Australia is witnessing the most effective media strategy to be conceived since the dawn of the 24-hour media cycle. Our government has effectively disappeared, leaving the Opposition Labor’s ongoing squabbles centre stage.
When Prime Minister Tony Abbott decreed that ministers must clear all media appearances through his office, he claimed that it would ensure his government spoke with a ‘unified voice’. It is positioned as part of his plan to deliver an effective and competent government, in which ‘politics is off the front page’.
The co-ordination will give Abbott’s media strategists the ability to be genuinely strategic, leaving them to nominate when they release policy, through whom and in which media outlets.
Regular watchers of the political soapies will have noticed the increasing irrelevance of ABC television’s Sunday morning Insiders programme. Since the Sunday after the election, it has consistently failed to live up to its name and present genuine inside views. The Insiders’ very format is bedevilling them: they rely on a set interview with one of the important acteurs of the day to provide the substance of the show, while on the couch a panel of ‘eminent journalists’, the supposed ‘Canberra insiders’, comment on the events of the week, leaks, gossip and the scandal of party ructions. But of late they have had to make do on starvation rations: in the six Sundays since the election, only a single government minister (Malcom Turnbull!) has appeared on the show. Host Barrie Cassidy, now more ALP insider than ever, is on the outer.
Furthermore, the leaks that the panel rely on have dried up. Having always struggled to attract conservative-aligned journalists to their panel (and perhaps having given in to the calls of their audience not to pursue those panellists too hard) they are now blind in both eyes.
Thanks to the Abbott Government’s strategic continence, Insiders is being starved.
This has ramifications for the ABC’s entire Sunday programming, which hinges around a news story based on new information Cassidy extracts from his interviewee. In the past, this nugget would lead each Sunday night’s news. Now, when the ABC follows that formula, they play straight into Abbott’s hands. Nor is the ABC the only channel to suffer scant government content. The Coalition, it seems, has stepped off the Sunday carousel.
It is impossible not to be thankful for this brief respite from ‘announceables’ each week. As we turn our televisions off and tinker around the garden, it may occur to many of us that we’re feeling really rather, well, relaxed and comfortable.
Meanwhile, in a time-warp over on Sky News, Liberal-Government Sunday was slow to come. Here, before his visa expired, former Gillard Scottish chief media advisor, Bonnie Johnnie McTernan, could be found trying to rewrite history on shows like The Contrarians.
The contrast could not be starker: the much-vaunted strategist shipped in to advise the former Prime Minister versus the invisible Liberal strategists who know to keep their names off the page. McTernan, when not busy being the subject of dispute himself over the 457-visa affair, or flashing his sporran at the annual Press Club ball, was beavering away at the biggest balls-up of a strategy this side of Stalinist centralised agriculture.
McTernan should have had his eye on the bigger picture. Yet it was he who allowed Gillard to unleash the misogyny speech in the knowledge that Australian Women’s Weekly was about to run a picture of her knitting a toy for the baby royal. The dissonance created by these ‘two Julias’ turned out to be the final straw. It was also McTernan who presided over the surrender of control which was the World’s Longest Election Campaign. And it was he who approved an increasingly slapdash, haphazard and ultimately disastrous series of media appearances which left Julia Gillard looking desperate and inchoate in the face of the methodical sniping of Kevin Rudd’s destabilisation plan.
With no plan to manage the media, McTernan jumped to the tune they set, running from appearance to appearance trying to revise what was done and said. It’s a familiar story of a tactician in a strategist’s kilt.
The Coalition strategists have steadfastly resisted the urge to jig. By leaving Labor in the limelight, they’ve ensured the electorate doesn’t suffer buyers’ remorse, while cleverly picked ministerial appearances have supported major change with a minimum of fuss. You have to admire their discipline and skill. But the strategy has a use-by date. If they continue too long, Labor isn’t the force Abbott should fear.
There are newly minted senators with agendas to push, and they will happily fill the clear airtime the Coalition creates. The relentless 24/7 media cycle needs content and the small parties will need fewer resources to steer the debate from behind. No stranger to the -ism of opportunity, Liberal Democratic party senator David Leyonhjelm is already eagerly sucking at the available oxygen.
If he handles himself well, it could be libertarianism’s big break in Australia. Leyonhjelm has a valuable chance to gain public support for the Liberal Democrats’ policy platform and influence the shape of legislation. Currently he is making silly errors. Answering questions on Australian Agenda, Leyonhjelm slipped into the trap of ‘announcing’ clumsily worded policy. The media pounced on the plan for asylum seekers to pay entry to Australia; it made the nightly news and all the major papers. The party lost control of the message and the opportunity for nuance on what constitutes an asylum seeker was gone. If we squint, we may detect a flash of kilt. Too many more slips like these and the public and media will file the LDP away as dilettantes or crazies. But if he and Palmer United Party and the rest of the minors are capable of a strategic approach, they could find themselves with considerable power.
If the new government is to remain in control of the big picture, Abbott and his team will have to increase their media feed without giving any one journalist too much access and power. The era of the insider is over; the selective interview in.
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Parnell Palme McGuinness is director of communications advisory Thought Broker in Sydney.
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