January 26th 2002

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Articles from this issue:

Cover Story: The magic of Middle Earth

Editorial: Argentina - from role model to basket case

Al Qaeda network must be destroyed

Policy not structure the problem for National Party

Industry policy behind Celtic Tiger's success

Straws in the Wind: Great Helmsmen: past and present / A tale of two branches

Anti-war protests leave Melbourne cold

Media: When the Left calls for time-out

Letter: Exports and imports

Letter: Alcohol abuse

Trade: APEC’s demise paves the way for China’s free trade pact

United States: Year of the Right?

Japan: a nation in search of a role

History: Roosevelt’s timeless wisdom

Books promotion page

Media: When the Left calls for time-out

by John Styles

News Weekly, January 26, 2002

When the Left calls for time-out you can be sure that its political troops sense impending tough times. Rather than risk hard won gains, they demand a cease-fire which the enemy is expected to observe (while the Left goes right on fighting). Remember "détente"?

So when The Australian ran an editorial on January 8 that announced that it was "time to end our pointless culture war" it automatically suggested that the newspaper’s agenda-setters saw a threat looming.

That threat to the left-wing agenda was the vision of Australia as articulated by the federal Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. The troops at The Australian must have been quite unprepared for Tony Abbott’s address to the Young Liberal Federal Convention in Melbourne on Friday January 4. After all, they’d had a hell of a year.

Abbott’s speech, a surgical strike at the heart of the left-wing intelligentsia, challenged those who believe Australia needs to be socially re-engineered. In particular, he answered the cringing contribution of former Keating staffer, Don Watson, to the latest issue of Quarterly Essay.

The opening paragraph of Tony Abbott’s address set the tone:

"I suspect that for some influential Australians, the worst thing about 2001 was not the horrific events of September 11 but their fellow citizens’ continuing failure to conform to their ideas about what constitutes a progressive society. We remained a constitutional monarchy. There was no additional apology for indigenous leaders. Not everyone who asked for it was granted permanent residency. Worst of all, in what some commentators branded an act of shame, the Howard Government was re-elected with an increased majority and stronger political mandate. This provoked shades of Bertolt Brecht: the people have forfeited our confidence so let’s dissolve the people and elect another."

Gauging by its extraordinary response to the Abbott speech, The Australian appears to be trying to position itself ahead of Fairfax as the vanguard of the Australian Left.

First, there was the sheer weight of the backlash.

The morning after Abbott’s address, The Weekend Australian reported the speech and convention in two sizeable news stories across five columns on page four. On the Monday, it ran a 937-word edited extract of Abbott’s speech on its Opinion page. It also published four letters, all critical. One was a lengthy open letter to Abbott from Fred Chaney, who appeared to base his response entirely on the brief quotes included in the Saturday news story.

On Tuesday, the newspaper really opened up. While calling for an end to the culture war in its editorial, The Australian attacked Abbott with no fewer than three opinion page pieces and two rather crude cartoons. But, look, when there’s a job to be done, who’s worried about finesse, taste or, for that matter, truth? The Australian also ran five letters under the headline "All power to ‘the intelligentsia’". Four attacked Abbott, one applauded him.

On the Wednesday, The Australian’s gatekeepers decided to let one pro-Abbott opinion piece through. However, as insurance, they also ran another six letters. More than 40 per cent of the allocated letter space on that day was occupied by a missive from Carmen Lawrence. Two of the six supported Abbott.

The other interesting aspect of the newspaper’s response was the way it demonstrated how it protects and shields its ideological soulmates.

The "culture war" editorial opined:

"We should see Mr Abbott’s typically muscular speech in its context. It is a rhetorical flourish aimed at extending Mr Howard’s culture war between the so-called battlers - ‘aspirational voters’ - and élites - ‘intelligentsia’ - represented by Paul Keating and speechwriter Don Watson, whose Rabbit Syndrome essay last month drew Mr Abbott’s ire."

In fact, it would have been nice to have seen Mr Abbott’s address in its entirety, or something close to it. With Abbott’s speeches, it is usually the case that what the papers choose not to publish is quite significant. In this instance, no reference to Don Watson or his essay was included in the watered-down extract of Tony Abbott’s speech that The Australian ran. Yet, as the newspaper’s editorial tacitly acknowledged, it was in the context of a rebuttal of the Watson thesis that Abbott made many of his most telling points.

Omitted too, an interesting and revealing comparison Abbott made between the Howard Government and its critics. Also excised, all references to that great source of left wing embarrassment, East Timor.

Abbott’s conclusion didn’t cut it with The Australian either:

"Some commentators have accused the [Howard] Government of being rhetorically-challenged when it’s more a case of preferring action to introspection. Unlike its predecessor, this Government has not masked self-doubt by talking too much or seeing value only in change. Howard’s values only seem out of date to people who think that nothing really lasts.

"On the evidence so far, the Australian people would prefer to build on our strengths rather than attempting to start again as if the past didn’t matter or could be airbrushed away."

The Australian, under the editorship of Paul Kelly, was one of the Keating Government’s most reliable allies. Its enthusiasm for that social agenda is as strong as ever today.

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