With severe job cuts, pressures for instant productivity, and a priority on producing clickbait, few would think we’re in a golden age for journalism. Few, either, would think that the media have stood out in this electoral campaign.
There have been periods in the past, such as the last three years of the Menzies reign or the first four or five years of the Fraser government, when the Canberra press gallery reached its maximum passivity.
In my opinion, unfortunately, those periods now correspond to the gallery’s poor performance in the run-up to the 2022 elections. Exploiting this passivity has also become a key part of the government’s re-election strategy.
Car parks and the 2019 campaign
During the 2019 election campaign, the Morrison government pledged A$660 million to build 47 car parks near train stations, as part of its strategy to reduce urban congestion. Two-thirds of the car parks were in Melbourne, despite Sydney having the most congested roads in the country, and three-quarters of them were allocated to Liberal constituencies.
The government promised six to Goldstein’s fringe Liberal seat and three to Dunkley, held by the Liberals. Isaacs Labor headquarters is between these two and has almost a dozen railway stations, but none were assigned to it. After Labor won Dunkley, two of the parking lots were cancelled.
In June 2021, the auditor general found that in the run-up to government announcements, no data on current car parking or passenger numbers had been produced, and decisions had been made without input from relevant bureaucrats. Several of the projects involved funding from state or local governments, but little or no consultation with those governments had taken place prior to the announcements. Tellingly, a major working paper was titled “top 20 marginals.”
In November 2021, the government said that only three of the 47 parking lots had been completed and work had started on another six.
Read more: The story of the ‘Parking Rorts’ is scandalous. But it will continue to happen unless we close the grant loopholes.
Ignoring the Auditor General
The government endured some embarrassment in July 2021 after the release of the auditor general’s report, but largely shrugged it off.
Infrastructure minister prior to the 2019 election, Alan Tudge, denied seeing the document titled “top 20 margins”, while Morrison avoided answering the question.
Finance Minister Simon Birmingham dismissed the criticism because the Coalition had won the 2019 election. Put aside John Stuart Mill and Thomas Jefferson: According to the Birmingham Doctrine, democracy is anything you can get away with. yours.
It was a policy cynically conceived and then cynically abandoned. It was based on the belief that thanks to the media’s passivity and lack of curiosity, they could get away with it.
Age/Sydney Morning Herald reporters Shane Wright and Katina Curtis did an excellent story investigating the auditor general’s report, and government grants in general, and there was a Senate investigation and some freedom of information requests. But their efforts failed to generate traction elsewhere.
The passivity continues: In October 2021, the government claimed that 33 of the projects would be completed or under construction by the end of 2022. I have not seen any media reports to prove whether this claim is still true.
Morrison won his bet.
part of a pattern
If the lack of news coverage of broken promises in parking lots were just one example, it would be pretty bad, but it seems to be part of a pattern.
After Hayne’s banking royal commission reported in February 2019, the government said it would implement all of its recommendations. Since then, he has quietly abandoned several major ones. Age/Sydney Morning Herald economics editor Ross Gittins recently wrote a scathing column on the matter, but it has received little attention elsewhere.
Similarly, the government has pledged to implement the recommendations of the royal commission for the care of the elderly, published last year. How many media outlets have followed its implementation since then? Australia’s Minister for Aging Services and Aged Care, Richard Colbeck, has been afforded convenient invisibility on the campaign trail.
Earlier in the campaign, an excellent ABC Four Corners investigation by Linton Besser highlighted how the well-connected company Aspen Medical had won several government contracts, some without any open bidding process. Neither that report nor a more general investigation into whether widespread government outsourcing has delivered good value for money to the public has been widely pursued by the media.
Journalism is tough, but it needs to be better
Media coverage is not helped by the fact that the largest commercial employer of journalists in the country, News Corp, is simply a propaganda arm for the government, and its mediocrity sets the tone for others. Performative aggression at press conferences is also not a substitute for probing reports.
The Morrison government has been able to campaign in the comfortable belief that, with a few exceptions, such as not setting up an integrity commission, its record over the last three years would not be subject to scrutiny by the media.
Read more: Below the line: What issues are politicians ignoring in this election? – podcast
Author: Rodney Tiffen – Professor Emeritus, Department of Government and International Relations, University of Sydney