When it comes to politics, it’s Scotty’s world. Anthony’s just living in it.
Right now, our illustrious PM looks like a groggy boxer, lurching from one blow to the next, at the mercy of opponents from both his own party and the other lot.
But things change, often in the blink of an eye. Did anyone else get that sinking 2019 election feeling when Kimberley Kitching’s death was weaponised, abhorrently but effectively, both by Morrison’s enablers and a putrid posse on Victorian Labor’s right?
Like so many hashtags before it, #KimberleyKitching sank into obscurity, but what of the next Morrison-peddled distraction? Once the election is called, it’s safe to assume we’ll see more shiny objects than a seaside carnival.
Down double digits in the polls, Prime Minister? No matter: we can wank up a scare about the Chinese or the Russians or the Muslims. Lord knows, it’s been done before.
Who’s this “we” helping Morrison out? Why, it’s his army of accomplices in the commercial mass media, an oligarch-owned cartel employing a well-drilled set of producers/editors and a lock-step conservative commentariat for which there’s no equivalent on the left. Lismore deluges or vaccine stroll-outs notwithstanding, that’s how the news – inexorably, remorselessly – keeps tilting back Scotty’s way.
Morrison’s ability to shiny-object his way out of trouble was gifted him by good friends Murdoch, Stokes and Costello: two oligarchs, and a former Liberal treasurer.
Spoiler alert: it’s really their world, and something’s got to be done about it.
Imagine the Murdoch coverage if Labor had just delivered 4x the deficit, 5x the debt—then rolled out $5.6 billion in panicked spending, while hiding $3 billion in secret post-election cuts! It would be Armageddon on the front pages. Instead, it’s this… pic.twitter.com/axjfGCz7SD
— Kevin Rudd (@MrKRudd) March 30, 2022
Australia’s weaponised fourth estate is the result of a concentration of media ownership roughly on a par with free speech bastions Egypt and Chile. The sheer volume of scandals and screw-ups on Morrison’s watch should, in a healthy democracy, have doomed his government years ago.
Yet thar he still blows.
“I’ve always believed in miracles… and tonight we’ve been delivered another one”, our Pentecostal PM told party faithful after he pulled out a narrow win in 2019. It wasn’t a miracle, unless you attribute God-like status to media oligarchs.
So pervasive is this media power that gangrenous governments are preserved, oligarchs and cronies make a killing and democracy dies. Albanese, of course, is on the wrong end of this racket, forcing him into a defensive crouch on both policy and rhetoric, eschewing corporeal form on anything from nuclear submarines to Rapid Antigen Tests.
On RATs, his switch from “make them affordable” to “make them free” in the space of 48 hours saw #EachWayAlbo trending, yet again, on leftie Twitter.
But it’s Scotty’s world, remember? Consider the stacked deck Albanese’s forced to play against: stick his neck out at the wrong moment with actual progressive policies and he’ll be crucified in the media as the second coming of Lenin, just as Bill Shorten was in 2019.
So, much to consternation on the left, Albanese’s going another way, in the hope Australians have simply had enough of the other mob. It might just work.
Like a wrestler fighting a bigger, stronger opponent Albanese must rely on skilful solutions to survive in Scotty’s world. Smaller wrestlers use their opponent’s momentum against them; so too must Albanese in the wrestle over who gets the nice house on Kirribilli Avenue.
Morrison’s “momentum” backfires when he overplays his hand. Not satisfied with “statesmanlike” remarks over self-generated strife with China, the PM accused Albanese’s deputy of being a “Manchurian candidate” after details leaked of a failed, Beijing-orchestrated plot to bankroll NSW Labor candidates.
“ASIO has never raised a concern about my candidates [and I’m] not going to cop that sort of nonsense”, Albanese bristled back. ASIO Director General Mike Burgess agreed, making a rare foray into partisan controversy by warning against politicising the organisation, and commentators not utterly in the tank with Morrison tut-tutted that he’d “gone too far”.
Morrison’s momentum was used against him. One up for Albanese.
Then there’s the deft sidestep wrestlers often employ. Asked if it was appropriate for Grace Tame to unsmilingly “snub” Morrison in January, Albanese responded: “Grace doesn’t need my advice, and she doesn’t need, with respect, your advice either. She is a courageous Australian”.
See what he did there? Outright support for Tame would have made it a Morrison vs Albanese issue – never a good idea in Scotty’s world – but his nuanced backing kept the public’s focus where he wanted it: on Tame vs. Morrison, activist hero vs. habitual bully.
That leftie “triggering event” over Covid RATs? Nuance too: when Morrison went with “you can’t make everything free” on RATs, Albanese avoided the immediate knee-jerk of “ they should be free” because – while clearly the more popular position to take in a fair fight – waves of criticism from the “they’ll spend us into oblivion” right-wing hive mind would have overwhelmed the airwaves.
Ergo, Albanese initially said he had “no problem” with RATs being free for Australians before upping his rhetoric to “make them free” as the debate moved in that direction. Yes, it’s slippery, but in Scotty’s world you go with what works.
Coupled with the trimmed-down figure, the new glasses, the grey chinos and the Sixty Minutes puff piece, “Prime Ministerial Anthony” may have put paid to fears we knew little about him. He emerged at just the right time, with voters paying attention to the looming election, and – #KimberleyKitching notwithstanding – may have thwarted Morrison’s attempts to fill that void by pre-defining him as a “gutless” China-backed commo uncomfortable in his own skin.
Imagine a PM so rotten, malevolent and incompetent that a perceived wimp who spends most of his time in “small target” fetal positions is poised to replace him in May. That, it seems, is where we’re at: all the media oligarchs’ horses and all of their men couldn’t put Scotty’s “daggy dad” persona back together again.
Yet, in a robust democracy, one of the principal antagonists shouldn’t have to dodge, duck and weave his way through a lopsided wrestling match, while his adversary struts around Canberra like Vince McMahon. Something’s got to be done about this.
If indeed he wins, Albanese will be under pressure from the left to come good on a number of policy fronts. There’s a squillion-and-one problems facing this country right now, but Albanese – the kind of pollie who will “pick his battles” – needs to focus first on media ownership diversity and a Federal ICAC because, as I’ll explain, it’s in both his and our best interests to do so.
Late last year, a Labor-Greens majority on the Senate media diversity inquiry recommended a judicial probe with actual teeth to take on “large media organisations [that] have become so powerful and unchecked that they … consider themselves beyond the existing accountability framework”. Perhaps mindful of how our media oligarchs would react with an election looming, Labor’s communications spokeswoman later backpedalled: a media inquiry “was not ALP policy”.
Mixed messages, yet the door remains ajar on a turning point for the better.
As a resident of SA, wild horses couldn’t drag me away from Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd’s appearance at the Adelaide Writers’ Week in early March. Guess who was in their cross hairs?
News Corp’s American cable news network, Fox News, has “gone from [an outfit] that generally leant to the right … to becoming a non-reality based news service”, Turnbull said. Its Australian outlets were headed in that same direction, he added. “Fox News was the principal media enabler of the January 6 attack on the US Capitol [which was an attempted] coup. Which person alive today has done more damage to American democracy than Murdoch?” Turnbull asked the crowd. “Nobody”, Rudd answered for them.
That level of division and social fracturing could be us in the uncomfortably near future.
News Corp and the coalition find themselves entwined in a one-sided co-dependency. Morrison gets unwavering support from News Corp, but the Murdochs do better: millions in government advertising, a seat on the Jobkeeper gravy train, no tax payable since 2014, $30 million to cover women’s sport and their market position/propagandist ways unchallenged by a toothless regulator and an ACCC chaired by none other than Lachlan Murdoch’s lawyer.
A judicial media inquiry with teeth and a Federal ICAC are needed concurrently, because the corruption they would address overlaps. They would go a long way towards breaking up the cartel controlling our commercial media, and many of the advantages enjoyed by the pay-to-play right, whose ranks currently teem with grifters, business cronies and Josh Frydenberg, he of “Kooyong 200” club fame.
This in turn would reduce the right’s advantages in money and its ability to distract and divide Australia, Fox News-style. Structurally, it could be the key to Nirvana: a relatively level playing field in the battle of ideas, meaning progressives can push for all those other important changes without all the ducking and weaving.
Albanese doesn’t want to go full E G Whitlam – pursuing social, environmental and economic reform while overmatched by the top end of town – but he or his successors mightn’t have to. Bring in actual media diversity and they’ll have clear air to sell meaningful reforms.
In large measure, it would be Scotty’s – or more accurately Lachlan’s – world no more.
Perhaps not surprisingly given the threat to his pre-eminence, Lachlan Murdoch himself threw the culture wars cat amongst the pigeons last week, accusing an “elite” of attacking “our core values, our successes and even our history”. Lachlan is a London-born, Los Angeles-based US citizen, and clearly a member of this “elite” he decries.
It was a none-too-subtle warning of what awaits an Albanese government, especially if it embarks on media diversity reform. News Corp’s culture wars playbook has already been deployed with devastating effect against Joe Biden in the US, peddling anything from “Covid vaccines as tyranny” to the “woke censorship” of Dr Seuss books.
If you think a January 6 style Capitol riot can’t happen here, here’s a reminder that deluded souls likely glued to Andrew Bolt at 7pm brought a hangman’s noose (complete with blow-up “Dan Andrews”) to the steps of Victoria’s Parliament House.
Fearful of a war with the all-powerful Murdochs, Albanese may yet embrace some kind of Faustian pact: go easy on me and I’ll eschew a judicial media probe. The lessons of recent history should dissuade him: in 2007, the Murdochs warmed to Kevin Rudd, who’d played nice with them, only to turn on him at an early opportunity.
What’s the moral of that story? Simple: they’ll come for Albanese whether or not he plays nice.
If Albanese launches a judicial inquiry into the media oligarchs, their bilious front page lies about him will be seen for what they are: sour grapes. That’s in his best interests.
Imagine a battle of ideas, on a playing field that doesn’t tilt too egregiously towards the top end of town. Given clear air, progressive policies sell themselves. And that is in everyone’s best interests.