, or you can become the jukebox of nostalgia like Oakes has become - lending his own fading brand to those of fading brands NewsCorp and Channel Nine, diminishing both in their power to tell us how we might be governed (and thereby diminishing their influence in determining outcomes). A masterclass in politics and journalism right there.