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Flogging a Trojan horse

January 28, 2016 - 21:36 -- Admin

Press gallery journalists continue to assert that their years of experience are valuable, and that they draw on it to the benefit of readers. It should be valuable - but the actual value of press gallery experience is one of those PolSci101 nostrums that vanishes upon closer inspection. There is simply no evidence to support it. The press gallery regularly finds itself in positions where they don't understand what is going on with people and events they have supposedly been observing closely, and blame others for their confusion. Now is one such time.There are a number of issues here - the supposed resurgence of the Liberal right, etc., - normally I would deal with all those issues in a book-length blog post. I'll deal with that stuff as time permits over the next few days. Let's start with Turnbull and the republic.Consistency is turmoilOn the evening of Saturday 6 November 1999 it became clear: the referendum for a republic held earlier that day was heading for defeat. Malcolm Turnbull, the former head of the Australian Republican Movement, declared the question of a republic was over for a generation - possibly not to be revisited until after Queen Elizabeth II had died.When he ran for Liberal preselection in 2003-04, Liberals were concerned Turnbull would revisit the republic again. He reiterated that the question of a republic was over for a generation - possibly not to be revisited until after Queen Elizabeth II had died.When he became Opposition Leader in 2008, Turnbull said that the question of a republic was over for a generation - possibly not to be revisited until after Queen Elizabeth II had died.In January 2016, he said once again that the question of a republic was over for a generation - possibly not to be revisited until after Queen Elizabeth II had died. The Daily Telegraph was so desperate for a front page (no I won't link to it) that it presented a story almost two decades old as some hot new please-please-buy-the-paper development.There was no intervening moment over that period where Turnbull lapsed back into revving up the republic. It looks uncannily like a consistent position on Turnbull's part. It also looks consistent with polling - and press gallery journalists love polling. Polls in 1999 showed the referendum was bound for defeat; regular readers of this blog will not be surprised that I voted for it. Polling since then has not shown dramatic spikes in support for a republic, not even after last year's knighthood for Prince Phillip.Experienced press gallery journalists regard Turnbull's position on the republic as a backflip, evidence of turmoil within the government. No, me neither. Under traditional understandings of what journalism is, you'd expect journalists to report Turnbull's position as no change. Even excitable outlets like The Daily Telegraph would normally regard this sort of thing as a non-story: on par with the sun rising in the east, the Pope attending Roman Catholic Mass, bears defecating in the woods, EXCLUSIVE NUDE PIX: RANDY RUPE'S NEW BLONDE etc.What the Australian Republican Movement learned from Turnbull and 1999Nothing. Skip to the next subheading if you like.The current practice of the Australian Republican Movement confirms the wisdom of Turnbull's position. They have a passionate advocate in Peter FitzSimons, who is all over the broadcast media like a hospice blanket (fewer and fewer readers, listeners, and viewers tap into the broadcast media despite the population growing and ageing since 1999). They are courting celebrity endorsements, which count for very little. After half a century of advertising politics as another commodity, we can see that celebrity endorsements on national issues do nothing for either the endorser or the endorsee. Until a few weeks ago, you could imagine the ARM striving to secure endorsement from clean-cut and highly regarded players of popular sports: like, say, Jobe Watson or Mitchell Pearce.They argue that a minimalist position on a republic would both change the country very little, yet also change it a lot; this places it alongside other suspicion-inducing, self-defeating political promises. They present a republic as utterly disconnected from national issues like:

  • structural reform of different levels of government, and
  • Indigenous land issues that arose from the High Court's judgments on Mabo and Wik and have not, despite Tim Fischer's buckets, been extinguished; and
  • Half-hearted/baked alternative flags.

These are important issues (the latter one less so - until a great design changes everything, as with Canada in 1967) and can't be wished away. Clearly, they can't work with republic to produce the kind of coherent reform vision hankered for by commentators beyond the press gallery. When state and territory leaders endorsed a republic recently it was very much not a triumph for the ARM, nor for a republic. It demonstrated that supposedly practical politicians had taken their eyes off the ball, and they better get back to work soon if they know what's good for them.A politician that can tackle those issues as part of a coherent role is the sort of leader who can bring about a republic. Placing the republic first and insisting other reforms must work around it is arse-about. Turnbull is right to recognise that (insofar as he does). The Australian Republican Movement today is repeating most of its mistakes from the late 1990s, even with (bipartsan! Lovely policy-goodness bipartisan!) political leadership both more potentially supportive and less wily than John Howard. I set a low bar for the ARM and FitzSimons has limboed under it. You can hope for a republic but reject the ARM in the same way people believe in God while rejecting institutional religiosity.Turnbull would be a fool to throw in his lot with such people - which may explain why he hasn't. The real storyJournalists, and Turnbull's enemies within the Liberal Party, insist that his consistent position on a republic is some sort of ruse. They insist their fevered imaginings of Turnbull's republican fifth column are "the real story". Turnbull's Prime Ministership definitely isn't a Trojan horse of republicanism, but neither is it a dead horse. Good journalism should allow for complexity; but then good journalism could not be more absent from the press gallery if it were illegal. Where imaginings become "the real story" and demonstrable fact is ignored, both politics and journalism suffers.You might say that politics is a realm where black becomes white, and yes I've read Hunter S. Thompson too. If you are representing black as white then either you don't understand what black or white are, or you're covering up for those with an interest in the difference remaining obscured - or both. Either way, you're so much less of the experienced and capable press gallery journalist you might assume yourself to be.