What are Abbott and Hockey really trying to achieve? How the media deceive voters

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Australia's manipulative mainstream media deliberately glosses over the astounding economic incompetence of the Abbott Government, still trying to blame Labor for any problems. Alan Austin reports.

Part Three: How the mainstream media keeps voters in the dark

THE MOST enduring fiction in Australian politics is that the Coalition manages the economy better than Labor. All evidence shows this is completely false.

Last month, 3AW’s Neil Mitchell tried to blame Labor for the current deficits — now projected at three times the estimates when Labor left office.

Mitchell demanded of Opposition leader Bill Shorten:

“Do you, as Labor leader, accept any responsibility for the problems with the deficit?”

Naturally, 19 months and two budgets on, Shorten did not, although he acknowledged Labor’s last deficit was “16 or 17 billion dollars”.

He said:

“No, the Government is in charge” and “Labor has a role to put forward positive alternatives."

Mitchell was outraged that Labor would not cop the blame for the current mess and hammered away. But on one variable only — deficits.

He did not ask if Labor accepted responsibility for the world’s highest median wealth. No inquiry into Labor’s role in 23 years of continuous growth. He seemed strangely incurious about Labor’s lower taxes, higher wages, stronger productivity and higher profits.

The rest of the pro-Coalition media were thrilled with Mitchell’s attack. The Daily Telegraph’s Piers Akerman and the Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt gleefully reported Shorten’s ‘nightmare’. Fairfax media headed its tawdry story:

‘Bill Shorten evades questions from Neil Mitchell on Labor deficit 13 times’.

The charge that Labor’s deficits record is worse than the Coalition’s is, of course, totally false.

The Australian Financial Review – the one stand-out mainstream publication on economics – affirmed this after the May budget:

‘The cumulative budget deficits for 2014-15 to 2017-18 have blown out from a forecast of $24.5 billion to $103.9 billion.’

So why the persistent myth?

Principally, it is the five pronged media strategy, which:

  1. focuses on just one variable;
  2. hammers away relentlessly at Labor’s perceived failure;
  3. completely disregards the Coalition’s record on that same variable;
  4. ignores global conditions; and
  5. totally ignores the plethora of other key indicators.

During the Whitlam years, the Coalition and the media bashed Labor mercilessly over unemployment, which increased from below 2% to above 4% when Labor lost office.

Did it then fall during the following Fraser years? Not at all. It rose inexorably to peak at 11% just before Malcolm Fraser – and his hapless Treasurer John Howard – lost office.

Shortly before the 1996 election, then Opposition treasury spokesperson Peter Costello was “burning with a cold anger” at the Keating Government for letting the Aussie dollar fall to a puny 74 U.S. cents. A weak dollar, he said, “impoverishes every Australian”.

The media used that effectively as one more proof that the Coalition was more competent on economic matters.

What happened to the Aussie dollar thereafter? Hardly anybody knows. It never resurfaced as an indicator of economic competence. This is because, by September 2001, after Costello had been treasurer five years, the dollar had dropped 33% to 49 U.S. cents.

It stayed below 74 cents for most of the Howard/Costello years — apparently impoverishing all Australians. Then, through the Rudd/Gillard years it rose, fluctuating within the optimum band – 90c to US$1.10 – for most of that period.

In the run-up to the 2004 and 2010 elections, the mantra from the Coalition and the mainstream media was

"Interest rates will always be lower under the Coalition."

This was repeated endlessly in Parliament, in election speeches, on the ABC, in the Sydney Morning Herald, in The Age, on Sky News and in all other Murdoch media.

“Well, interest rates are the most critical cost of the lot,” then PM John Howard earnestly told a constituent during the 2004 campaign.

What has happened since? Again, after Labor won office in 2007, interest rates fell substantially to within the optimum band between 2.5% and 4.75%, where they stayed from the beginning of 2009 until Labor lost office.

The newspaper response? ‘Look over there! Labor’s debt!’

During the Rudd/Gillard years, the Coalition and the media whacked Labor about the ears continually over its alleged "debt disaster" and "debt spiralling out of control".

The ABC claimed the main 2013 election issue was the Coalition blaming Labor’s

‘... stimulus packages, and a continuing high spend, for pushing Australia's debt to unsustainable levels.’

Headlines in 2013 included:

  • ‘Labor’s debt bomb
  • ‘Labor’s debt graphic goes viral
  • ‘Economic mess as debt soars
  • ‘The Labor Party's debt timebomb
  • ‘Julia Gillard to leave Australians in $165 billion dollars worth of debt this term alone

On and on it went. Day after day.

So what happened in 2014, after the Coalition won a resounding election victory in September 2013, largely on its promise of ‘a reduction of $30 billion in net debt’?

Well, according to the Finance Department figures, the debt increased over the full year by $61.1 billion, or 34.3%.

What did the newspapers say about this? Virtually nothing.

As far as this research can find, there were only two mainstream media articles in all 2014 that mentioned Australia’s government debt. Both in Fairfax: one in May and another in October.

Never has the fiction of Coalition economic supremacy been more starkly exposed than right now.

Last week, this series showed that all 20 areas of the economy where Abbott and Hockey specifically promised advances have retreated.

But wait. There’s more.

Since then, data has emerged on two other issues where the Coalition denigrated Labor’s achievements.

Abbott lamented in 2012 that

“... the changes that have been wrought [by Labor] are almost designed to make our economy less competitive.”

This year’s Global Competitiveness Report just released by the World Economic Forum now ranks Australia 22nd in the world. This is down from 21st last year and down from 20th where it rested for the last two Labor years.

The report records declines in innovation, technological readiness, the economic environment and public trust in politicians.

Abbott also promised that a Coalition government would fund job trials towards

“... a more general roll-out of job guarantees for long term unemployed people."

The latest Fairfax-Lateral Economics report shows long-term unemployment has regressed over the last 19 months. Now the worst in 16 years.

That brings to 22 the number of specific areas where improvement was promised but deterioration delivered. They are:

  1. Economic growth
  2. Trade deficit
  3. Terms of trade
  4. Government debt
  5. Deficits
  6. Unemployment
  7. Job participation
  8. Higher wages
  9. Lower taxes
  10. Construction
  11. Infrastructure
  12. Interest rates
  13. National income growth
  14. Gross domestic product per capita
  15. Productivity
  16. Business confidence
  17. Economic freedom
  18. Small government
  19. Government spending
  20. Government waste
  21. Global competitiveness
  22. Long term unemployment

So why have so few of these featured in the mainstream media? Because they – with a few exceptions – operate to convince readers of the opposite of the truth.

Finally, a hypothetical question regarding Mitchell, Akerman, Bolt and Australia’s other mainstream "journalists".

Imagine the Coalition had won office in 2013 with a thumping lower house majority and had changed all Labor’s economic settings – spending, taxes, borrowings, investment and trade – but with the opposite outcomes. Suppose instead of all 22 variables deteriorating, they had all improved. Would the media be seeking out the Labor leader to give him the credit?

You can follow Alan Austin on Twitter @AlanTheAmazing.

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