A fresh start to an important political year

michelle grattanThe Age’s former political editor Michelle Grattan today joined the universities-funded website The Conversation. She argues that the media needs multiple voices.

May I start my introductory column for The Conversation with one not-so-bold prediction. This hung federal parliament – just the second in a century – is likely to be the last one we’ll see for a very long time.

With some notable exceptions, the Australian people usually speak fairly clearly at federal elections. Even when they don’t, the electoral system tends to produce a decisive result. It’s unlikely to be different on September 14.

What will be distinctive about this election is that the date is known so many months out. Of course, in a parliament where the unexpected is the expected, that could change – for instance, if Kevin Rudd were to achieve the Herculean challenge of seizing the leadership.

But on present settings, election year already has its structure and, notwithstanding Julia Gillard’s optimistic declaration that this was not the start of the campaign, everyone is on the hustings.

The hung parliament has been a paradox. On the one hand a lot of policy work has been done or at least started. The price on carbon, operating now for more than half a year, is an historic reform, of the magnitude of John Howard’s introduction of the GST – though whether it survives as the GST did is another matter. There is a mining tax on super profits, albeit not raising much revenue.

A beginning has been made on a National Disability Insurance Scheme; some rate such a scheme, when it is operating, as a reform that will be comparable to Medicare. The government is moving to get a new funding system for schools in place, along the lines of the Gonski recommendations.

Yet in the public mind this parliament has been largely defined by noise and nastiness, to an extent that many people just want to close their ears until it is over. The closeness of the numbers, the feeling that there could be a sudden election, a certain desperation on both sides, have soured debate.

This parliament has given crossbenchers in the House of Representatives the sort of power usually only accorded to crossbench senators. It is a matter of argument whether that is the system at its most democratic or its most dysfunctional.

How much of the bitterness of the past two years flows into the election campaign remains to be seen. But regardless of tone, one thing is clear: this campaign will be policy heavy. There will be big issues at stake, both economic and social.

Most obvious is whether carbon pricing continues. Tony Abbott has promised he would, if necessary, go to a double dissolution to secure its end. If he ever welshed on his pledge to repeal the carbon tax, it would be the doozy of all broken promises. Abbott has also undertaken to repeal the mining tax. The Coalition doesn’t support the Gonski education changes. Economic management, border protection, industrial relations and broadband will all be centres of policy contention. (At least the NDIS has bipartisan support.)

In recent times there have been calls for greater media focus on these policy issues and less on the political contest. But it’s not a case of just doing one or the other. In my writing for The Conversation, I will of course be concerned with the “horse race” aspect of the contest. After all, the “horses” carry the policies – who is first past the post will determine the shape of the future. As Paul Keating said, “when the government changes, the country changes.”

But at The Conversation, which draws on the talents of academic experts all over the country, we are also especially looking at the politics of the next few months through the prism of policy, and my writing will have an emphasis on that as well.

The Conversation generally will be asking tough questions on policy and how the parties measure up. I hope to receive feedback from readers on policy questions of interest.

As well as being chief political correspondent for The Conversation I will be a professorial fellow at the University of Canberra. One of the projects the university is considering is a bird’s-eye study of the bellwether seat of Eden-Monaro which we would report on through The Conversation.

The Conversation is increasing its real time political coverage just when the diversity of political reporting is contracting in the mainstream media. Economic pressures are partly but not entirely to blame.

But the result is clear. The increasing tendency in recent years is to have one reporter write news on a subject across a number of mastheads.

I believe that it is as important to have multiple voices reporting news as it is to have many voices in commentary. On occasion what is “fact” and the weight that should be given to particular pieces of information in a story can be as disputed as opinions based on the facts. And the more competition there is in the searching out of facts, the more the community will know. My writing for The Conversation will also include news.

I reckon this is going to be a fantastic year for following and reporting politics. We should not be cynical or put off by the less attractive aspects. We have a robust democracy, even if aspects of it can try the patience sometimes. Technology has enabled those in the media, old and new, and their readers to have a degree of interaction that could not have been dreamed of a couple of decades ago.

Let us indeed help to make 2013 a year of meaningful conversation.


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