The ACMA’s ruling that the ABC’s political editor Andrew Probyn had breached the rules of impartiality over a report on Tony Abbott was silly. Sure, it was editorialising, but that’s hardly been unknown to the ABC, not least by Probyn’s predecessor. Editorialising and partiality has always been present in political reporting, but usually in the context of the prevailing political narrative coming from Canberra. If journalist editorialising seems more noticeable more now, it is only because with any coherence from Canberra now lacking, political journalists increasingly feel the need to step in and fill in the gaps with their own narrative.
The problem is that narrative is invariably wrong. This is not because journalists are thick or especially biased, but because their understandable starting point, the political class in Canberra, is the wrong one. Australian politics has always been heavily influenced by outside, whether the Cold War or whatever military conflict Australian troops are checked into at the time. But Australian politics had always managed to turn that into a narrative. What we have now is a political vacuum, and vacuums (by definition) are hard to see, so in place of the flailing about and lack of direction of the last eight years, we have had the fabrication of what is still a second-rate politician into the destructive political maestro, Tony Abbott.
The problems with this narrative was apparent in a piece in the Guardian coming to Probyn’s defence by listing how Abbott had been destructive when it came to climate change. There’s no problem with calling these action by Abbott as facts. The problem is the facts it leaves out.
It wasn’t Abbott that forced Rudd to delay bringing in an ETS. Rather it was the forces in his own party that was using the climate change issue as a means of undermining his leadership. In doing so, Rudd was pushed (aided by leaks) into to making a decision that would damage the main weapon he had against his opponents inside Labor, his popularity.
It wasn’t Abbott that, when Rudd opponents took back the party, forced Labor to side-line the ETS altogether until “a political consensus had been reached” with a Citizen’s Assembly – a flop of an idea that Gillard only abandoned when the Greens forced her to do so as a condition of the coalition. Nor was it Abbott that prevented Gillard from barely mentioning climate change during her Prime Ministership.
Gillard’s lack of enthusiasm on climate change was likely no more personally held than her position on same sex marriage and opposition to a “Big Australia”. It came from a political outlook stemming back to the Latham leadership and embodied in Sussex St players like Arbib and Bitar. It arose from Labor’s insecurity about its traditional voter base, and a belief that Howard had held them in thrall with “values”. Howard and, to a degree, Abbott, may have played on those insecurities but they stemmed entirely from Labor itself and its long-standing erosion of its social base.
Climate change was also a trigger for insecurities on the Coalition side and a Liberal party that no linger knew what it was for, and it was here that Abbott did show some political nous. Having abandoned its position on the ETS, Workchoices, offshore processing and the Apology in the last year of Howard and the first year of Rudd, Abbott picked up on the increasing disquiet with Liberal
powerbrokers like Nick Minchin that the party was losing its “brand”. It was Minchin who led the open criticism of Turnbull’s leadership and his support for an ETS and, having been for an ETS, Abbott now swung back against it and led the shadow Ministry revolt that resulted in Turnbull’s downfall.
Abbott’s ability to see which way the wind was blowing in his party at that time (“the weathervane” as Turnbull called him) has been more than offset by his complete inability to know which way things were blowing in the electorate. If there was any doubt that he had come to power by default it must have been dispelled by the non-existent honeymoon, his cack-handed Premiership and being dumped by his party quicker than any Prime Minister since Federation.
Yet still he is treated as someone of influence. Ironically, Probyn’s report came one month after what should have laid to rest the idea that Abbott held any sway over the electorate, the flop of his campaign to oppose same sex marriage. The blow that has dealt to the Australian right, compounded by Turnbull’s humiliation of the Nationals leadership with the dumping of Joyce, continues to be under-estimated by journalists who, looking at a weak Prime Minister, think surely the challenge must come from somewhere.
The current paralysis comes from not only the internal dynamics of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd, Turnbull-Abbott-Turnbull tussles having run their course, but from a curious insulation from what is happening overseas as well. Climate change is probably the last issue that it is possible to trace the dynamics of international politics on to the Australian political scene: the rise of it as a global political weapon against the floundering Bush Presidency, and its stalemate with the Copenhagen Summit mirrored the rise of Rudd and subsequent his fall at the hands of his internal enemies, just as it provoked the tortuous re-branding exercises in the Liberals.
Now there is nothing. What is striking, for example, is how little benefit the Australian right has gained from the change in political attitudes to climate change, etc. with the arrival of Trump. With a paralysis at home, the upheavals going on overseas right now are barely impinging on domestic politics. Instead all the complexities of what is happening in US and European politics right now is being translated into a one-dimensional bad taste re-run of the 1930s. Against something really politically destructive like Trump and Brexit, Abbott appears like the vacillating internal player he always was.