The press gallery will be happy: there’s been a leadership spill, a prime minister dumped, mass cabinet resignations, plenty of action. It would have been better if it had been today, allowing more time for the media to co-ordinate its coverage and build it up, and without the clash with State of Origin in NSW and Queensland; Julia Gillard, so often the target of a the media, cruelled things somewhat by bringing it on last night.
The media were players in all this, of course. But that’s nothing new, not the result of the decline of press gallery standards or the lurch to the Right of some outlets or of Lindsay Tanner’s “Sideshow” (remember that?); the media cheered on Paul Keating in his quest for the prime ministership; Peter Costello had faithful lieutenants in the gallery; Kevin Rudd himself carefully cultivated journalists as an opposition leader.
What was different this time around, maybe, is that many in the media were happy to act as uncritical and unsceptical echo chambers for the Rudd camp, enthusiastically reporting that Rudd’s numbers were growing, hyping his chances, criticising Gillard, beating up small incidents to portray him in a more positive light. Some of this was mere freelancing by Rudd’s more enthusiastic backers, done without the direct support of Rudd himself (yes, that’s Joel Fitzgibbon); other times it was by Rudd himself. Frequently it had no substance whatsoever; when time came to challenge in February 2012, Rudd’s support was embarrassingly low; he couldn’t even bring himself to throw his hat in the ring in March this year.
Frequently it looked like the middle-aged males of the Rudd camp working closely with the middle-aged men of the press gallery to undermine a female prime minister.
Meantime, Gillard herself was the object of media attack for reasons unrelated to Kevin Rudd. Sections of the media, and not just News Ltd but Fairfax and even Media Watch, participated in an outrageous smear campaign over issues two decades ago, before Gillard entered politics, for which after years of claims and acres of newsprint, we still don’t have any specific allegations. And the torrent of misogynist abuse directed at her didn’t just spring from the lunatic fringe of the internet but from the mainstream media as well, from News Ltd publications, conservative commentators and from shock jocks.
Gillard’s mere existence, her presence in the prime ministership, her failure to conform to female stereotypes by being unmarried, childless and ambitious, pushed the buttons of the Right in a big way. Many reacted with froth-mouthed hatred.
But as Gillard noted last night, gender doesn’t explain everything, nor does it explain nothing. Gillard repeatedly showed an unerring accuracy in shooting herself in the foot, without any help from her predecessor. Her media management, while not as in-your-face offensive as Rudd’s, was marked by a similar tone deafness. Communications director John McTernan’s arrival gave a much greater sense of strategy and coherence to Gillard’s government, but his tactical nous was increasingly found wanting. A major frustration for Labor was its inability to get voters to accept how strong the economy was, a problem exacerbated by the fact that treasurer Wayne Swan wasn’t — and would never pretend to be — the sort of cut-through communicator that Gillard at least was able to be for Rudd. The media had a significant role in that, constantly wondering why Labor couldn’t sell its economic message while ignoring Australia’s economic performance, particularly as Europe slid into depression and the US remained mired in despair. But, again, it was Gillard and Swan who insisted that they would return to surplus in 2013, insisted repeatedly, constantly, without caveat or equivocation.
There remain so many what-ifs about the Gillard prime ministership. What if the Rudd camp hadn’t leaked against her during the 2010 campaign, allowing her to govern in a majority? What if she’d called the bluff of Greens Bob Brown and Christine Milne and said she wouldn’t accept a carbon price and that they should support Tony Abbott if they felt they needed to? Above all, what would have happened if she hadn’t been thrust into the prime ministership before, manifestly, she was ready for it?
But if she wasn’t ready for the prime ministership, too many people weren’t ready for a female prime minister. And a few of them cover politics in the press gallery.