How the Australian press drags down Prime Ministers

I'm enjoying watching the Liberal Party squirm and tear itself up as much as anyone. I think Tony Abbott is a pretty laughable Prime Minister and that his government is a terrible and regressive one. And Coalition politicians really did say a lot of stuff about Labor navel-gazing which is now pretty hilarious. So the schadenfreude is fun.

But this was a problem when it happened to Julia Gillard, and it's a problem now. The Australia media has become very good at destroying Prime Ministers, and very eager to do just that. This is a PM I, and many of the people who'll read this, detest. But that doesn't change the fact that we now seem to have a basically rabid press gallery who are more than happy to gin up a leadership crisis from the barest of source material.

Obviously the situation is not that the media have invented this out of nothing. The government is very unpopular, and Abbott has made a series of increasingly comical missteps that seem to have sown genuine doubts in the minds of many Liberal MPs. That is not the same thing as a spill motion in the partyroom, which is now going to happen on Tuesday and would not have happened without the active assistance of the media.

I obviously don't know why journalists engage in this. Presumably a large part of the explanation is that they're just used to it now, and that's just how the press gallery works, and if they don't write this stuff, they'll be missing the big story. But whatever the reason, reporters across the board - at Fairfax, at News Corp, at the ABC, at the Guardian - are now very good at following a very simple formula for chipping away at a PM's position. It goes something like this - I'm using examples from this crisis, but the same things were done all through the Labor years.

1. Ask mischief-making questions
No politician ever has the unconditional support of any other politician. Just think about what would be involved in that and it's obvious why. Equally, no politician with a reasonably high profile is going to rule themselves out of ever challenging or running for the leadership of their party. Of course there are circumstances where Julie Bishop, or Malcolm Turnbull, or Scott Morrison, would happily lead a public challenge. Just not these circumstances.

Particularly when journalists are so keen of dredging up old quotes to challenge politicians with, that means none of these people are ever going to give totally unambiguous, universal shows of support for the current leadership. Journalists know this. (Or they should, and could if they thought about it.) So asking questions phrased in those terms is pure mischief. The answer is never going to be "yes, my support is unconditional" or "no, I will never run to be Liberal leader" - for reasons that have everything to do with how strong those commitments would be and how determined politicians are not to later be painted as liars, and nothing to do with their support right now. The only point of asking these questions is to elicit answers which sound shifty, or which you can paint as shifty, which brings us to...

2. Paraphrase aggressively
Have a look at the heading on this section of the Guardian's live blog from Friday. "Pyne admits Tony Abbott may not survive"!? That sounds like a big deal. What actually happened, though, was that he was asked whether Abbott had the numbers and said it was an "inexact science" - that is, he didn't know, presumably because he hasn't been counting. Meanwhile every other comment in the interview is incredibly clear: Pyne thinks Abbott is the best leader, should remain leader, wants everyone to vote for him and has been telling them so. And yet, apparently, he "has his dancing shoes on" - courtesy of reading some strong implications into one sentence of what he actually said.

Or take Sharman Stone, who gave an interview in which she essentially said that leadership speculation was damaging the party and that the whole thing should be resolved as quickly as possible - and is now being listed in the anti-Abbott camp. She never said she would vote against Abbott, or even for a spill.

3. Big-note your sources
Luke Simpkins and Don Randall, movers of the spill motion, are conservative Western Australian MPs. That means they're very significant - since it suggests that the conservative wing which has always been firmer for Abbott is peeling away from him, and since they are from WA and so likely allies of Julie Bishop.

Of course, if the motion had come from moderate urban east-coast MPs, that would also have been significant: likely Turnbull allies, and an indicator that the wing of the party which was always less keen on Abbott as leader have finally had enough.

Jeff Kennett might be described as 'a man who has held no position in the Liberal Party since 1999'. Alternatively, you could describe him as a 'Liberal powerbroker', and make a big deal out of his negative comments towards Abbott's leadership. For a bonus: pull a step-2 on some really quite banal comments from Michael Kroger and Peter Costello, old factional opponents of Kennett, and you get: "the chances of Costello and Kennett agreeing on anything are practically zero. When they agree to bag out a leader - that has to be dangerous."

But we're not done: Arthur Sinodinos, who is currently in total disgrace and had to resign from the frontbench to avoid dragging the government into the muck of corruption allegations he is facing, is supposedly still influential in New South Wales - which, combined with the Kennett/Kroger/Costello trio from Victoria, means there's dissent coming from many different parts of the country. Why does that matter? There's no time for explanation - another backbencher is making ambiguous comments on a 24 hour news channel!

(And Sharman Stone, from above, is a "key backbencher" - no detail given on just what that means...)

Almost anyone's comments can be construed as big and important, and used to keep the story and the speculation going - even when they're not someone with influence, and even when they're not really saying anything.

4. Analogise, analogise, analogise!
Thanks to the last few years, and also a broader history - Howard/Costello, Hawke/Keating - plenty of stuff like this has happened before. So when anything happens, there are plenty of bad historical omens to be read off. Abbott's polling is even worse than Julia Gillard's when she was finally challenged - he's done for. Julie Bishop was riled by being asked to promise her loyalty - just like Gillard was, just before she decided to challenge Rudd. Ministers saying they won't challenge? Kevin and Julia both said that, and, well.

5. Build the case
Journalists can do a lot to drag out and elevate a leadership story. But if there isn't a clear case in the heads of the public or party MPs for why change should happen and who would be better, it's unlikely to happen. (Rudd's deposal in 2010 may be an exception.) The ingredients of that case have always been there - but luckily for the press, the construction of that argument is also not outside their control.

Here are some (1, 2, 3, 4) articles building a background justification for why Abbott is so bad, and discussing who might replace him. To my mind, they are all more or less vacuous. But whether or not that's true, they are helping to create an environment in which knocking over a first-term Prime Minister seems less like total madness and more like the necessary, even the obvious, thing to do. Creating that environment is creating a leadership contest.

(I have mostly sourced things from the Guardian, because it has no form of paywall and because it's the paper I read most, but the story is not really different in other outlets.)

None of this is to say the media is all-powerful here. My guess is that we're in March 2013 at the moment: the spill motion will be defeated, or if it passes Abbott will win handily. The reason is that this has all happened very quickly, instead of getting more time to fester. And when the story's only been around for a week and a half, media misrepresentations haven't had time to morph into realities. We're already seeing, today after the spill motion became a reality, many of the figures who wouldn't give 'unconditional support' and were cited (or paraphrased) as wavering come out firmly pro-Abbott when the question isn't "would you ever, under any circumstances" but instead "how will you vote next Tuesday". But barring an astonishingly popular second budget, or other unlikely miracle, there will still be malcontents, and still journalists willing to keep stirring the pot and working quietly towards another coup.

It doesn't have to be this way. In November of last year, Ed Miliband - leader of the Labour Party in the UK - faced some speculation about his position as opposition leader. He is unpopular with the public, and that threatens his party's success in elections this May. It lasted about a week. Some of that is about the culture of the political party. But there were reportedly twenty shadow ministers willing to call for Miliband's resignation, if an alternative candidate presented themselves. The difference was not about a lack of dissent. It was about a lack of journalists and media outlets determined to run live blogs every day, parsing every MP's comment, seizing on the slightest ambiguity, and doing everything they can to fan the flames and create another grand and exciting political moment. And it is grand and exciting! But we can do better.

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