April 7th 2001

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Articles from this issue:

CANBERRA OBSERVED: BHP goes offshore as Australia goes broke and ill

EDITORIAL: IMF or UN intervention - what's the difference?

New Zealand sets up a People's Bank

BRITAIN: Foot and mouth: the real costs

Straws in the Wind

QUEENSLAND: Horan has the hardest job in Queensland

DRUGS: Beazley's drug policy: more of the same



TRADE: Europe's Common Agricultural Policy flourishes

ECONOMICS: The Aussie peso is dropping; but so is the penny


COMMENT: Islam and the West

BOOKS: 'Damaged Men: The Precarious Lives of James McAuley and Harold Stewart', by Michael Ackland

BOOKS: 'LIFE IS A MIRACLE: An Essay Against Modern Superstition', by Wendell Berry

BOOKS: King's servant: 'David Collins: A Colonial Life', by John Currey

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by John Styles

News Weekly, April 7, 2001
The Bracks honeymoon rolls on ... and on

Victoria's Bracks Labor Government need not worry about serious critical scrutiny from The Age until at least next year. That seemed to be the message from the newspaper's editor Michael Gawenda on ABC Radio on March 16.

In the meantime, Victoria's hospital queues grow longer, ambulance delays worsen, small business is threatened by a raft of potentially hostile legislation and that great promise of "open government" is looking distinctly non-core.

"I think this is very interesting," Gawenda told ABC presenter Jon Faine. "I mean, the Labor Party, the Labor Government is still in a period of honeymoon, really, 15 months in.

"I mean there's no doubt that the health system is worse off than it was when [Labor] came to power. There is no real consensus that education has improved in Victoria, but, given the sentiment at the moment, it is very difficult to hold the government to account on those issues.

"But the time will come, the time will come. Inevitably people will start to feel the pain of a health system that has still got serious problems. People will start to ask real questions about the state of our education system and the government will have to address some of those issues. That time will come. It may not be this year, though."

So, if not this year, when can we expect The Age to begin to fulfil its duty to the public and to start honouring its fourth-estate obligations?

If The Age delays in asking the Government any hard questions until, say, this time next year, the Bracks Government will be by then two-and-a-half years into its four-year term.

Spotlight on the Opposition

Jon Faine, however, was sure about one thing. The ABC presenter knew that the time was right for a review of the State [Liberal] Opposition leadership. But, for some segments of the media, isn't it always?

As Peter Nicholson once commented via a cartoon about the Canberra press gallery, there was a time when the media brought down governments.

These days, for some media organisations, most notably Fairfax and the ABC, that holds true only when the Coalition parties are in government.

When they are in opposition, the media spotlight tends to move with them. So you have a situation like the one that occurred on ABC radio mid-March, when issues like health and education were deemed appropriate for the back-burner, while Faine and Gawenda turned up the heat on the Liberal leadership.

This soft ride for the Bracks Labor Government is a continuation of the media treatment the ALP received during the 1999 State election campaign. In the election wash-up, Faine, in his program for September 22, 1999, confessed to giving Labor an easy run during the campaign:

"I think that the media were so convinced - and I include us and me - were so convinced that Jeff Kennett was to be re-elected without much stress, that not enough scrutiny was paid to the Labor Party. They weren't taken seriously and I don't think Mr Bracks was put under anything like the sort of pressure he would have been put under in the event that people thought the outcome would be a lot closer."

A government that needs to be watched

When the Labor Party scraped into office, you might have thought those who admitted to running soft on the party during the campaign would have been inclined to apply more scrutiny, not less, to the new government.

Indeed, at one time Gawenda thought so. In a conversation on air with Faine on November 12, 1999, he said: "This [Bracks Labor] is a minority government that needs the support of the independents; that is planning major changes; that has few politicians, virtually none actually, in its Cabinet who have been in government before. You have to doubt that they're across all their areas, so we're in for a very interesting period, I would have thought."

Faine commented that Gawenda appeared to be suggesting that the Bracks team might not be up to the task. "I think that most Victorians will feel, well, this government needs to be watched pretty closely ... It is now embarking on major change and, given that, it needs to be closely watched," Gawenda said.

It is difficult to understand why a government that needed to be "closely watched" in 1999, could still be enjoying a honeymoon 18 months into its term (not 15, as Gawenda said); especially when you consider the major problems that exist and threaten in a number of areas.

Even harder to figure is how a newspaper editor could suggest that "it is very difficult to hold the government to account".

The Age never had difficulty in conducting what amounted to a crusade against the Kennett Coalition Government. Nor did the Kennett administration enjoy a honeymoon courtesy of The Age or the ABC.

So the Bracks Labor honeymoon rolls on ... and on. But, look, stop the presses, interrupt that program, there are rumours of leadership rumblings in the Liberal Party.

The guardians of democracy have an Opposition to bring down.

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