Mulling Over Politics with Laurie Oakes

This year has been a good one for those of us interested in politics.  Memoirs by Costello and Howard and a new biography to come on Kevin  Rudd. A  revised biography of Julia Gillard  before Christmas and  meanwhile Laurie Oakes provides a collection of his reporting over the past 40 years.  Alan Fitzgerald says it shows how many issues remain the same in politics although the players may stay and fret for a while before quitting the stage.



ON THE RECORD - Politicians, Politics and Power

 Laurie Oakes,  Hachette Australia Sydney pb 385 pps  rrp. $35.00

ON the Record is an ideal book for the holiday season, one you can dip into over a nightcap or take to the beach if you are so inclined, as a conversation piece. The collection reminds us of political crises we have forgotten and of once powerful politicians  reduced to feather dusters. For example, SA Premier and later Senator,  Raymond Steele Hall, founder of the Liberal Movement after he quit the L-CL.

The book confirms the resilience of the Australian political system and the perennial importance of the economy to the fate of governments. It is topical as well, with an incisive summary of the fall of PM Kevin Rudd and the machinations involved in the rise of Julia Gillard.

In his introduction, Laurie Oakes says the major change in Australian politics since he joined the Press Gallery in 1966 has been technological change. Today, with the 24/7 news cycle, everything is immediate and in real time. Politicians have no chance to sell or explain a policy and even less to rebut criticism.

Journalists also suffer from the demand for instant analysis  and the need to stay on top of an evolving story soon to be replaced by yet another one. 

Technological change has affected the totality of politics and not for the better.  Superficiality has replaced considered  discussion with a short attention span affecting voters, media and politicians. No longer having the luxury of arguing a case, the politicians increasingly engage in spin and the use of focus groups to get a snapshot of what the voters think before cutting to the chase.

Rudd’s downfall can be partly attributed to this situation  with the polls and focus groups driving the conspirators.

Media scrutiny  tends to make politicians timid as any perceived indiscretion or badly articulated statement can be blown up out of all proportion.  Oakes I might add is as guilty of this as are his colleagues: Tony Abbott being a particular victim of Oakes’ unctuous behaviour.

I doubt that there will be another generation of journalists in the Press Gallery who will be prepared to spend 45 years reporting politics from Canberra.  Oakes is one of a handful who has devoted their lives to that pursuit. Some may think the decline in the corporate memory of the Press Gallery is a good thing. For politicians yes, but for voters, no.

Who remembers (or cares) that Gough Whitlam, now an Australian icon, was involved with David Combe and Bill Hartley to get a loan of half a million dollars from Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ ath Socialist Party in 1975 to help pay for Labor’s election campaign?

Parliament and politicians have been diminished over the years and the devaluing of the institution has also affected the Press Gallery whose role is to report and interpret it. A career in the Press Gallery is no longer seen as  attractive when the money and celebrity status come to those media persons based in Sydney  and uniquely tuned to the trivialization of politics.

Why labour inside Parliament House reporting government when no one is listening or interested in a serious analysis of politics. Let the Think Tanks and the academics theorize about it and meanwhile make a motza  in the electronic news/entertainment/celebrity business. That at least would give a free go to the lobbyists and the spin doctors to do what they do so well.

Wasn’t it a former head of the Sydney Morning Herald who described journalists as ‘content providers’?

On The Record is divided into six sections – Parties and Politics;  Elections; Parliament; People; The Media and Rudd and Gillard.  It would have been a much improved  book with an index.

The first column deals with that vexed question of refugees – although in this case it is 1975, and it is the Whitlam Government facing an influx of Vietnamese.  Whitlam of course failed miserably on the issue declaring he didn’t want any ‘f………Vietnamese Balts’ coming  into the country.  He later disgracefully abandoned those South Vietnamese who had  a close attachment to the Australian embassy to their fate when the Communists over ran Saigon.

Whitlam had a particularly blind spot about the Baltic States. His was the only Government, outside the Soviet zone, to recognize the forced incorporation of Estonia,  Latvia and  Lithuania into the Soviet Union. Not a great moment for Australian democracy or the fate of small nations.

Back in December 1988, Oakes was complaining about the need tor reform to Question Time and  an independent Speaker in the House of Representatives.  It has taken a hung Parliament and 22 years for Australia to finally move in that direction.

In  February 1969, Oakes, commenting on the elevation of Paul Hasluck to the position of Governor General, wrote:  “although it carries little power in the political sense,  the governor-generalship provides ceremonial  leadership  and a sense of continuity  for the nation”. Well, we all know how that turned out in 1975 under Sir John Kerr.

The columns, interesting in themselves, serve to remind the principal actors and ourselves of the transient nature of political life and the repetitiveness of the challenges facing each administration.

Australia is fortunate that successive governments have managed to rise to the occasion and to keep the nation safe and its people generally content with their lot. There may be no grand visions or radical schemes embarked on by our leaders but then there have been no major disasters or corrupt behaviour  either. Compromise and an appeal to the centre are keys to political success.

Australians, more pragmatic than emotional, would not want much more.  Rhetoric and appeals to crude nationalism fail to move them but secure borders, low interest rates and a fair go for all, do. The formula appears to be the right one;  otherwise why would so many people want by hook or by crook migrate to Australia.  

Alan Fitzgerald has been a long standing member of the Press Club and seen them all pass through.

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