June 16th 2001


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The Media


by John Styles

News Weekly, June 16, 2001
The media coverage of the admission by ALP Senator Stephen Conroy that a Beazley Labor Government might have to consider taxation increases, elicited a strong reaction from some journalists: they shot the messenger.

Alan Ramsey of The Sydney Morning Herald led the attack. "He [Conroy] was hung, drawn and quartered by a media frenzy," Ramsey thundered. "[T]he Canberra press gallery decided the political sin of a Member of Parliament getting caught telling the truth was variously a 'major gaffe', an 'embarrassing gaffe', a 'blunder', an 'embarrassment' that had 'torpedoed' Kim Beazley's Budget reply, a 'stuff-up' of 'big time' proportions, a 'stumble', a 'slip-up' and just 'naive'."

A media frenzy? As these things go, I don't think so. Enthusiastic reporting, sure; even a little overexcitement. But a "frenzy"?

As for Conroy being punished for telling the truth, was he? It appeared more as if the Senator was being chastised for choosing an inconvenient time in the electoral cycle to turn the spotlight onto what he referred to as the "hard decisions" facing Labor. As The Sydney Morning Herald editorialised:

"Until this week, Mr Beazley had argued, plausibly enough, that Labor could only state its policy objectives, but not the timing of implementation, when Treasury provided an up-to-date assessment of the economic situation during the election campaign. Now the pressure on him has been raised, not by the enemy, but by a loose-lipped colleague."

Interesting, isn't it, that the SMH editorial writer chose the term "the enemy" rather than the more detached "his enemy" or "their enemy". That aside, the Conroy admission theoretically should have made it harder for Labor to ignore the fiscal implications of its policies. And it should have led to hard questions from political journalists. As The Australian recognised, Kim Beazley's announced "$350 million worth of spending cuts ... are like the jingling of loose change in a $150 billion balance sheet". As Conroy had conceded, Labor's program involved "hard decisions".

Alan Ramsey apparently saw no difficulties for Labor: "[A] Labor Government might have to [increase taxes]. It might have to cut some existing Howard Government programs, too. So what?" Well, of course, that is the question. What programs would Labor have to cut? Since Beazley has ruled out income tax increases, what other taxes would Labor have to raise?

Ramsey desperately tried to turn the issue back onto John Howard, dredging up tax increases the present PM imposed as Treasurer in the Fraser Government. Ramsey wrote that the Fraser Government was "the last one to raise personal income tax rates", when in August 1978 it "slapped on a temporary tax surcharge across the board of 1.5 per cent". Labor's 1.5 per cent Medicare levy imposed in the late 198os apparently doesn't count because, according to Ramsey, that was just "fiddling".

Michelle Grattan, also of The Sydney Morning Herald, appears to be of the opinion that the hard decisions to which Conroy referred won't trouble Labor. "In the longer term ... some of that I think will fade away," she said on ABC radio. of course, Grattan is one of those in a position to help make sure it does just that.

Over at the ABC, The 7.30 Report seemed to be running its own kind of damage control. To answer Peter Costello's challenging questions about Labor's "secret tax plan", political editor Fran Kelly called on the ANZ Bank's chief economist Saul Eslake. Eslake is one of the ABC's preferred economic analysts and he produced an upbeat funding outlook for Labor. He suggested, among other things, the possible "reallocation" of the private health insurance rebate Labor has pledged to retain, the removal of the freeze on petrol excise and a reduction in defence spending.

Paul Kelly has been trumpeting the Beazley mantra of "fairness" in recent commentary in The Australian. However, at the end of Budget week he acknowledged Labor's difficulty. He wrote:

"The Budget has put Labor's problem into perspective. Beazley has two non-negotiable pledges. First, that Labor will roll back some of the GST in the cause of fairness. Having campaigned against the GST for four years, Beazley would be a joke if he failed to modify it. He must eat into the surplus to a modest degree to give this pledge credence. Mark, however, that the roll-back will be modest. Its purpose is to put a sugar coating on what will become, if Labor wins, Beazley's GST."

Stephen Conroy generated so much angst because he turned the spotlight onto dark places where Labor strategists do not want to go. Predictably, and conveniently for Labor, it seems many in the Canberra press gallery are happy to stay away from those places too.

**

In the Budget night edition of ABC television's Lateline, a single positive voice was one too many for the ABC.

Of the chosen grabs from representatives of the eight interest groups included in a package only one, that of Jane Heard of the Association of Independent Retirees, gave a positive assessment of the Budget. But the ABC could not stand to let it go unanswered.

While the seven negative or neutral grabs were presented with no additional commentary, Lateline cut in a negative comment from Kim Beazley about Budget measures for self-funded retirees immediately after Jane Heard's assessment.




























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