The Mediaby John StylesNews Weekly
, June 2, 2001
There was a telling moment during Prime Minister Howard's speech at the Melbourne Exhibition building on May 9. As, in the spirit of bipartisanship, acknowledged the wartime leadership role of Labor Prime Minister John Curtin, ABC television news footage showed the reaction of the assembled Labor Žlite. There wasn't any. Granite-faced, they sat there totally unmoved.
Maybe, like Paul Keating, who was in Melbourne for a Labor shindig the night before but returned to Sydney the following morning, the Labor heavies just aren't into Curtin. Keating at a press gallery bash in 1990 famously dismissed the wartime Labor PM as a "trier".
More likely, however, the cream of Federal Labor past and present, knew something John Howard didn't. That there is just no place for things like bipartisanship and statesmanship unless it happens to be a Labor Prime Minister dispensing them.
In the totally premeditated politicisation of what John Howard, for his part, tried to make a non-partisan national celebration, the Australian Labor Party was supported and rewarded by prominent members of the Canberra press gallery and other media players.
Michelle Grattan of The Sydney Morning Herald wrote:
"Labor left Melbourne yesterday feeling it had come off best. Yes, it had played a partisan game. But hey, this is politics, isn't it?"
In other words, the ALP had given the press gallery journalists exactly what they seem to like best - a horse-race - and would be rewarded for doing so. Rather than condemn the way Labor politicised the week's events, Michelle Grattan on ABC radio spoke non-critically of it:
"To some extent it was [a hijack] and that was deliberate organisation by the ALP. They did fear, especially John Faulkner, a couple of years ago, that Labor was going to be disadvantaged this week, that the centenary celebrations would be used by John Howard for the political advantage of incumbency and, of course, he got to work on a Labor history and the big dinner of the true believers the other night, and all that gave it a bit of a bang from Labor's point of view."
In the same conversation, Grattan acknowledged that the centenary event was "intended to be above politics". Which meant, on that score alone, the ALP deserved to be judged harshly and John Howard assessed positively. But, hey, this is the press gallery isn't it?
Grattan declared: "Everyone was making judgements and those judgements I think went against John Howard and more in favour of Kim Beazley."
The chief political correspondent of The Age, Louise Dodson, and Michael Gawenda, the newspaper's editor, appear to have been duped by Labor's sideshows. "Labor celebrated its centenary at the start of the week," Dodson declared in her May 11 column. "The Labor Party had the centenary of its own party on at the same time," Gawenda asserted on ABC radio.
But, of course, Labor wasn't celebrating the centenary of the party, but had merely contrived to celebrate the first 100 years of its Federal caucus.
According to the pundits, Howard lost when it came to articulating a "vision" for the future. Translated, that means Kim Beazley in his speech mentioned those liberal-left motherhood things that press the right buttons of liberal-left political journalists. If you have read the Beazley speech, you will know there was no detailed grand vision.
The Opposition Leader simply delivered a few brief sentences on a grab-bag of the left's favourite causes, like republicanism, reconciliation and environmentalism, and alluded to themes of a future Labor Government.
However, if you play the press gallery game and look for the real losers of the week, it is hard to go past those who politicised what should have been a politically neutral national celebration. The Fairfax broadsheets deserve special mention. The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald looked more like organs of the Labor Party when they commemorated the historic occasion on their front pages with a photograph not of Howard at the lectern, but Beazley.
The next day, on ABC Radio, Gawenda tried to explain his paper's brash display of what was sure to have appeared to many as spite, partisan journalism or both: "What we tried to do, really, was replicate the Tom Roberts painting as best we could. This was an historic occasion. If you look at our photograph, it really does get close to that famous painting. The light was perfect at that moment, the photographer took that picture at that moment because the light was right for it then. Had we had a picture, for instance, with Sir William Deane at the lectern we would have run that." When asked if he had consciously selected the photograph knowing that Beazley was the figure at the lectern, Gawenda replied: "Well, the truth is that I didn't."
Gawenda's rationale was severely undermined by The Australian, which also ran a photo of the occasion modelled on the Tom Roberts picture. Like The Age, The Australian reproduced the original Roberts picture directly beneath its own photograph. While taken from a reverse angle, the composition of The Australian's picture seemed to capture the Roberts original far more convincingly than the one featuring Kim Beazley in The Age. The lighting, considered so important by Gawenda, also seemed closer to the Roberts original in The Australian's shot. And, surprise, surprise, The Australian's photographer achieved all that while the Prime Minister, not the Opposition Leader, was at the lectern.