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LNP turmoil illuminates the power of institutional narratives

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Gladys Berejiklian and John Barilaro both resigned from Parliament as an ICAC investigation continued (Image by Dan Jensen)

Following the resignation of Gladys Berejiklian and John Barilaro, the mainstream media showed its true colours by hailing them as heroes, writes Elroy Rosenberg.

IF MEDIA, just like politics, is a game wherein the forging of certain narratives wins points and the revelation of inconvenient truths deducts them, then the recent drama surrounding political leadership in New South Wales represents a damning play on all sides.

With the resignation of former NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and her Deputy, John Barilaro, both within a matter of days, there is an unmissable feeling that a curtain has been precipitously drawn back, a curtain which politicians and journalists alike were desperate to keep from prying hands.

It began on Friday 1 October when Berejiklian fell on the sword. In the wake of the resignation, legacy media outlets of all stripes banded together in a heart-warming kumbaya moment, singing the praises of the fallen figurehead while lambasting the process which forced her hand.

The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald got the tissues out. In one eulogy, we were told that ‘the secret to Gladys is that she has always been a good listener and is the opposite of arrogant’ — this despite all evidence to the contrary. ‘Poor Gladys,’ Michael Yabsley cried elsewhere, lamenting the loss of a leader who had ‘captured hearts and minds’.

He continued:

Part of the explanation simply reflects the electorate’s discernible love affair with a modest, believable, hard-working, no-nonsense daughter of Armenian migrants, for whom English was a second language. Berejiklian smashed the glass ceiling without having to remind us ad nauseam how difficult that is to achieve. To quote former Prime Minister John Howard, “Gladys is the real thing”. Being a show pony or pretender is simply not part of her persona.

Beneath the same masthead, we were offered variform explanations as to why exactly Berejiklian was narratively coerced – not morally obligated, but effectively strong-armed – to absent her post. It was ICAC’s fault. It was bad luck with men. She wasn’t girlboss enough. She was ‘done in by a disappointing man: join the queue, sister’.

All of it was telling. In our time, victim narratives have become a kind of golden ticket to exoneration, a foolproof tactic which nobody is above, neither the Liberal nor Nationals leader included. Barilaro’s outgoing press conference was a particularly cringe-inducing sequence of empty politicisms.

Egged on by our current lionisation of victim narratives, Barilaro was all too willing to portray himself as the dupe, the innocent target, the man on the wrong side of malicious misreporting, the subject of “vile, racist attacks” and, above all, as a humble everyman who just wanted to give a voice to the unseen masses. That the foreground narrative chafes so drastically against the background reality renders the speech a shining beacon of what our contemporary media-conscious politic comprises. All is PR, all is aesthetic.

There were other examples of this rift, too. Reports of wicked-looking Gladys-scarecrows popping up in Melbourne seemed to undermine a segment on Nine News displaying the legions of Gladysites who were left heartbroken and forlorn at the resignation of their beloved head of state. The Channel Nine video was a frictionless and slick narrative exercise, and in case we’d forgotten that Nine now owns The Age and the SMH, the report served to remind us that birds of a feather indeed flock together.

“The pressure she was under was immense,” exclaimed a Berejiklian supporter, standing outside her district office, adorning a black shirt with white print reading: ‘I have become comfortably numb’. Another local tells us: “We walked past and saw Gladys putting her bins out — just like we do.”

Feeling slighted at being outdone at their own game, The Australian took up the mantle.

Their editorial after the Berejiklian resignation was a weepy tribute to an icon of establishment politics: [It’s] a big loss for the state and the nation,’ the piece read, going on to argue that she only resigned because she holds herself ‘to a higher standard in the best interests of her party and the public’. That her messy handling of the Ruby Princess saga got one sub-clause in this soppy editorial will perhaps strike you as unsurprising.

Searching for a line to hold after Berejiklian’s departure, the paper demonstrated a particularly hamfisted obsession with ICAC’s supposed disingenuousness. One writer described the body as a ‘grubby, tantalising political soap opera without rival’; another called it a ‘lynch mob’.

Elsewhere, we were assured that ICAC’s standing is, at heart, dubious and that within certain circles there is considerable pressure to ‘curb its powers’ in the wake of yet another career assassination, which is portrayed as a kind of fun pastime which ICAC frivolously enjoys:

‘ICAC has always been addicted to the power and publicity of the bombshell political scalp.’

Except that ICAC doesn’t force anybody to resign, nor does it prosecute. Berejiklian’s decline resulted from dubious engagements which ICAC is compelled to investigate. Indeed, her status as a “person of interest” in the investigation leaves her bound to no actions at all. Is this worth knowing? Some media practitioners think not.

And then again, some do. While the journalists of one class wiped away each other’s tears over the loss of a great figure and while Junkee and Triple J journalists high-fived for winning Twitter points in an empty game of political theatre, YouTuber Jordan Shanks emerged as the sole journalistic proprietor willing to maintain his fidelity to his own reporting.

His work on the former leaders of the NSW LNP has been dogmatic and unceasing. Coverage of regional water funnelling (that is, water theft), pork-barrelling, debt-trapping, the handling of the Ruby Princess situation, transport project blowouts and the response to the bushfire crisis in late-2019 left him uniquely positioned as one of the truly consistent, percipient and forceful voices in dissent against Barilaro and Berejiklian. In the end, Shanks has been thoroughly vindicated on both counts.

Amongst the establishment media’s narrative orgy, there were other unmissable tells. A bombshell is how The Australian described the resignation; shock was the word of choice for Fairfax. But the truest quality of the resignation was, in fact, how utterly unsurprising it was. Any of Shanks’ followers, for example, may have recalled his imploring Gladys’ resignation some 355 days ago. That she and Barilaro lasted this long is a testament to the fortitude of certain institutional narratives, as well as to the resistance they present to untimely deviations.

‘Behold me then, just as I am!’ wrote Colette in The Vagabond, seeming to presage a world wherein, to access the truth, merely beholding isn’t enough. Our current epoch entails an extension of this idea, in the form of an unmissable dichotomy: there are those who understand the difference between what we’re told to behold and what we actually behold, and then there are those who don’t.

If the turmoil on Macquarie Street has illuminated anything at all, it’s that the difference between these two categories is getting starker and the examples of certain narrative incoherences increasingly difficult to ignore.

Elroy Rosenberg is a writer and louche layabout living in Melbourne. You can follow Elroy on Twitter @ElroyRosenberg.

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