Tony Abbott has adopted a new way of dealing with the media that is more professional and businesslike, but there are dangers for the government in being too distant.
The Abbott government’s relationship with the media was never going to be a close one. With some exceptions, media commentators and the Canberra Press Gallery were sceptical about Tony Abbott as a prospective prime minister; his religious convictions and character were particular strikes against him. They were generally supportive of the policies of the previous Labor governments in spite of the regular debacles.
The press gallery swallowed the Gillard Labor government’s line that Abbott was simply a negative politician with nothing to offer but aggressive dissent. And recall the limp response when the Gillard government made its unprecedented move to install a government tsar to decide who could own a media organisation and to have government oversight of reporting for the first time? Even when the very freedom of the press was at stake, large sections of the media were docile.
This was particularly the case with the Fairfax media and the ABC. By contrast, News Limited and The Australian adopted a much tougher stance in keeping the government of the day to account. News Limited’s election coverage was unashamedly pro-Abbott; but by that stage the people had made up their minds and it seemed like another example of the Murdoch press backing a certain winner.
Now that Abbott is in power, the new government has adopted a media strategy that is different and frustrating for the Canberra Press Gallery. First, Abbott has decreed that his ministers will only do media when they have something to announce and, more importantly, when there is something ready to be announced. Stunts such as meetings of community Cabinets have been scrapped and proper Cabinet decision-making has been revived.
In other words, there will be no grandiose Rudd-style media conferences where half-cocked policies are announced, which were later found to have been half-completed or not completed at all.
At least Julia Gillard was a little more methodical. She spent a lot of her time unscrambling Rudd policies; but divisions within her Cabinet meant some discussions were withheld from certain ministers, and decisions were still made on the run.
But even the controversial new media laws were decided without Bob Carr (the only former journalist in Cabinet) knowing about them.
Abbott’s way of dealing with the media is already frustrating journalists who are used to a constant “drip” of stories.
He refuses to be “ambushed” by journalists at events, preferring only organised media conferences that are infrequent.
There was outrage that Immigration Minister Scott Morrison decided to have only weekly briefings on asylum-seekers.
Canberra Press Gallery doyen Laurie Oakes has warned the government that it should start to work with the media and be more co-operative, returning phone calls, agreeing with requests for interviews, etc., or they will pay the consequences.
And to the extent that there is a symbiotic relationship between the media and the government, there is some truth in Oakes’ argument.
Former Queensland Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen summed this up better than anyone else when he described his dealings with the media as “feeding the chooks”.
A government that simply stonewalls the media will pay the price because journalists will do their jobs and start looking under rocks for problems. And it does not take long to find problems in delivery of government services, bureaucratic mistakes, ministerial indiscretions and misdemeanours, policy divisions, etc.
In other words, the government will eventually have to start performing and delivering, and be being seen to do a good job.
So far, Abbott is correct to hold his ground. Unlike Julia Gillard, who took over in chaos and who had to go straight to an election, he has had the luxury of learning the complexities of the job without parliament.
And having even the best relationship with the media at this stage of the electoral cycle would not make any difference to Abbott’s popularity. In fact, Abbott has assumed a dominant position over new Opposition leader Bill Shorten in the preferred prime minister stakes.
Eventually though, Abbott will have to begin talking to the media on a regular basis, as will his ministers.
Even at a prosaic level there are some tough decisions coming, and they will require a lot of careful explanation for the Australian people to accept.
Abbott’s objective should not be to win over the media; it was years before the media accepted even the legitimacy of John Howard as prime minister.
He simply has to adopt a professional, prime ministerial relationship and to be regularly available, and to show that the government is accountable.
And he has to use the media to outline the narrative of his government — a narrative that at this stage is still fuzzy.
Being a better government than Labor is not enough.