The media’s role in this election campaign has been the subject of considerable debate, not so much in relation to the traditional accusations of bias – although there is plenty of that from certain outlets – but centred on criticism that mainstream journalists and the Press Gallery reporters accompanying the leaders are focussing on ephemera and trivia rather than issues of substance. In particular, the failure of journalists to ask leaders about policy detail has attracted much ire from bloggers and online election watchers.
But nothing so far in the campaign has matched the extraordinary press conference this afternoon given by the Prime Minister where she announced a range of significant election policies relating to senior Australians.
While the bare bones of the announcement, as is now usual, were leaked to the newsprint media ahead of time, the announcement itself covered the critical issue of reverse mortgages, the regulation of which Labor now proposes to tighten.
Unless you’ve been following the emerging issue of aged care funding, you won’t be aware that reverse mortgages will be a critical component of funding for aged care in the future as governments face up to the growing fiscal burden of older Australians and consider how they can limit the exposure of the taxpayer to this burgeoning budget cost. Reverse mortgages should be one of the key tools in enabling older Australians to use their asset rich-cash poor financial circumstances to fund their care, rather than taxpayers, but it remains a developing market. Its regulation is therefore critical to how Australia deals with one of the major issued associated with an ageing population.
None of those issues were addressed by the journalists at the press conference. In fact, Labor’s policy barely got a look-in. Instead, Gillard was bombarded with questions about how the media was managed at today’s meeting with Kevin Rudd, her body language during the meeting with Rudd, and Mark Latham’s presence as a “journalist” for the Nine Network.
It was an unusually striking example of the media displaying its pack mentality and demonstrating, almost with pride, its inability to focus on issues of substance.
In recent days, there’s been a strong reaction from the mainstream media to commentary that the campaign is boring. MSM journalists insist that the performance of Tony Abbott, the role of Kevin Rudd and Labor’s leaks mean this is a truly fascinating campaign (and Crikey’s election media coverage has reflected this as well).
Moreover, partisan commentators are at pains to insist that there are substantial policy differences between the parties (take for example this effort). Clearly neither side can afford to suggest that there are minimal policy differences between them, except on issues where they are anxious to wish away specific differences (e.g. IR, or asylum seekers) for electoral advantage.
And mainstream media journalists, and especially political journalists, have a very real interest in convincing both readers/viewers and their own editors and company executives that this is an enthralling campaign – the more people turn off from the coverage, the more likely media proprietors are to shift precious resources away from political coverage, which is very expensive, toward cheaper, more populist content. After all, it’s not so long since News Ltd’s John Hartigan stood up at the National Press Club and declared that he wanted to shut the News Ltd office in the Press Gallery to focus on cheaper, more local news.
And as well all know, there has already been plenty of cost-cutting in political journalism not just in recent years, but since the 1990s.
But the public evidently disagree. The MPs Crikey has spoken to say there is minimal interest in the election out in their electorates, and has been since the outset, especially among younger people. Even issues that are supposed to be “hot button” ones like asylum seekers fail to stir voters. And across the non-political media, whether it’s talkback callers or daytime radio presenters, the message is clear – they’re over the election and have been for a long time. And they’re sick of political journalists focusing on issues like Kevin Rudd, rather than issues of interest to voters.
Now arguably – arguably – Julia Gillard could have expected her meeting with Kevin Rudd to be a dominant issue at today’s press conference, given the travelling media pack was clearly unhappy that they weren’t all allowed to crowd in on the meeting themselves – only one camera and one photographer was allowed in. Issues of media management are of particular interest to journalists, even if voters don’t care, or even like politicians treating the media with contempt.
But the questions relating to Mark Latham, as if Gillard had done something to somehow prompt this bitter, angry, failed leader to stalk her campaign, were remarkable. The journalists concerned might have thought they were scrutinising the Prime Minister, but what they were really doing was directing a bright spotlight onto how facile they can be.
Meantime, issues like reverse mortgages and aged care funding were ignored.
In effect the Press Gallery wants to have it both ways. It is insistent this is a fascinating campaign, and that we should be giving our time and money to take in their coverage of it. But if we do, we’re treated to a parade of cynicism and triviality that has to be seen to be believed.
There was another splendid MSM moment yesterday, during the press conference by the Prime Minister following the release of the Orgill Report. After my colleague Possum pointed out on Twitter that a question directed to Gillard on the report was particularly asinine, he was rebuked by The Australian journalist Matt Franklin. “Let the professionals do their job Possum,” Franklin tweeted back.
Professional what, one wonders.
The transcript of the press conference follows:
TRANSCRIPT OF PRESS CONFERENCE
BALLYCARA RETIREMENT VILLAGE, BRISBANE
7 AUGUST 2010
E & O E – PROOF ONLY
Subjects: Delivering for Seniors; Australian Labor Party; election campaign.
PM: Can I start by saying thank you very much to the staff and residents of BallyCara for having us here today and having a chat today as we’ve moved round. I’m obviously joined here today by our Minister for Family and Community Services, Jenny Macklin, and also by our Labor Member for Petrie, Yvette D’Ath. We’re also joined today, moving through and talking to people just like us, is the head of National Seniors Everald Compton. And we’re here today to make some important announcements for senior Australians. Of course the Government stepped up to correct a historic injustice for pensioners. When we came to Government, the pension was not meeting the needs of pensioners, pensioners were under real pressure. And we understood that changes needed to be made. And because we understood changes needed to be made, we have enacted a major increase in the pension, $100 a fortnight for single pensioners. We’ve also increased the utility allowance by $400 and we’ve also guaranteed certainly for self-funded retirees with their annual supplement, instead of them waiting to see each year if a bonus would be paid.
Now, these were major changes for Australians who were doing it tough and I understand still that many pensioners find it difficult to make ends meet. Which is why I believe it is today important to make some further announcements about support for senior Australians. And particularly to make announcements which acknowledge that many senior Australians want to live differently today from senior Australians of a few generations ago. First and foremost many of our older Australians do seek to combine their retirement with a bit of work. They want to stay active, they want to stay engaged, they want to stay connected to the workforce. Now whether it is working in a store as they hire staff for the Christmas rush, even being Santa in the local store. Whether it’s using the skills they’ve relied on for a lifetime, an accountant who does tax returns at the end of the financial year. Whether it’s picking up a bit of part time work at the Ekka here in Brisbane. Many older Australians, senior Australians want to stay engaged with work which is why a re-elected Gillard Government will improve the work bonus arrangements for senior Australians. So that if they do pick up a bit of work they get to keep more of what they earn without it affecting their pension. That work bonus will be increased to $6,500 a year and it will function in a way which recognises many senior Australians pick up a bit of work at a certain time of the year but they’re not working continuously. And beyond that we know many Australians in the workforce who are getting to the second half, or the end of their working career, worry that their skills are dating.
The world of work today is a very changing world and so for older Australians in our workplace who want to make sure that they’re keeping up with the skills of today, a re-elected Gillard Government will create $4,000 training entitlements. These will be delivered through enterprises and help those enterprises invest in the skills of their older workers so they are less at risk of the ones who are moved out of the workforce as work changes and new skills are needed. And a re-elected Gillard Government will also create an Age Discrimination Commissioner. Now this will be a benefit for Australians of all ages who feel that they may have been discriminated against on the basis of age. But it will be a particular benefit for older Australians who may feel they didn’t get the job, didn’t get the training place, didn’t get fair access because of their age. They will have somewhere to go and have those complaints looked at and worked on. And then, and I know this is a very important initiative that Jenny has thought about deeply and worked on: we know that many older Australians, many grandparents in the modern age have ended up as the primary carer of young children, the primary carer of dependants. It’s to do with the way the world is now with family breakdown, with the sort of changes that mean late in life many Australians are actually taking on the care of very young children. We want to make sure that Australians who are in that position have the ability to meet with their peers, other Australians that are in that situation to share their concerns, to share their solutions. To get the sort of friendship and fraternity that comes out of the kind of arrangements we have for parents generally. Many young mums will talk about the benefits of being in a playgroup. Well this is another way of older Australians who have the care of a young person to meet with their peers and get some support.
And finally a re-elected Gillard Government will also change the rules for reverse mortgages. Many older Australians are living in quite valuable assets, the home that they worked hard to pay off is now worth money as a result of rising property prices and many older Australians would like to access that wealth to support them in their senior years. But many also fear getting ripped-off through the process so we will better regulate reverse mortgages so people don’t have to worry about the rip-offs.
All in all this is $100 million of new investment: five important new policies which really meet the needs of older Australians today. I’ll turn now to Jenny Macklin for some comments, then we’ll be happy to take your questions.
JENNY MACKLIN: Thanks very much Prime Minister and like you I’d like to thank everyone who’s made today possible: all the residents and all the staff for being so welcoming to us today. And I too would like to particularly welcome Everald Compton here today who happens to be one of Yvette’s constituents as well but Everald in a roll as the Head of National Seniors, we really do appreciate the policy guidance. The way in which we’ve been able to work together in the interest of Australian seniors. The Prime Minister has just outlined the additional five policy commitments that we are making today. And these commitments do builds on our very substantial commitments that we have made to Australian seniors over the last couple of years.
When we first came into Government we extended the utilities allowance by $400, then we decided during the Global Financial Crisis that we would pay $1,400 to single pensioners and self funded retirees on the Commonwealth Seniors Health card; $2,100 to couples to make sure that they had extra assistance during the Global Financial Crisis. And then of course we introduced the biggest reforms to the age pension that have been delivered over the last 100 years. As a result of the increase to the base pension, improvements to the indexation of the pension, pensioners are now receiving around $100 extra a fortnight if you’re a single pensioner on the maximum rate.
We’ve also improved the indexation of the pension to make sure that over time the value of the pension keeps up with pensioners’ cost of living. Today’s announcements are further improvements for senior Australians, to make sure that those who are doing part time work can keep more of the money that they earn. So, over a year that could amount to $6,500 that a pensioner would be able to keep without affecting their pension. We do want to introduce a special Age Discrimination Commissioner. For the first time senior Australians will have their own Discrimination Commissioner to make sure that they’re protected in the workplace and in the community. We know how important it is that senior Australians do get access to training to upgrade their skills and to be mentors to younger Australians, to make sure that we are also able to support the many, many grandparents who are taking care of their grandchildren. And this initiative is a very important step to provide that additional support. And an area that many senior groups have raised with me is to provide the extra support for those seniors who do decide to take out a reverse mortgage. We will put in the extra protection that senior Australians have been calling for to make sure that they look after their money and get the protection that they deserve. Thank you.
PM: Happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister you promised to show us the real Julia Gillard the other week. At this morning’s meeting with Kevin Rudd why the secrecy, why a couple of cameras in the meetings why not come out and speak publicly if you’re all one happy family at the moment?
PM: Well of course I did have the meeting with Kevin this morning and I do recall there being a television camera there and a photographer there. And I am happy to answer your questions on the meeting if you have any. Kevin and I sat down this morning to talk about his involvement in the campaign. Kevin and I share a deep set of beliefs, a deep set of beliefs about the future of this country. We want to make sure the economy stays strong, we want to be investing in hospitals and schools and Kevin and I share a passion to make sure that Mr Abbott doesn’t slide into being Prime Minister with all of the risks that that would entail for our economy and for the future.
JOURNALIST: How does footage of you and the Prime Minister looking at a map help to convince Australians not to let Tony Abbott slide into power?
PM: Well of course Australians will be persuaded about these questions, the things that Australians are going to judge, with respect, I don’t think Australians are going to judge on a picture on their TV screen, they’re going to judge on the basis of what’s in their interest and the interest of their families. They’re going to think about: what’s better for me – keeping my job. They’re going to think about who has got the best plan for my child to be in a great school; they’re going to think about who has got the best plan for decent health care in this country. They’re going to think about whose got the best judgment to deal with the challenges of the future. These are the issues at the centre of this campaign. Kevin and I share the same values on these questions and we share the same concern that Mr Abbott is not a man who has made the right judgments in the past and he would not bring the right judgment to being Prime Minister and leading our national economy.
PM: No we did not.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister we saw about 60 seconds of footage of that meeting and it appears that there was no interaction whatsoever between you, not even eye contact. Was there any direct dialogue between you and Kevin and what was it about?
PM: Yes we did have a direct discussion and the focus of our discussion in what was a positive meeting was on Kevin’s involvement in the campaign. On the campaign, on the focus on the issue, on the issues that are of importance to the Australian people.
JOURNALIST: What will be Mr Rudd’s involvement in the campaign? Could you please tell us exactly? Will you be appearing with him? Just take us through it.
PM: Right. OK. What Kevin and I discussed was him actively campaigning for the re-election of the Gillard Government and that’s what he wants to do. He will be campaigning in a number of seats. You will excuse me if in accordance with normal campaign protocols I’m not completely divulging of all of that. But you should expect Kevin to be campaigning in a number of seats for the re-election of the Gillard Government. We are now moving into the last two weeks of the election campaign and in the last two weeks of the election campaign we want to maximise the reach of Labor’s message right around the country. So Kevin will be campaigning in a number of electorates and obviously I’ll be campaigning right around the country.
JOURNALIST: Will you be campaigning with him and secondly was there any agreement on how you’ll handle lines like: the Government’s lost its way? How are you going to both handle those?
PM: Kevin and I to maximise spread will be campaigning in different places. We’re moving into the last two weeks of the campaign, time is short and we want to make sure we get to speak to as many Australians as possible. In relation to the second half of your questions, no we didn’t discuss that matter.
JOURNALIST: Will you be happy about him being at the official launch and also is that the only time when you’ll be together?
PM: Yes, Kevin of course will be at the official launch.
JOURNALIST: It was seven minutes I think into his statement the other day before he actually mentioned your name. He spent a lot of time defending his legacy and speaking out against Tony Abbott. Isn’t part of the problem here that, not that you can’t find agreement on disliking Tony Abbott but he won’t come out and say that you will make a good Prime Minister?
PM: Kevin and I are very clear about what this election campaign is about. What we are fighting for and what we are fighting against. And of course Kevin is rightly proud of a number of the things that he did as Prime Minister and I would expect him, as he did the other day, to continue to talk about some of his great achievements as Prime Minister, great achievements of this Government. And of course we’re clear what we’re fighting for. Both of us are passionate about a strong economy offering people the benefits of work. Both of us are passionate about kids going to great schools, getting a decent chance at a good education. Both of us are passionate about the future of health care. Both of us want to see support for Australians and their aspirations, they want to see this country move in an optimistic way to deal with the challenges of the future. These are the things that we’re fighting for. And we’re also very clear what we’re fighting against. And what we’re fighting against is a return to WorkChoices; an endorsement of poor judgment; not supporting Australian jobs with all the implications that’s got for the future; going back to the days of cuts in schools and hospitals; and going back to a philosophy that says: be afraid of the future and don’t invest in it. Don’t invest in the National Broadband Network, don’t invest in the jobs of the future. Kevin will be campaigning for the re-election of my Government.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister –
JOURNALIST: Normally when you meet with a candidate you see a handshake, someone stands behind your shoulder while you’re talking. You get all those sorts of pictures. Yet you and Kevin Rudd didn’t even look at each other. Why didn’t you shake hands with the cameras? And two, do you think that voters are going to get confused that there’s maybe two leaders of the Labor Party when you’re both campaigning?
PM: Well with respect to my journalist colleagues and friends I don’t think you should be overestimating your role in quite the same way that you appear to be. Reality exists whether you’re there or not and the reality of this is Kevin and I had a positive and constructive discussion. A discussion focused on the role he will play in the campaign, supporting the election of my Government. And we had a discussion about all of the issues that we care passionately about and the issues this campaign is being fought on. For Australians, I think Australians are very clear. Come the 21st of August there are only two choices. You either re-elect me as Prime Minister, knowing where I stand on a strong economy, knowing my passion for investing in schools and where I stand on education, knowing where I stand on health, knowing where I stand on tackling the challenges of the future. Mr Abbott of course says to all of those things, well, a strong economy: no plans, can’t tell you when the Budget will come into surplus, didn’t choose jobs during the Global Financial Crisis, track record of cutting health and he’ll back at it again; track record in government of being indifferent to schools and school education and turning his back on the challenges of the future, like investing in the National Broadband Network.
JOURNALIST: Prime minister, you have spoken several times about your understanding about how difficult these past weeks have been on Kevin Rudd and obviously his family, as a person, but today you had the opportunity, sitting next to him in a room. Did you say sorry, or do you think you don’t have anything to say sorry for?
PM: Look the discussion I had with Kevin was about the campaign and the re-election of the Government. He was positive, he was focused, it was a positive discussion about his involvement on something that he’s passionate about and that is seeing this Government re-elected.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, there’s another former Labor leader just standing over there, in Mark Latham, why should Australians vote for you when you have one leader who, who has just been dumped, who won’t say you’re a great option for PM, and another former leader wandering around, criticising you and your key policies?
PM: With the greatest respect to the question, Malcolm Fraser, former Liberal Prime Minister, directly asked –
JOURNALIST: He didn’t turn up at any press conference –
PM: Well, well, I, it’s not because I was in a private meeting with him, I know it because it was reported on the media. Malcolm Fraser, former Liberal Prime Minister directly asked the question: are the Liberals ready to govern, answer: no. John Hewson’s assessment of Tony Abbott’s ability in economics: innumerate, former leader of the Liberal Party. Malcolm Turnbull, going to be a senior member of the team, apparently, the man that Tony Abbott defeated by one vote in a bitter leadership contest. Let’s just get a little bit real about all this.
JOURNALIST: You have used all those examples in the past to attack the other side, and say they’re unelectable?
PM: All I’m suggesting to you is this. If you want to make a summary of history, let’s make a summary of all history. Latika.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, can we go a bit more broadly, today your campaign is centred on your reunion with Kevin Rudd. You can’t deny that Mark Latham is here. Things aren’t ideal for you are they?
PM: Look my campaign is centred on fighting for the things that Australians believe in and need and the things that will shape our future. I’m here today, making a very important announcement that will have implications for literally millions of Australians around the country. There are many senior citizens who would be looking at this now and thinking, well what does this matter, what does it mean for me, what does it mean for my life? Well, what it means is that if they want the opportunity to do a bit of part-time work and get to keep more of the money they earn, they will be able to. For those Australians –
JOURNALIST: But you can’t campaign effectively –
PM: Well, I can’t when you’re interrupting me, Latika, no. And with respect, I mean, I understand, I understand that will be interest in my meeting with Kevin Rudd, but I also understand that when Australians come to exercise their vote, what they will be thinking about, is what matters to me and my family, what matters to my future? We’re here today with a significant announcement for senior Australians, people who want to do a bit of part time work, and keep the benefits of the money. Australians who have ended up being the primary carer of a young Australian; people who fear being discriminated against because of their age; people whose principal asset is the value they’ve got in their home and they want to be able to use it without ripoff; people who want a training place. These things are important; they’re an important policy announcement, that’s the focus of my campaign today. Yes, I met with Kevin Rudd, and he will be campaigning on these policies and plans for the re-election of the Gillard Government.
JOURNALIST: Did you communicate with Mark? You used to be quite close friends
PM: I haven’t. I’ve seen him in the distance Michelle, I haven’t seen him closer than that.
JOURNALIST: Start work from tomorrow?
PM: Sorry, I can’t hear you.
JOURNALIST: When does Mr Rudd start work?
PM: Well, as you know, Sid, when we make campaign arrangements, we like to announce where people are going to be when they’re there and the same rules will apply to Kevin as to other senior members of the team.
JOURNALIST: (inaudible) the media? Will he (inaudible)?
PM: What a ridiculous question. In what sense? How is that possible? Kevin will be campaigning as a member of the team. Kevin will be campaigning as someone who, if we are re-elected, will be a senior Minister in my Government. What that means is Kevin will be campaigning around the country, the way other members of the team are campaigning.
JOURNALIST: How will people really believe that he’s going to work with you as part of your team, if you’re talking about how much you have in common, but you won’t hold media interviews together and he won’t really even answer questions at a media conference environment about what’s happened and how he will work together?
PM: Well, can I just refer you to Kevin’s own words and Kevin Rudd has obviously stated publicly that he will be campaigning for the re-election of my Government. Today I have met with him and talked about those campaign plans.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, just to follow up on my earlier question, I understand what you’re saying about policy and that is your focus, the problem is when you try to put out policy and you are just distracted by other mixed messages like about Kevin Rudd and Mark Latham, is that difficult for you and your campaign, and keeping Tony Abbott out of the Lodge?
PM: Look, I’m full of vim and vigour for this campaign. I’ve said to you and I genuinely believe this is tough, it’s close, it’s going to be a photo finish. We all understand, standing here with my Labor colleagues and for my Labor colleagues more broadly, we are in the fight of our lives. This is going to go right down to the wire and the judgment is, the judgment at the end of the day, the choice is between the re-election of my Government or the election of a government led by Tony Abbott. Now, that means, I think, people will be looking at me, they be will assessing my judgment, they will be assessing the things I say and promise. They will be assessing what I have delivered, and what the Government has delivered. They will be doing the same with Tony Abbott. And on the big picture calls that matter to Australians, jobs during the Global Financial Crisis, we made the right call; Mr Abbott made the wrong call. Investing in health and schools, we are making the right call; Mr Abbott is making the wrong call to cut those investments back. On dealing with the future, making sure we get a fair share of the jobs of the future, we are making the right call by investing in the National Broadband Network, cutting company tax, supporting small business. Mr Abbott is making the wrong call by saying no to the National Broadband Network and to commit himself to increasing company tax. And of course today here we are, with policies of benefit to senior Australians.
JOURNALIST: When was the last time you spoke with Mark Latham?
PM: A number of years ago.
JOURNALIST: What was the meeting about?
PM: As you will see from the footage, we were there today, working through Kevin’s campaign arrangements, we were there with support, a support team from the Queensland ALP including the State Secretary and yes, John Faulkner was there as a campaign strategist and adviser. It is of no secret to anybody that John is travelling with me during this campaign.
JOURNALIST: Did you discuss today what sort of role, which jobs Mr Rudd might get if you are re-elected?
PM: No we did not.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, in the past month we have had a toxic interaction between Paul Keating and Bob Hawke in the form of a letter, we’ve had the situation with Kevin Rudd over the past few weeks, and today Mark Latham is standing up at your press conference. What does this say about Labor’s culture and are you concerned what this means for you when you decide to leave politics?
PM: Well, you know, any day that you are hosting a function that involves, Malcolm Fraser, John Howard, John Hewson, Malcolm Turnbull and Brendan Nelson, have I forgotten anybody, I’m not sure, let me know.
JOURNALIST: Would you have a message for people in Labor who seem to be not taking it quite as seriously as you are, for example, Mr Latham. Are you annoyed that he showed up here today? Is he distracting essentially from what you want to talk about and what would you say to people in Labor who don’t seem to be having quite the same view as you?
PM: Look, what I can say is what I’ve just said. We’re in the fight of our lives. It’s a serious fight about the future of the country. The campaign is about Australians right around the nation, hardworking Australians, people supporting their families. Senior Australians, people who care about the future and Australians will make a decision on the 21st of August. That is about them, their families and their future. And when we look at the issues of concern during this campaign, the big picture differences between the political parties, I believe that Australians will be looking and asking themselves the questions of relevance to them. Not the political chatter, the questions of relevance to them: my job, my child’s school, whether I could get a hospital bed if I needed one, what are the circumstances my elderly mum or dad is living in, what are the policies that make a difference to them, how will this nation deal with challenges like climate change, like the need to have new technology, how will we get the jobs of the future, how will we support businesses and ensure they’re strong. These are the things that people will be voting on. Latika.
PM: On policy, did you talk to Kevin Rudd today about how he will campaign in support, or if not, for your position on asylum seekers, and also climate change?
PM: No I didn’t but Kevin of course will be campaigning for the re-election of the Government and its policies, so our discussion today was a positive one, it was a constructive one, and the discussion was about Kevin’s active involvement in this campaign to support the re-election of my Government.
JOURNALIST: You questioned if we could afford a pension increase, do you think we can afford this with such an ageing population?
PM: Absolutely. And that’s a very good question and thank you for it. Every policy that I am announcing during this campaign is a policy that we will deal with in a prudent and sensible way. I have guaranteed to the Australian people that we will not add one cent to the Budget bottom line during this campaign. We are bringing the Budget back to surplus in 2013, three years earlier than scheduled. And your questions reminds, of course, that it is Mr Abbott and his team that have fallen far behind with getting their policies properly costed and cannot name when they will bring the Budget back to surplus. It’s the question going to Mr Abbott’s judgment and capacity to be Prime Minister of this country. He said he would get his policies in for costing; well he hasn’t acquitted that promise yet.