Analysis & Opinions - Sydney Morning Herald

Cancer Eating the Heart of Australian Democracy

| Aug. 27, 2018

Beneath the sound and light show that passed for Australian politics last week, there is a much deeper question of what underlying forces have been at work that have brought us this low. The uncomfortable truth is, since the coup of June 2010, Australian politics has become vicious, toxic and unstable. The core question is why?

There have been many factors at work. First, the histrionic politics of climate change dividing the nation for more than a decade - we have lacked the national political maturity to just get on with it, despite Australia being the driest continent on earth.

Second, the cult of opinion polls, leaving the political class in permanent fear of losing their jobs if they actually acted on long-term policy.

Third, the juvenile culture of much of the "Young-Labor/Young-Liberal" generation of child politicians, who have never done anything else but politics, who see politics as a game of shafting people, as in their student days, and little else.

Fourth, the ease at which, under the two major parties' rules, parliamentary coups can be launched at the drop of a hat - a disease I fixed in the Labor Party with rule changes in 2013, which the Liberals should now adopt.

Then there is the unique negativity, toxicity and hatred that one man - Tony Abbott, John Howard's political disciple - has brought to our national political life over the past decade.

Abbott has never cared about policy. He has only cared about politics and winning at any cost. I cannot remember a single positive policy initiative that Abbott has championed and then implemented. Not one. As a result, unconstrained by policy, the entire energy of this giant wrecking ball of Australian politics has been focused on destroying his opponents - within the Labor Party and the Liberal Party. Of all modern politicians, Abbott is sui generis. His singular, destructive impact on national politics cannot be underestimated.

But on top of all the above, while manipulating each of them, has been Rupert Murdoch - the greatest cancer on the Australian democracy.

Murdoch is not just a news organisation. Murdoch operates as a political party, acting in pursuit of clearly defined commercial interests, in addition to his far-right ideological world view.

In Britain, Murdoch made Brexit possible because of the position taken by his papers. In the United States, Murdoch's Fox News is the political echo chamber of the far right, which enabled the Tea Party and then the Trump party to stage a hostile takeover of the Republican Party. In Australia, as in America, Murdoch has campaigned for decades in support of tax cuts for the wealthy, killing action on climate change and destroying anything approximating multiculturalism.

What's unique about Australia is Murdoch owns two-thirds of the country's print media. No other democracy has anything approaching his effective media monopoly.

While centre-left readers say Murdoch's influence is overrated because people refuse to read his papers, or because social media now dilutes his power, we should be careful about such judgments. Because the electronic media is so denuded of journalists these days, Murdoch's print media has a disproportionate impact on setting the day's overall agenda. The electronics often just "rip and read" what Murdoch has put on the front page.

Then there is Murdoch's masterful conflation of "opinion" with "news". The two had become one in Murdoch's own world of fake news well before "fake news" became topical after the 2016 US elections.

Murdoch is also a political bully and a thug who for many years has hired bullies as his editors. The message to Australian politicians is clear: either toe the line on what Murdoch wants or he kills you politically.

This has produced a cowering, fearful political culture across the country. I know dozens of politicians, business leaders, academics and journalists, both left and right, too frightened to take Murdoch on because they fear the repercussions for them personally. They have seen what happens to people who have challenged Murdoch's interests as Murdoch then sets out to destroy them.

Look at the recent example of the ANU not accepting a proposed centre funded by the "John Howard-Paul Ramsay Western Civilisation" condominium on the grounds of academic independence.

The Murdoch media's response is to launch yet another targeted jihad against those who defy the ideological mood of their master.

In my case, Murdoch loathed our stimulus strategy, detested our climate change strategy, but most importantly, railed against our government having the audacity to build an NBN with fibre-optic to the home to turbo-charge Australian small business's access to the global digital economy of the future.

Murdoch saw a threat to his monopoly Foxtel cable entertainment empire - his cash cow cross-subsidising his loss-making print mastheads. The latter were critical as the pillars of his political power. Murdoch feared our NBN would make it easier for Netflix to become a real Foxtel competitor. Murdoch despatched his leading henchman from New York, Col Allan, to run the Murdoch campaign in the 2013 election to destroy the government.

Murdoch and Abbott's Liberals effectively ran a joint war room for the campaign. If anyone doubts this, just google ABC Media Watch's conclusions about the monumental level of Murdoch bias. Abbott would go on to deliver what Murdoch wanted - the destruction of the NBN as fibre-optic to the home.

So how did Malcolm Turnbull alienate Murdoch ? What we know is Murdoch visited Australia in the past few weeks. He called his editors in. And then each of the papers turned feral. Murdoch is a climate change denialist. Presumably Murdoch believed Howard and Abbott that Turnbull, on the legislative recognition of carbon reduction targets, was going too far. Murdoch wanted a Capital C Conservative. He may not have got Dutton. But Morrison is almost as good. Look at the Murdoch coverage of Morrison's elevation the day after the ballot. Orgasm all round. Nothing on the orgy of political violence preceding it. Nothing to see here.

An incoming Labor government should consider a full royal commission into the future of Australian media ownership, with particular reference to News Corp. It should also consider the proposed Nine takeover of Fairfax Media, as well as the future role of the new media. The terms of reference should also include Murdoch's role in the destruction of the $43 billion NBN. And it should make recommendations for the future.

Murdoch and others succeeded in sinking the Finkelstein Media Review five years ago. Given Murdoch's impact on the future of our democracy, it's time to revisit it. Anyone who thinks the problem will go away once Lachlan replaces Rupert is deluding themselves.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Rudd, Kevin.“Cancer Eating the Heart of Australian Democracy.” Sydney Morning Herald, August 27, 2018.