Barack Obama began his acceptance speech “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.” He went on to say “It’s the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled – Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the United States of America. It’s the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.”
There’s a message there for Australia, for Australian politics, for the Australian media. We have a multicultural society, we have the same groups, we have the same political divide, and we have the same cynicism, fear and doubt, much of it generated not just from contemporary circumstances, but by politicians and particularly the mainstream media. At this time of international crisis, we need what Obama offered – hope. He said: “The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America – I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you – we as a people will get there.”
The message is not just one of hope, not just that ‘we will get there’, but most importantly ‘we as a people will get there’. At times of war, we in Australia have stood together as a people. Now with the global financial crisis inundating us, we need to stand together, put aside partisan positions and work together to stay above the tidal wave and ride it until it dissipates. To do this we need statesmen, not politicians. Martin Luther King said "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy." All politicians should have that hanging in their walls, stamped on the top of their letterheads - it may drive them towards statesmanship. Those in the media should rally round the politicians as they stand together, as they strive for statesmanship.
That there is a long way to go is evidenced by the coverage of the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, MYEFO to the in-group. [more]
The first reaction by the Opposition was that its release on the day of the US elections was a “cynical political exercise” designed to cover up the Government’s ‘botched handling of the economy’ – standard phraseology, but with little meaning. As ‘cynical’ is defined as ‘incredulous of human goodness, sneering’, it’s hard to see its relevance here. As pointed out on ABC 774 radio by Laurie Oakes, whose long experience might render him cynical, Wayne Swan was ‘jammed’ by events. A similar accusation would have been made if MYEFO, which was due for release in early November, had been released last Friday – just before a weekend, Monday – before the Melbourne Cup holiday, on Tuesday – Cup Day, or Thursday after Swan had departed for the Finance Ministers’ conference in Brazil. So the criticism was spurious, and intended to do political damage. Then, since MYEFO showed there was a $40 billion ‘hole’ in the budget, Malcolm Turnbull asserted that Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan were ‘out of their depth’. Clearly that was the genesis of the hole, rather than the GFC. Julie Bishop followed a similar line “This was an attempt to distract the Australian people from the Government’s bungled handling of the economic conditions in this country. The Government is keen to blame the global financial crisis for everything, but in fact a number of the Government’s policies ...have made conditions worse in Australia.” Nice generalizations without the benefit of specific examples. Then she reiterated a theme that we’ll hear again and again, that with growth forecast at 2%, there was “absolutely no reason” for the budget to go into deficit. As avoiding a deficit has been the Holy Grail of Coalition politics, expect to hear a lot about previous Labor deficits, and the evil of them, despite several economists insisting that a deficit may be not just desirable, but necessary to sustain economic growth at this difficult time. Economic logic is irrelevant if superficially plausible political points are there for the making.
Next consider the commentary on Wayne Swan’s presentation of MYEFO. Clearly it was not his best performance. He was described as being nervous as well one might expect him to be delivering such a pile of unpleasant economic news. Then there was a complaint about the MYEFO booklet not being available at the beginning of the press conference. Perhaps it should have been, but anyone making a PowerPoint presentation is entitled to have the audience’s attention, rather than have it flipping through printed pages. But Swan’s greatest sin was not having the revised inflation figures at the forefront of his mind, and taking 80 seconds, someone timed it, to find the figures in the report. A whole 80 seconds! This deficit was widely reported in radio and TV news, taking almost as much time as the guts of MYEFO. Reporters thought it was great fun recounting Swan’s uneasiness, and photos purporting to show his discomfort appeared in the papers. Mind you, he didn’t get them wrong as did Julie Bishop get the interest rates wrong, for which she was pilloried, he just couldn’t recall them. His effort to give accurate information was turned against him. Maybe he should have known, but why make such a fuss about it, why talk about a ‘Kerin moment’, why focus on that when it’s the economic data that’s critical. Katherine Murphy tried to give a humorous account of it in The Age, and even respected Lenore Taylor did the same in The Australian; she should have known better. The Financial Review gave all the details and its considered views without finding it necessary to talk at all about Swan’s presentation.
The comments of some at the press conference sound like the reactions of a small child deprived of its security blanket, but with pen in hand read like attack dogs at work sensing thay have found a vulnerable prey. Some are even predicting that Swan has delivered his last budget. What a pitiful exercise of what the media believe is their make or break power. It is this the public should fear, not a single suboptimal performance from the Treasurer, who deals with more complexity in one day than most journalists deal with in a month. This is media muscle flexing at its worst, and even more lamentably there seems to be a contest among the attack dogs to see who can inflict the most damage and kill the prey first.
Would a businessman, worried about the effect of MYEFO’s forecasts on his sales, or a wage earner, alarmed by the prospect of losing his job, be remotely interested in Swan’s inability to supply the revised inflation figures for 80 seconds? Where has a sense of perspective gone?
The point of mentioning these somewhat tedious matters is simply to exemplify how far politicians still have to go to reach the level of statesmanship and the media to reach an acceptable standard of responsible reporting. When will they realize how important this crisis is to us all, and desist from political points scoring and journalistic ribaldry about deadly serious matters? When will all politicians work collaboratively to contribute to adapting to the world’s economic crisis? When will the media stand shoulder to shoulder with them?
When will we observe how they stand “at times of challenge and controversy” and not be disappointed?