Australian Fabians Review
From climate change to the rising influence of China and the falling of real wages, to the instability of our economic model and the media monopoly through which it is all reported, Kevin Rudd outlines the five mega-challenges facing us in the post-COVID era.
For the first time in my life, I am deeply anxious about Australia’s future.
This is an unnerving feeling since I’m a natural optimist. But the reality is that Australia is now facing its deepest challenges since 1945. Instead of taking these challenges head on, our nation is remarkably complacent, distracted by phoney arguments and false premises.
The mega-challenges that stare us in the face are immense: our economic model is winding down, our continent is vulnerable to the ravages of climate change, the incomes of working Australians are under assault, the geopolitical balance in our region is tilting, and we face risk of rolling global pandemics.
We can no longer ride the coat-tails of past achievements, like John Howard rode the economic wave that followed the reforms of the Hawke-Keating era and like today’s conservatives reap the benefits of Australia’s world-beating response to the Global Financial Crisis and other structural reforms implemented between 2007 and 2013.
Good luck doesn’t last forever. The time for action has come, or else we face the possibility of becoming a second-rate country by the middle of this century: a once-shining exemplar of progress that squandered its potential with sclerotic institutions, an exhausted economic model, and completely unprepared for the challenges we see barrelling towards us – let alone the ones that are unknowable.
In my new little book, The Case for Courage, I have argued our ability to step up and face these national challenges is hobbled by our inability to engage in serious and nuanced
debates about our national destiny. We are paralysed by weakening democratic institutions on the one hand, and the reality that we have largely delegated the management of our national debates to a family of American billionaires who, at every stage, have relegated the national interest behind their own narrow commercial and political interests.
The terms of our national debate have been hijacked by the reality that around 70 per cent of our print media – the arm of the media that employs the most journalists and produces the most original journalism – is held by a single company, Murdoch’s News Corporation.
It’s long since passed that Murdoch’s print monopoly delivered anything approaching reliable political coverage. It’s far more likely that the Daily Telegraph, Herald Sun or Courier-Mail will plaster their front pages with the latest example of a “woke agenda gone mad” rather than the latest evidence of corruption, profligacy or mismanagement by the government in Canberra.
Murdoch’s newspapers continue to set the agenda for our national debate and frame the way those issues are to be debated. Murdoch’s newspaper content bleeds through to radio, television, news websites and even our national parliament; if Murdoch’s newspapers all splash the same story on their front pages, it’s a good bet that it will be aired at Question Time that afternoon.
The bottom line is: the media diet of most Australians is heavily influenced by Murdoch, whether they realise it or not.
Murdoch’s print monopoly is also unique in its willingness to ruthlessly butcher the truth to advance Murdoch’s own’ agendas. Don’t get me wrong: all media companies fail to uphold ethical standards on occasion. But Murdoch has developed this into an art form as James Murdoch, once heir-apparent to the family business, has spectacularly attested in recent months.
Returning to the five mega-challenges I outlined above, we can see how this takes hold of our national debate.
For more than a decade, our national economic debate has been reduced to a phoney argument over debt and deficit – as though they are the only true measures of economic prosperity – rather than a discussion about identifying and nurturing the engines of future economic growth. The vacuousness of Murdoch’s position is exposed by the fact that they are running silent on debt and deficit now that the Liberals are producing five-times the deficit and debt than we left behind in 2013.
Climate change has been reduced to a false debate about whether or not climate change is real, paired with a decade-long fear campaign about lost jobs and businesses, rather than a real debate about how we transition to the jobs and industries of the future. Almost 13 years ago, I warned as prime minister that Australia faced the likelihood of tariffs against our exports if we failed to rein in our emissions – that is now coming to pass under the European Union Border Adjustment Mechanism. Similar discussions are now happening in the United States.
On incomes, we see a campaign to kill compulsory superannuation by stealth because of right-wing paranoia over union-backed industry funds (which, by most measures, consistently outperform their commercial competitors).
Instead of working out how to raise wages, Australian working families face the Hobson’s choice between lower wages now or lower income in retirement.
Never mind the debate about the fiscal consequences of increasing pressure on the aged pension, and never mind the question of using our massive pool of national savings to build the infrastructure and new industries that will drive future growth.
On China, we see a McCarthyist campaign against anyone who dares to challenge the new orthodoxy that – rather than take quiet, decisive action to secure our core national interests – the most patriotic way to take on Beijing is to beat your chest on the front pages of Murdoch’s newspapers. I’ve urged the government to talk less and do more; instead, we see Dutton and Morrison trying to outflank each other for political points ahead of their next leadership tussle – all egged on by Murdoch.
And on pandemic management, we see politically driven campaigns against state Labor governments that did the heavy lifting to keep our country safe, while Morrison gets an easy ride over the catastrophic failures to: construct an effective national quarantine network, roll out safe and effective vaccines, and protect our most vulnerable Australians in federally regulated aged care.
Against this backdrop, where is the opposition expected to present a comprehensive alternative narrative for the nation’s future?
It would be nice if swinging voters in the nation’s marginal seats were all readers of the Australian Fabians Review – and we live in hope – but the Labor Party must campaign twice as hard while the terms of engagement are set by a company which, by rights, should be registered by the Australian Electoral Commission as an affiliated entity of the Coalition.
Sadly, Labor MPs understand the deck is stacked against them. Some even accept it. Even across the parliament, Murdoch has instilled a culture of fear. Politicians know that if they speak out against Murdoch, he will spare no expense ensuring they are politically defenestrated. Politicians understand they must keep Murdoch and his henchmen happy – or at least avoid drawing their attention – if they don’t want to be savaged on the newsstands of every supermarket, service station and newsagency in the country. Even journalists outside News Corporation are afraid of making themselves targets by reporting on the excesses of the Murdoch empire. They don’t want to be attacked themselves, nor do many of them want to risk cutting off their future employment prospects in a collapsing industry dominated by a single player.
On top of the print media empire, you can now add a second rising behemoth to the Australian media landscape: Sky News.
The old joke about Murdoch’s Sky News used to be that nobody outside Canberra watched it. The new reality is that Sky News is the biggest current affairs channel on YouTube with more than one billion views – almost twice that of the ABC – and now a consistent following of 100 million views per month. Sky News is also adding to its dwindling base of cable television viewers subscribers is supplemented by Foxtel’s streaming apps, and video content embedded throughout the websites of its dominant newspaper mastheads. News Corporation has trademarked “Fox News International” as it prepares to launch another app, Newsflash. Offline, it is broadcast live throughout 30 regional markets in every state and territory on WIN Television, and will soon take over the airwaves at Southern Cross Television.
Following the business model pioneered by Fox News in the United States, Sky News is taking on an outsized role in shaping the internal politics of the Liberal and National parties. For evidence of this, consider Queensland Liberal MP Ted O’Brien’s reported explanation to Malcolm Turnbull as to why he felt compelled to go against his own values and support Peter Dutton’s coup attempt in 2019: “It’s as though my branch members are having a meeting with Alan Jones and Peta Credlin every night.”
The worldview Sky News presents to these viewers is terrifying. The Bureau of Meteorology and NASA are nefariously manipulating temperature data to manufacture evidence of climate change; the Black Lives Matter movement has little to do with racial equality, but is a terrorist organisation under the command of Joe Biden’s Democrats; and the United Nations and World Economic Forum are attempting to abolish private property and introduce global socialism. Only last month, outgoing Liberal MP Nicolle Flint publicly endorsed as “common sense” a Sky News video promoting the theory that the CIA and Bill Gates Foundation may have contrived COVID-19 as a “weapon of mass hysteria” to impose a communistic new world order.
For evidence of how this smorgasbord of fantastic untruth and cultural grievance affects the audience, look no further than the flurry of comments posted beneath Sky News videos by their own subscribers. One recent story about the near-fatal shooting in the head of a young woman, Black Lives Matter activist Sasha Johnson, yielded almost 10,000 comments – almost exclusively expressing jubilation at her shooting or calling for further violence. Some comments – which Sky News refused to delete – supported ethnic cleansing and quoted the Australian mass-murderer behind the 2019 Christchurch massacres.
If Sky News continues to become more mainstream within the broader Australian right, just as Fox News’s conspiracies have become normalised among American Republicans, then the implications for our democracy as a whole are profound.
Five short years ago, few could have imagined that an armed mob would descend on Washington and sack the Capitol in the hopes of overturning a democratic election. Fox News not only fomented the deadly January 6 insurrection in Washington by amplifying baseless claims about the stolen election; it now rewrites the history of those events to pretend that it was a peaceful gathering of well-meaning patriots.
Whether or not Australia follows the American path depends greatly on the decisions we take now. The fact that we are forced to contemplate such a grim reality is a sign of how far down this road we’ve already come.
In my argument, the media diversity question is an important element of the puzzle because the lack of genuine accountability is corroding our other democratic institutions.
Shielded by the Murdoch protection racket, Scott Morrison feels emboldened to continue habitually and systematically lying to the Australian people, even about things that really don’t matter. He gags the most basic parliamentary debates and stonewalls any tough question from the media until the press gallery moves along exhausted. Almost two years after Scott Morrison pledged a national integrity commission, we are no closer to any genuine check on official corruption. And the Auditor-General is being starved of funds, despite corruption, mismanagement and waste all booming and Australia sliding down the global corruption index prepared by Transparency International.
Simultaneously, we see the independence of the Australian Public Service under threat. The ranks of the foreign service, government boards and tribunals are stacked with too many failed conservative politicians and not enough respected experts. The head of the public service, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Phil Gaetjens, is himself a longtime Liberal Party operative. Our bureaucratic culture risks becoming even more obsessed with anticipating the whims of ministers, rather than focusing on providing frank, fearless and forward-looking advice in the national interest.
Australians now expect that scandal-plagued ministers will keep their jobs, even when they are caught handling fraudulent documents or refuse to cooperate with police enquiries. Former ministers find convenient loopholes that allow them to take up lucrative work that draws on their experience and contacts in government, despite an 18-month ban on lobbying in their former portfolios. For example, former defence minister Christopher Pyne – who now lobbies his former officials on behalf of foreign arms manufacturers – waited out his 18-month ban by lobbying the Liberal government of South Australia on behalf of property developers. Pyne was, of course, once among the most powerful Liberal factional players in South Australia. Andrew Robb, who as trade minister encouraged state and territory governments to sell their assets to foreign investors, took a job advising a Chinese company just months after Liberals leased the Port of Darwin to that same company. (The government would be better served to review that 99-year lease, which was allowed by Morrison as treasurer, rather than obsessing about non-binding memorandums between the Victorian government and the Belt and Road Initiative that have amounted to nothing concrete).
And one of our final democratic safeguards, the ABC, is under rolling siege by a government determined to sabotage its independence. After almost $800 million of cuts, the national broadcaster’s real budget is smaller now than it was in 1996. The independent nomination process for ABC Board members – introduced by Labor to end the board being packed with partisan ideologues – is routinely ignored. And senior editors, cowed by relentless bullying over alleged left-wing bias, are now either paralysed with fear or deliberately swing to the right (believing, wrongly, that they can appease critics who cannot be appeased).
Australians deserve the strongest democratic institutions in the world. But action to repair them is paralysed by the influence of the Murdoch media monopoly, which continues to hijack the terms of our national conversation and steer it to the short-term commercial and political benefit of a select few.
What is to be done? Many in the political and media firmament were blindsided by our ability to collect more than 500,000 signatures last year for a Royal Commission to investigate abuses of media power and recommend policies to deliver a strong, diverse and reliable news media. It was the single biggest petition ever collected using the parliament’s e-petition system, and was so hotly demanded that it repeatedly crashed the Parliament House website. We may never know how many Australians tried to sign the petition and were unable, or never heard about it because – surprise, surprise – the Murdoch media wouldn’t publish a word about it until the petition closed (after which they embarked on a dishonest smear campaign to discredit it).
Our call for a Royal Commission is not an ambit claim. I am dead serious about it because – despite countless other lesser inquiries – nobody has yet been able to crack this particular policy problem open and solve it. Our traditional news industry is folding in on itself with the collapsing news rooms – especially in the regions – and the emergence of new monopolies such as Google and Facebook. Our very democracy is at stake.
If this isn’t cause for a Royal Commission, I don’t know what is
Kevin Rudd AC served as Australia’s 26th Prime Minister, first taking office in 2007 in a landslide victory. Kevin also served as Foreign Minister, and since his retirement from parliament has occupied various leadership roles, including his recent election as President and CEO of the Asia Society. @MrKRudd
Series: Australian Fabians Review - Issue 2
Author: Kevin Rudd