Finance Minister Mathias Cormann and Treasurer Joe Hockey enjoy cigars outside The Treasury in Canberra.

Free kick: Joe Hockey (with Finance Minister Mathias Cormann) has been stereotyped as the guy from the top end of town. Photo: Courtesy Nine News

Sometimes the banal aspects of life are just too much to ignore. When the gods conspire to load them up into a short time frame and throw them at you, it can seem overwhelming. I feel that way now about so much of our media coverage of politics.

The recent reporting on Joe Hockey is just one example. Joe apparently enjoys the occasional cigar. There’s no crime in that. Somewhere footage got out showing he and the Finance Minister Mathias Cormann each enjoying a great big smelly cigar. Since then I have seen numerous cartoons and heard commentary about the cigar smoking. Joe has been portrayed as the guy from the top end of town indulging himself.

Stereotyping and ridicule pass as substitutes for informed debate.  

Bill Shorten joined in, calling Joe an ‘‘arrogant cigar-chomping Treasurer’’.  Never mind that Bob Hawke had a real taste for cigars. Shorten knows that because, not that long ago, Hawke was enjoying a cigar in the Opposition Leader’s courtyard with Shorten present.

Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke smokes tees off, and smokes a cigar, in 2006.

Former Labor prime minister Bob Hawke tees off, with cigar, in 2006. Photo: Glen McCurtayne

This barrage of negative media has been allowed to come about only because Joe has let people see he has the occasional cigar. Ho hum. Apparently he should, because he is Treasurer, never have anything out of the ordinary. The proposition is ludicrous. And banal rubbish. Of course it is all just flotsam and jetsam on the ocean of media information, but it is there on the surface and the media intend us to see it.

If you think I am kidding myself, consider a reversal of the stereotyping on others. How about users of illegal drugs as an example. If someone were to stereotype them all as useless losers who sponge off society on welfare, break into our homes and steal from us, there would be an outcry. You see, apparently it is OK to engage in stereotyping of a senior conservative politician, but not of others.

There’s a free kick on offer, and plenty of the lazy journalists take it. Hollow infotainment tries to get away with looking like sensible media comment. Stereotyping and ridicule pass as substitutes for informed debate. It adds nothing to the substantive political discourse.

Master manipulator: Clive Palmer gets the spotlight, but does this contribute to the substance of policy?

Master manipulator: Clive Palmer gets the spotlight, but does this contribute to the substance of policy? Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Another example is the media reaction to Joe’s recent comment to the effect that people with lower incomes don’t drive as far and thus would not be affected as much by a small increase in the fuel excise. In many cases, in an absolute sense, that would be true, although there would of course be exceptions. It would be equally true to say that, in some cases, lower-income earners would be affected more in a relative sense. Yet again, amid all the information we could be looking at, one remark is brought to the surface and has a spotlight trained on it.

In the discussion on this from so many journalists we see little about the overall merit or otherwise of raising the excise on fuel. Do we want fuel to get relatively cheaper and cheaper so the so-called rich, who in absolute terms may well consume more petrol, get a bigger benefit? Even that is not the question.

The real issue we face is: Can we keep going as as we are? Can we keep spending at current rates and have a sustainable economy? Do we just hope things will pick up, or do we start to put our house in order? If we don’t want to collect more money one way, how would we like to collect it?

Much of the difficulties Joe faces are a consequence of the Senate with which he has to deal. We elected some people who in their wildest dreams never expected to get elected. We didn’t expect it either. They had no coherent set of principles that would guide their decision making. These senators seem very much focused on simple political posturing and bargaining. Now Joe has to deal with them in order to get some common sense. Making sense of that isn’t easy.

What do the independents and Palmer United Party members want for the long term in Australia? Do they think we should future-proof the economy against another global financial crisis, or not?

Just how did Clive Palmer achieve such prominence? He’s a rich man, but so what. There have been and still are rich people in Parliament. That alone is no claim to fame. There are three factors that have helped Clive along the way.

First, his party always had a prospect, even likelihood, of holding the balance of power in the Senate. That alone makes you of interest. Some in the media actively built his profile.

Second, sadly there was precious little scrutiny of what he stood for. Being a potential thorn in Tony Abbott’s side made him the darling of good portions of the media.

Third, Clive is a master at manipulating the media, at getting the spotlight – and like moths to the flame, they fly. All of this contributes to coverage of the froth and bubble of politics, not the substance of policy.

Of course, in the great conversation of life that is politics there is room for discussion about people, their personalities, attitudes and quirks. How we say things can matter as much as what we say; it can unintentionally cause offence and it can affect what people think about us and our ideas. That’s no doubt why Joe has apologised for any offence caused. We just need to remember that these things are about the game of politics but they are not the main game, not the substance of government.

The Hockey budget seeks to put Australia’s house back in order. It seeks to do that in a measured way over quite a few years. Sure there are, as there always will be, some tough decisions. Personally, I am in favour of future-proofing us from the next GFC, and very much in favour of stopping the selfish ‘‘spend now, make our kids pay’’ policies.

Some will pillory Joe over his cigars or something he said. I think we should offer him some praise for recognising that we need to clean up Labor’s mess.

Amanda Vanstone is a columnist for The Age and was a member of the Abbott government-appointed Commission of Audit and a minister in the Howard government.