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Election 2019: Sorting out balderdash

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Phillip Thompson, Clive Palmer's billboards and Cathy O'Toole (Images via Wikimedia Commons/YouTube)

The lead-up to the Federal Poll on 18 May has many journalists worked up, but the outcome has to be decided by real people among the general public.

IA media editor Lee Duffield reports from the reputed “mad-lands” of Right-wing backwoods politics in North Queensland, asking if the vote really might turn on provincial passions and demands of the coal lobby.

ASKING AROUND HERE is like searching for a phantom army, “real people” as voters, drowned out by the din kicked up by a Right wing trying to set all the agendas.

The focus is on the electorate of Herbert based in Townsville, where the same kind of thing happened in the State Election 18 months ago.

Mass media then bought lines from the Right wing that inflated the admittedly strong potential of the fringe like “Hanson”, “Katter” or “Palmer”.

So much commentary was about these restless elements – colourful, blustering and prone to conflict – it missed the most likely and eventual outcome: Labor members won the city’s three seats.

“REAL WORLD” WORRIES

One of the mainframes for the decision-making this time is widespread public concern about the future, over poor wages growth, gross income inequalities and climate change.

Portents like the battering of the region from floods and cyclones, threats to the Barrier Reef and the unprecedented bushfires in Central Queensland have added reality to the worry about climate change.    

The Left-wing side is not exactly starved of media in all this commotion but does not match the engineered noise on the Right.

MEDIA STUNT PUSHING ADANI

Outlets such as News Corp publications in the area are glad to assist with the noise-making, as demonstrated by the great newspaper “Adani” stunt held just before Easter, 18 April.

Both the Brisbane Courier Mail and Townsville Bulletin confronted candidates from the major parties demanding a declaration for or against the contentious Adani coal mine proposal (‘Coal shoulder — convoy not welcome: 15,000 reasons to move on mine’, CM, 18 April 2019, pp1,4-5; ‘Stop mine games: give us the real story’, TB, pp1-3).

The minor parties were left out except for the TB’s interview with Nanette Radeck, Katter Party candidate for Herbert, a teacher and Dolly Parton look-alike pledging 100 per cent support for thermal coal mining.

The exercise came off the back of the putsch by under-threat Liberal National Party federal members to get a coal-fired power station onto the prospects list for new energy projects.

Stage two of their project was getting federal environmental approval of the Adani project brought forward before the poll. The little-known Melissa Price delivered a signature, getting herself labelled “puppet” Environment Minister and a fresh female target of bully-boys in the Coalition party rooms.

So the yarn was set up with help from News Corp’s multiple full-page coverage and other contributions like a table of prospective jobs worked up by the mining industry.

AGENDA SETTING AND EXPOSURE FOR CANDIDATES

On top of this bid for agenda setting, the current saturation coverage also includes the more traditional device of exposure in provincial media for conservative ideas and candidates.

On the day of the co-ordinated stunt, the TB also published a long and especially abusive “citizen” letter, 450 words, running through current Coalition themes and getting into the defamation zone — it accuses the state and federal Labor leaders of ‘cynical and callous fraud’ and ‘callous politics… with cancer treatment’ (‘It’s a matter of trust’, TB, 18 April 2019, p44). The Easter Monday edition had a similar one wanting to posit that Labor’s closing of loopholes on negative gearing was ‘geared to hit battlers’ (TB, 22 April 2019, p16). Contrary views among the public don’t get this kind of lavish look-in.

CANDIDATES – PREFERRED AND UNDER PRESSURE

Still more conventional is the boosting of the Liberals’ candidate, Phillip Thompson, a shrewd choice in a garrison city, he being ex-army, discharged with disability after service in Afghanistan and as a disability advocate last year’s Queensland Young Australian. Nakedly billed as the “Liberal candidate for Herbert”, he is publicised as the Government agent in town, partnered with every visiting minister for every project announcement. He may win the prize for the nation’s most prominent nodder, always pushed into the background when party leaders are on TV.

The incumbent Labor Member, Cathy O’Toole, who won Herbert last time by 37 votes, would be badly placed in a bad year for her party and this time is anxious, taking the bait on Adani. As part of the stunt, the Townsville newspaper (‘Pledge heat to hit state Labor’, TB, 22 April 2019, p5) has got her to demand that her State Labor colleagues immediately say yes to Adani and abandon their stock answer that the mine has to “stack up” after careful inquiry, for example, on putting in a new railway.

SEEN-IT-BEFORE: POLITICKING IN THE OLD WAY

Another aspect of traditional conservative politicking in the regions is to show the extreme Right as punching above their weight, by privileging them with major-party status in media coverage, though, to be fair, much of it is colourful enough to warrant attention in the comics section at least. It is a red-hot dogfight among three or four contenders – a loud rich man, a jittery woman, some self-styled hillbillies and outright fascists in the “alt-Right” – going for a limited share of the electoral market.

This will be seen in coverage of One Nation’s Pauline Hanson confronting the caravan of Green anti-coal protestors in the town of Clermont, or stories about National Party figures providing campaign advice to the real estate and mining entrepreneur Clive Palmer, taking him most seriously. 

MEASURING UP CLIVE PALMER

The Palmer operation does warrant another kind of attention. The man has been giving money to sports clubs, has billboards averaging at about 100 km intervals along the Bruce Highway, has professionally contrived slogans offering solutions that no party contending to form government could credibly offer and puts up the larger-than-life personality — a Joh or Donald from central casting.

This makes the 2019 Election a great opportunity to measure the possibilities and limits of buying support for candidates with a weak popular base through intense propaganda work. Such possibilities of media saturation were downgraded after research in the 1940s which examined what the Nazis were trying to do.

That research interest has been rekindled since the explosion of phone-based social media and fake news after 2010; we have to see what impacts and how far it might go. There is the supplementary issue of billionaire-ism, where often outlandish types can move to “buy up” power, a direct product of neo-liberalism and yawning gaps of inequality.

WHAT’S THE POINT?

Here is the point: They want to make the Election be about expanding the mining industry for the sake of employment and related themes like relying on coal-fired power stations. This is politics by the coal industry lobby. If it can be made somehow to do with the army, better yet, though that can be complicated politics — people in the defence community overall don’t vote in a bloc.

“They” would be communication managers down at the Liberal Party campaign headquarters in Brisbane, colluding journalists, local party members using talking points, business bodies like Townsville Enterprise. The jobs angle trades on the concentration in Queensland among the 251,000 mining jobs that make up 2 per cent of Australians in employment. Some of those jobs will offer prospective workers a tantalising leg-up paying over $150,000 a year. Counter-arguments about the estimated 60-70,000 employed in connection with the Great Barrier Reef are muted in this campaign environment.

MORE “POINT”

The rest of the point is to estimate what most of the public is thinking and doing while all the above carry-on is being carried-on with.

Domination of one contrived set of public voices in mainstream media, especially press, is useful for mobilising predisposed supporters, but it gives up on those not so interested or tending the other way.

Such people first of all have to look for actual explanations for what all the Right-wing characters are shouting about:

  • Does “callous” Labor actually want to bankrupt poor retirees?
  • Can 64,000 jobs linked to the Reef mean nothing?
  • Is Clive Palmer altogether a “great bloke” with everybody’s interest at heart?

Other mainstream news media that are fixed on the conventions of open information, fair comment and balance operate nationally, so they are picked up in all regions and can help out with questions like these.

THRILL OF THE FIGHT

The ABC gets a good audience for politics and many of the broadcasters strongly welcome that, themselves very invested in the political battle out of Canberra. It is the “insiders” idea where law-makers, lobbyists and media types get all mixed in together. If some of these broadcasters are a bit thrilled-up over the conflict aspect, they still give good coverage as it includes plenty of information for plain punters to make sense of.

This is true of the backgrounding and homework done by presenters wedded to “adversarial” interviewing as pioneered by 1960s television. For one example, the Radio National morning announcer Fran Kelly routinely reels off the detail of what one side has said, to confront the other side. Listeners sympathetic to the interviewee might get exasperated by this while waiting to hear the question. At one point, the Labor frontbencher Anthony Albanese, fielding questions that did sound like a Liberals’ briefing paper, had a small fair-go whinge: “don’t keep doing their work for them”. He’d agree there can be much worse things to complain about.

FREE KICKS AND BALANCE

The ABC can lapse like others, as in the case of a long free-kick interview networked state-wide (20 April 2019) with Greg Dowling, the former outstanding rugby league player putting up in Townsville for the Palmer party — no critical element in it, not much information evinced. Presumably, ABC Radio will follow previous practice in counting up sympathetic time given to parties, so the quota for the Palmer group will be depleted at this time.

All said, the national broadcaster continues setting a standard for its comprehensive news and transparent coverage and, as an independent but public agency, for its accountability to all. Imagine the one-sidedness if they sold the ABC to private buyers.

CHECK IT FOR YOURSELF

Voters curious about how their own concerns actually fit into the political warfare, despite all the racket from one side, might do fact checks, compliments of certain media that are processing and setting out the necessary detail. Generally, these services filter out overt balderdash. For example, for a time the present Government was claiming, almost as if by magic, to be on target to meet their goals on carbon reduction and renewables.

Puzzled observers worked out they were surreptitiously only giving figures on electricity production, where environmental impacts were being reined in by companies exiting from coal. That kind of sleight-of-hand generally does not get past the editors, so you can read them more or less unguardedly. The services offering comparisons on policy include the ABC’s Vote Compass and a balanced-out policy guide from The Guardian.

Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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