There is a lot to be said for the biblical saying “by their fruits ye shall know them”. The same is true where there is an absence of fruit.
Zali Steggall announced last Sunday that she would be standing as an independent for the seat of Warringah at the forthcoming federal election with the intention of toppling Tony Abbott, the incumbent Liberal Party member. As it turned out, she travelled to the media conference in Manly (on Sydney’s north shore) in the company of ABC TV 7.30 journalist Andy Park.
The next morning, Steggall was interviewed by Fran Kelly on the ABC Radio National Breakfast program, who asked this question: “Are you yourself a Liberal? Have you ever described yourself as that?” The reply was: “I think, ironically, I do describe myself as that sensible centre.”
The implication was that Steggall supported the Liberal Party in so far as it represented the sensible centre — whatever that might mean. What was most significant about the response turned on the fact that the question had been avoided. However, rather than ask Steggall whether she votes for the Liberal Party at election time, Kelly’s next (soft) question was: “You were born in Manly?”
The clear impression from the Breakfast interview was that Steggall is a Liberal of some kind. On 7.30 on Tuesday, ABC election analyst Antony Green told Park: “She’s not some fly-by-night candidate; she has Liberal credentials, conservative credentials … but it’s still a big ask for her to win a seat like Warringah.”
And then, on Wednesday, Sky News’s David Speers asked Steggall the question that Kelly had avoided. Namely, who does she support at the polls? The exchange was very informative.
Steggall: “I haven’t been a Labor voter; I’m from a traditional Liberal family.” Speers: “Well, Tony Abbott’s been the local member in Warringah for nearly 25 years, have you ever voted for him?” Steggall: “I must say, I haven’t.”
Now, Abbott won Warringah in a by-election in March 1994 and successfully contested the seat in 1996, 1998, 2001, 2004, 2007, 2010, 2013 and 2016. John Hewson was Liberal Party leader when Abbott entered federal parliament. John Howard led the Liberals at the elections between 1996 and 2007. Abbott was leader in 2010 and 2013 and Malcolm Turnbull in 2016.
So, on her own admission, Steggall could not support the Liberal Party led by Howard or Abbott, or even by such small-L Liberals as Hewson and Malcolm Turnbull.
Of all these occasions, 2016 was the crucial election. There was a genuine fear in Liberal ranks that Abbott might lose his seat. As it turned out, he won comfortably. But this was not anticipated by some Liberals. In any event, Turnbull as PM campaigned for Abbott in the final weeks.
If the Greens candidate Williams Roldan (who came second) had won in Warringah, then Turnbull would have been forced into a situation where he led a minority Coalition government. Despite this possibility, Steggall could not support the Turnbull government. Yet journalists present her as an independent with Liberal and conservative credentials.
The ABC is a conservative-free zone without one conservative presenter, producer or editor for any of its prominent television, radio or online outlets. Leading ABC journalists like 7.30 presenter Leigh Sales maintain this view is “nonsense”. But neither she nor any of her colleagues have been able to name one such conservative. Over the years, the ABC has criticised both the Coalition and the Labor Party from the Left — which explains why it has angered not only Howard and Abbott but also such Labor Party prime ministers as Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. The Greens, however, invariably get a soft run on the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster.
Witness Kelly’s soft interview on January 22 with Jason Ball, the Greens candidate for the Melbourne seat of Higgins. Kelly spoke to Ball for about nine minutes without once raising the sexual assault and harassment scandals that have rocked the party in recent times in both Victoria and NSW. A Coalition or Labor politician would not have escaped such scrutiny if similar circumstances prevailed.
In short, ABC journalists tend to favour left-of-centre politicians in the Coalition and Labor Party along with so-called progressive independents and the leftist Greens.
For example, next Monday’s Q&A has a panel consisting entirely of politicians who criticise the Coalition from the Left — namely independents Julia Banks, Kerryn Phelps, Rebekha Sharkie and Andrew Wilkie, along with Greens MP Adam Bandt.
Bob Katter, the only House of Representatives member who criticises the Coalition from the Right, is not on the panel.
The hankering of some ABC journalists for Turnbull was evident when on Wednesday AM presenter Sabra Lane confronted Scott Morrison over the Liberal Party leadership change of last August. Lane told the Prime Minister that “the No 1 question” she was asked by people “over Christmas” was “who’s going to win the election and why did the Liberal Party turf Malcolm Turnbull?”
I spent Christmas in the electorate of Gilmore. Plenty of people wanted to talk about politics and no one mentioned Turnbull.
The essential problem with the ABC is that it remains a staff collective that management does not control.
So it is likely that many ABC journalists will continue to back such independent candidates as Banks, Phelps, Sharkie and Steggall in the lead-up to the election and to sneer at such Liberal Party incumbents as Abbott.
This is not a problem unique to Australia. In his book The Noble Liar (Biteback, 2018), former BBC journalist Robin Aitken documents how BBC journalists are hostile to the “social conservative viewpoint” — so much so that they “don’t even see what the problem is” with the British public broadcaster’s lack of political diversity.