On the current evidence, Malcolm Turnbull appears to be best equipped to lead the Opposition to the next election. No federal government has failed to win a second term since Labor’s Jim Scullin lost to Joseph Lyons in 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression when Labor was deeply divided on economic policy. The best realistic outcome for the Coalition at next year’s election would be to gain some seats or at least hold its own.
The Coalition can learn from its current malcontents, many of whom focus on the handling of the media. Most journalists prefer Labor or the Greens to the Liberals. It makes sense to craft a media strategy out of this reality, and to get out its message over the heads of the journalists. This is not an easy task, nor is it impossible.
Turnbull’s appearance on ABC TV’s Australian Story last week was a disaster, primarily because he allowed journalists to present him in the worst possible light. It was no one’s fault the crew happened to be filming when news broke of the fake OzCar email. But when this became evident, it was time to clear the office of all but Liberal MPs and their staff. If this resulted in the program junking the profile, sometimes it is best not to be reported. And it does not matter if a politician upsets a journalist.
You get the impression some senior Liberals want the media to love them. How else to explain Joe Hockey’s address to the Committee for the Economic Development of Australia in Sydney on June 30? For some reason he agreed to be part of a panel interviewed by the ABC economics correspondent Stephen Long, who put it to Hockey that the Howard government spent too much, taxed too little and presided over a system of middle class welfare.
Hockey did not vigorously contest those propositions. It should have come as no surprise when Long reported his comments on that evening’s radio program PM as a candid assessment of the Howard government’s alleged economic failings. The next day Hockey denied he was critical of the Howard government’s economic legacy. But the damage was done.
That Australia has perhaps the best performing Western economy is due primarily to the legacy of John Howard and Peter Costello and the Hawke and Keating Labor governments. At the moment that legacy is all the Coalition has going for it. Why would a senior Liberal give the impression he was trashing it? Reading the transcript, you get the impression Hockey was trying to be nice to Long and that he might have run a different line had the inquisitor been more kindly disposed to the Howard/Costello legacy.
Howard’s speech in Melbourne last Tuesday on Politics and the media: the good, the bad and the ugly also missed the mark. Instead of the journalistic hostility that swelled during his last term, he focused on media criticism of his misjudgments appointing Peter Hollingworth as governor-general and his slow response to Pauline Hanson’s manifest intolerance.
The Liberals need to be more savvy about the media and to prosecute their case with greater conviction, in a coherent, researched form. Some Liberal material is not up to scratch, though there has been some improvement.
Liberals should complain about the lack of political balance in what are presented as forums. On the Sky News program AM Agenda on Friday the former Liberal leader John Hewson said the Howard and Rudd governments had lied over the link between Australia’s Afghanistan commitment and domestic terrorism. The former ALP senator Stephen Loosley properly defended Labor, but there was no one to defend the Liberal Party from Hewson.
Turnbull and his colleagues should accept that large sections of the media will never love them and adopt a strategy that takes this into account.