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IDs now matter instead of ideas

Date

Editor-at-large, The Canberra Times

View more articles from Jack Waterford

Chris Bowen keeps a keen eye on the messages coming out of the Department of Immigration.

Chris Bowen keeps a keen eye on the messages coming out of the Department of Immigration. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Here's a nice conjunction that might even be a paradox. Never have advisers on public policy, including public servants, devoted so much attention to or been so sophisticated about news media process and the ''optics'' of proposals going to government. It's nearly all about appearances, including the appearance of action, decisiveness and expertise. That matters more than actually making much of a real difference, which seems harder these days.

Yet never has news media policy in government been so tightly controlled, with so few people authorised to say anything, and even the passage of the most innocuous information closely monitored by the political staff of ministers.

The cynic might also think there is a corollary: that even when media policy succeeds, at least temporarily, in creating an impression of firm and effective government, never have ministers, or their departments, been less in charge of events, let alone in much of a position to influence them. Consider, for example, the hapless Chris Bowen, and the scores of millions of dollars he invests in efforts to manage the messages coming out of the Department of Immigration.

But the problem with such approaches can be that when all of the attention is on the spin, the impression and the message that politicians and the agencies are trying to get across, the substance and the realities have disturbing tendencies to run away.

Yesterday I was at a conference at the University of Canberra where I was involved in the launch of a report on media and indigenous policy - a study, under an Australian Research Council grant, of how reporting and the media affect how policies are developed, communicated and implemented. What the papers presented tend to suggest to me is that more effort goes into ''engagement'' with the media than into consulting or listening to Aborigines - the supposed recipients of many of the policies. Perhaps, indeed, the hallmark of success for ministers and agencies in Aboriginal affairs is rather more about getting favourable press than actually achieving anything by way of ''closing gaps'', addressing urgent needs or causing changes for the better, as opposed to change for the worse or, more usually, simple drift, in which millions are being spent by thousands of public servants and others with no evident or lasting effect.

Two of the journalist academics, Kerry McCallum and Lisa Waller, for example, devoted most of their attention to bureaucrats actually in the field in Aboriginal communities - the experts advising on policy and responsible for carrying it out.

''Our participants spoke candidly and with extraordinary expertise about the way they orient their practices towards the minister's office and the public,'' they observe. ''Indigenous policy bureaucrats were media experts with a sophisticated knowledge of news media practices. They described in detail their operation at the political, ministerial, communication and policy levels.

''They rarely had any direct contact with a journalist, but they were nevertheless media experts who could monitor news, anticipate how an issue might play out in popular media, adapt their practices to pre-empt the public response to their policies, react with skill to negative and positive news stories, and use the news media strategically to develop publicly successful policies.''

Some of this is merely about making a minister - a Jenny Macklin, for example - look good. Some of it is about responding quickly to criticism, or having ideas about how something can be sold. Some of it is about ''managing'' good and bad stories - by time-honoured systems of withholding information, finding distractions, dropping bad news with other news that is swamping everything, or being fed with torrents of information, and access, travel and early tips when good publicity is desired, or tame journalists are being stroked.

Alongside this have been conscious attempts to please campaigning newspapers such as The Australian, which has devoted enormous resources to coverage of indigenous affairs.

However, as ever there, it tends to see all matters through its own prism, and ever wants to ''frame'' its stories around its own agenda. In indigenous affairs this includes themes of personal responsibility, canonisation of selected Aborigines, and damnation, even monstering, of those who criticise them.

A good deal of the political public relations effort seems designed to please or appease The Australian in particular - and that the minister listens more respectfully to the opinions of its editor than she does to academics, community development people and the ''evidence base'' - or, especially, Aboriginal people themselves.

The Australian is as focused on influencing Aboriginal policy and practice as reporting it. We are moving to programs it has almost designed, albeit ones never assessed, independently reviewed or put through close financial analysis. Yet as Labor contemplates five years of getting nowhere in Aboriginal affairs, despite big increases in spending, one does not expect that The Australian will accept any responsibility.

Likewise, some conservative commentators, such as Noel Pearson of the Cape York Institute, Marcia Langton and Helen Hughes at the Centre for Independent Studies, appear to have much more influence over some areas of policy debate - such as bilingual education - than any evidence base in the universities, education departments or communities. This is primarily because of their inside access to the media.

This comfy alliance doesn't always work smoothly, of course. Events have their own way of intruding into the weave. Sometimes, indeed, Aborigines themselves are able to use - or manipulate - some of the ''realities'' being peddled to their own advantage, not least the impression that some problems are ''intractable'' or almost impossible to solve. There is a whole industry dependent upon the theory that some problems are insolvable and, of course, a vast industry of patronage, appointment, deference and access for those who toe the government's line, complemented, of course, by various levels of hell for those who fail to please or to adopt the minister's view of things.

Then there's the fact that the statistics, or other highly visible evidence of disadvantage, do not always move smoothly to reflect the government's rosy view of progress, the increasing number of Toyotas and white public servants being thrown at ''the problem'', or the disturbing evidence that some Aborigines neither want to be saved by Canberra sacrifice nor led to the paradise that the ''seagull people'' seem to want to take them. Seagull people, the report tells me, are white bureaucrats who fly into Aboriginal communities, shit all over the community, then fly away, never to be seen again.

The want of Aboriginal enthusiasm for programs, the level of disengagement and the frustrations of intractable health, education and employment disadvantage, cannot be concealed forever behind media policy and optimism, doctored or meaningless statistics, or the increasing tendency to use glossy paper in publications pretending slow but certain improvements.

Perhaps the problem is wider. On Thursday night, Lindsay Tanner, the former finance minister, philosophised about the decline of intellectual integrity in politics.

Political leaders were becoming ever more skilful in creating misleading images, he said. ''National politics has become a contest of meaningless announcements and personal narratives. Politicians collaborate with media to produce content that is entertaining but not informative.

''Australian politics now functions around two core operational principles: look like you are doing something, and don't offend anyone who matters.''

Announcements ''allow a political leader to convey an impression of action while avoiding anything concrete that may upset crucial interest groups and voter blocs. New policy initiatives of any significance usually involve challenging those with an interest in the status quo, and at very least spending scarce dollars that have to come either from increased taxes, increased debt or spending cuts on other programs.

''Politicians and media now collaborate in this process of deception on a daily basis. While neither set out deliberately to deceive, that is precisely the wider impact generated by the combined effects of their behaviour. The media treat meaningless announcements seriously because they have to report something. They're merely businesses engaged in the manufacturing and retailing of information and entertainment products. Accuracy and significance don't figure prominently in their business models.

''In order to be electorally competitive, politicians need exposure. Nothing is more important than name recognition. Anything which delivers publicity without upsetting a politically significant constituency is of enormous value. That's why leading politicians routinely appear in silly outfits, engage in juvenile stunts, make pointless announcements, tell personal stories and viciously attack political opponents. There is only one guaranteed path to failure in politics: anonymity. So the battle of ideas is displaced by the battle of IDs.

''The outcome of this charade is the steady erosion of intellectual integrity in our national political discourse. Political leaders construct pictures for voters that resemble mobile phone plans: they're designed to maximise outcomes for the producer by obscuring the real choices facing the consumer.

''This trend carries extremely serious implications for the standards of governance in Australia. Intellectual integrity in politics is just as important as ethical integrity. Democratic accountability is undermined by misinformation as much as by misappropriation. The typical excesses of government - waste, cronyism, poor decision-making, lack of transparency and pork-barrelling - all thrive when voters are relatively uninformed.

''These techniques are also eroding the established brands of the major political parties. The more they contort themselves to avoid controversial stances that define them, the more they lose definition in the eyes of voters … A political party must have a reasonably clear purpose in order to succeed. Sustained loss of purpose will ultimately destroy any organisation.''

As someone else in the spin game once put it, you cannot polish a turd. Put another way, you can put lipstick on a pig but it's still a pig.

Here in Canberra, the number of public relations operatives inside the federal government alone exceeds by a factor of five the number of working journalists in this city. That is, of course, over and above the number of policy-oriented public servants, and minders, incorporating sophisticated understanding of the media in their advice.

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