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Missing in action: a tale of two narratives

It is hard to understand why the media are surprised at another undecided election result where we are once again headed towards minority government, since the polls predicted this knife-edge outcome for the last eight weeks. Either way, the media’s prevailing election campaign narrative, which congratulated Turnbull’s clever, safe, detail-light strategy has come crashing down since Saturday, replaced with an analysis of what went wrong for the Liberal National government.

One of the more thoughtful post-election narratives is exemplified by Ian Verrender who says wealth inequality has caused mass-disenchantment with ‘the establishment’. Verrender writes:

A revolution is sweeping across the developed world, as an increasingly disillusioned lower and middle class find themselves threatened and disenfranchised by the economic forces unleashed by the rise of technology and an increasingly global economy.

This analysis is correct; there is no doubt people earning lower and middle-incomes are slowly awakening to the raw deal they are getting from neoliberal economic policies which hurt them whilst making a shrinking elite-class richer and richer.

Such a revolution is used to explain the shock Brexit result in the UK, and the popularity of supposedly anti-establishment candidates such as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the US. Here, Verrender argues, it has caused an increasing number of voters to abandon the two-party system in favour of minor parties and new-or-re-released ‘others’ such as Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and Xenophon’s NXT.

But while commentators like Verrender have identified the problem (wealth inequality), they still seem blind to the solution. This ‘inequality causing a pox-on-both-the-major-parties’ narrative is missing the elephant in the room. So, while journalists don’t understand, nor report the solution, their audience remains uninformed, and low and behold, the problem goes unsolved. Have the media forgotten that it’s not just their role to report what happened in the election, but to give voters the information they need to make the best decision before they go to vote?

Correct me if I’m wrong, but not once did I hear, see or read a mainstream journalist during the election explain that wealth inequality would not be solved, or even lessened by voting for an anti-establishment candidate. Nick Xenophon might be very good at attracting media attention through stunts and a hollow promise to ‘do politics differently’, and Pauline Hanson might be adept at attracting racists, but how far did any journalist get in unpicking soundbites to explain how a vote for these diverse ‘other’ candidates does nothing to improve a voter’s inequality of wealth?

For those who were looking, who weren’t distracted by the anti-establishment-rejection-of-major-parties symptom of wealth inequality, there was actually an election campaign going on over this very issue. In fact, the entire election campaign was a battle between Turnbull, representing the neo-liberal trickle-down narrative, where tax-cuts-for-capitalists are responsible for ‘jobs and growth’, versus Shorten, representing the inclusive growth narrative where the consumer-power of lower and middle-income families is the generator of jobs and growth. This consumer power arises from a more equal distribution of wealth, benefiting all. Labor’s narrative goes beyond the old ‘safety net’ concept of welfare for those left behind by a globalised economy, replacing it with an understanding that prosperity is driven by inclusion; by not leaving anyone behind.

If you want to simplify this conflict further, which no doubt journalists would prefer we do, we saw a merchant banker versus a union leader fighting it out over the best way to manage the economy. Don’t believe me? Do you remember when Turnbull said this during an ABC 730 interview with Leigh Sales?

Well everybody knows that their prosperity depends on the prosperity of their employer…they want to know that their business is doing well, that the company they’re working for is investing, is growing, is able to retain more of its earnings and put more of it back into the business. You see everything we’re doing is going to encourage more investment.

This is an example of the completely-de-bunked trickle-down narrative which assumes that any policy benefiting an employer will benefit employees.

In contrast, did you notice how Shorten, numerous times, in fact, every day of the election, said something like this statement he made on the day of the Brexit, when journalists repeatedly said share market volatility would help the Liberal campaign:

The argument about not changing the government goes down to the economic fundamentals and the economic plan… our decisions to invest in people through a good education system, a world-class education system, and a world-class health system … to invest in public transport, in infrastructure for roads, in tourism infrastructure, in the NBN, is the right way to go…It is all about building sustainable growth, and at the heart of sustainable growth is inclusive growth. When working class and middle class families… feel disengaged from the political process, then you see the sort of results you see in the United Kingdom.

Shorten’s entire policy platform and election campaign were, in fact, encapsulated in the inclusive growth narrative I wrote about before the election. I heard this storyline repeatedly in Labor candidate statements, and just as importantly, in Labor’s policy platform: funding for education, health, infrastructure, protection of wages such as penalty rates, reforms to negative gearing to reduce inequality in the housing market. These policies are the nitty-gritty real-world outcomes which help to reduce growing inequality, which in turn helps grow the economy and creates jobs for everyone’s benefit. How many voters were told by the media about this solution to growing wealth inequality and were told Labor is offering policies benefiting everyone’s collective prosperity?

While the media focused on soundbites, gotcha moments and gaffes, and reported the ‘jobs and growth’ slogan as if it were a plan, and while they gave endless publicity to the side-show-no-policy-detail-required to anyone running against the major parties, they missed the real ideological battle playing out right in front of them throughout the entire campaign.

The most interesting element of the election result, however, is that I don’t think the electorate made the same mistake the media did. Voters know personally how important education, access to healthcare, a fast NBN, public transport, environmental protection and renewable energy, penalty rates and childcare funding is to their everyday cost of living, and their ability to compete in an economy stacked in favour of the rich. That is why, even with a low primary vote, Labor has still managed, through voter preferences, to put themselves in a winning position.

Therefore, the real story this election is the backlash against the Liberal National’s neoliberal trickle-down agenda, which, even when propped up and maintained by the mainstream media, isn’t attractive to voters anymore because they can see the damage these policies cause to the economy and social fabric of their communities.

Even if the Liberal Nationals manage to form a minority government, with a wafer thin majority and possibly 20 crossbench senators to work with, every neoliberal policy brought to parliament will have to be sold, negotiated and justified to MPs and senators elected by voters who are concerned about growing wealth inequality. So voters have, in a way, got what they voted for; a government who will be forced to take their needs into account. What could be more exciting than that?

I look forward to the media catching up with the electorate to recognise that the major parties are offering two different world-views, and reporting their policies as such. I look forward to the media realising a hung-parliament and a diverse senate is a good outcome for Australians, rather than framing this situation as chaos and unworkable. An uninformed electorate has put Labor’s anti-wealth-inequality policies within striking distance of government. Imagine what an informed electorate is capable of.


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  1. Steve Laing -

    So how come half of the electorate still voted for the Coalition? I suspect that as many of those who didn’t vote for the two main parties voted for right wing rather than left wing alternatives.

    So yes, there was backlash, but ultimately it wasn’t enough.

    The problem that the progressive side of politics is having, and will continue to have, is lack of access to a media that is prepared to let them put forward their whole big picture strategy, explaining how inequality leads to the mess that we are in now. But they won’t.

    So whilst this election can be seen as a failure for the LNP, it is far from being a success for Labor, because it hasn’t won. Labor have been bold in announcing policies through the last three years; they’ve definitely won a few battles along the way; but fundamentally this still wasn’t enough. If any election was there to be won using logical argument over different policy platforms, this was the one. And yet they still couldn’t manage to do it.

    I believe if Labor want to truly get a big enough mandate to be able to make the necessary changes to ensure fairness in our democratic processes, they are going to have to get much, much bolder. They need to understand why a significant core of people simply won’t vote for them (and much of this is ingrained prejudice, not policy matters), and see how they can address those issues.

    Difficult? Certainly. But I can’t see a long term successful future for them unless they do.

  2. Dan Rowden

    I’m not sure how to begin unpacking this somewhat confused rant. But I’m glad to see Victoria’s is still sticking to her belief that journalists exist to promulgate her particular political viewpoint. It’s just a pity she can’t tell the difference between a journalist and a political analyst and/or commentator. They are very different things and ought never find themselves in a state of confusion over their roles.

    As for:

    That is why, even with a low primary vote, Labor has still managed, through voter preferences, to put themselves in a winning position.

    You must mean at the next election because they are certainly no longer in a winning position in this one. And as Steve said, nearly half the population opted for a return of the Coalition Government. I’m not sure how that gels with much of your article’s “narrative”, and most pointedly with:

    Voters know personally how important education, access to healthcare, a fast NBN, public transport, environmental protection and renewable energy, penalty rates and childcare funding is to their everyday cost of living, and their ability to compete in an economy stacked in favour of the rich.

    And yet they have returned a conservative government and delivered a populist-ridden senate, ensuring the impossibility of effective, progressive government where any of those things will be delivered. How does that speak to voter sagacity, exactly?

    I’m unable to see any way to have a positive outlook for the next 3 years. We’ll either have a Coalition Government free to wreak havoc or one that is as impotent as the previous. Neither prospect is appealing, though the latter is at least less fear-inducing.

  3. Freethinker

    I agree Steve with your comments, and do not think that the media in many cases have something to do with the results of the election.
    The New England result is a clear case, in one side Barnaby Joyce with the coalition policy and not caring much for the electorate and in the other side Windsor in favor of NBN, protecting the productive soils, supporting the movement against the gas mining, education and health.
    Barnaby Joyce beat Windsor by a considerable margin.
    The same applies to many other regional electorates.
    The Wide Bay electorate is another clear example with a large proportion of the electorate composed by people in the age pension or retired in need of good and affordable health services. Again the ALP was beaten.
    IMO people need to suffer even more to start thinking before cast the vote.
    Bloody depressing for all of us.

  4. Wayne Turner

    The Libs MSM was and still are going for the “self fulfilling prophecy” of the Libs winning.The Libs MSM have long ago ruined our so called democracy.

    We really are a mediaocracy,with the MSM owned by too few,the Libs taken over the ABC and they are all a promotional wing of the LNP.

    If we had a decent MSM,these Libs would have lost badly.Of course an informed electorate,that can think critically would over come all this.

  5. cornlegend

    Dan Rowden
    “Neither prospect is appealing, though the latter is at least less fear-inducing.”
    What’s that old song, ? “Always look on the bright side of life”
    If Malcolms victory can be kept to him needing the support of an Independent or even 76 it should be a great old time
    The LNP will be the walking dead, Indies trying to make a name for themselves, Cory Bernardi and his
    Tony Abbott and the monkey pod group, Peta Credlin seeking vengeance after Turnbull told David Speers he refused to appear on Sky if Credlin was kept on, Scott Morrison allegedly making it known to some within the LNP that he had leadership ambitions, a section pushing for Dutton to be considered a future leader, Julie Bishop, still with a glint in her eye, Turnbull losing some of his loyal foot soldiers
    and Bill Shorten on the Opposition benches ready to strike and now within easy striking distance… and we haven’t even mentioned the Senate
    What a time to be a political tragic,
    All holidays etc on hold for a bit now for me, and plenty of visits to QT 😀

  6. Dan Rowden


    I don’t think I’m able to find any of this to have any entertainment value at this stage. Maybe later. I think we have the spectre of an Abbott return on top of all this.

    Btw, I may be plucking this thought out of my backside, but is there a Labor Party thing where there’s an automatic leadership spill following an election loss? I’m probably just making it up, but I imagine you’d know.

  7. guest

    Who knows what decides how people vote. I voted for over 20 years for the Coalition without really knowing anything about politics – because my parents did – although we never discussed it. Then along came Howard and I was a little wiser, a little older and with a wider view of the world. I realised what Howard was up to with Hansonism, Tampa and children overboard.

    There are of course many people with different views of those things. There are those who believe Howard was the very best in recent times. There are those who think the very best in more recent times is Abbott. And there are those who thought Turnbull was just what was needed to steady the ship. But all is now drowned in confusion.

    What is really disturbing is the way deceptions and propaganda and straight out lies are perpetuated over years and remain embedded in the psyches of voters. They seize upon even single incidents to provide sure-fire proof for their beliefs. So we get all kinds of thinking about climate change and global warming, prices on carbon, the NBN, renewable energy, negative gearing, taxation, pensions, unemployment…everything is debatable, even though some of the debating is very questionable.

    Part of the reason for that is that we do not really have debates, not even with party leaders head to head; not in the media directly – it is all about firing from a distance. People very often miss out on what any debate is about. Entrenched views remain entrenched because the voter does not know any different.

    I found it very difficult when people were rubbishing Shorten even into this year. I am disappointed that there are those who still think Abbott is the ‘answer’.

    I hate the way ideology demands that politicians when questioned immediately go into talking robot mode – some worse than others.

    I hate the ‘ready-made’ accusation against opponents which is dragged out time and again even if it is not true – it become the all-purpose mantra that ‘proves’ everything.

    I hate the way politicians make sweeping claims which are never questioned – the questioner simply passes on to the next question.

    In this last election some topics were rarely raised. Climate change is one.

    When Turnbull claimed Shorten was lying about privatising Medicare, no one questioned him about his denial. Yet there are things the Coalition has done which suggest tampering. Those things were rarely mentioned in the MSM.

    It reminded me of the situation where a person is caught climbing through the bathroom window. When questioned whether they were coming to rob the house, the person says they were only looking for a toilet. What proof otherwise do we have? What proof does the intruder have to support their claim. It all becomes a matter of he said, he said.

    At the moment there is a great deal of talk about how to treat Hanson twenty years on, same story, different target. A major point made is that those who support Hanson most are those who have least to do with new immigrants. It is a problem of insularity, of ignorance, of entrenched views, of not knowing any different. Maybe. It could just be fear and uncertainty – or insecurity – or a feeling of neglect.

    Somehow we have to do better in our public discourse. The loss of The Drum on the ABC as an arena of debate only lessens the open debate we need to have. Thank goodness for the AIMN.

  8. cornlegend


    “but is there a Labor Party thing where there’s an automatic leadership spill following an election loss? ”
    Yeah there is, and there was some rumblings that Albo might challenge but that went cold, Albo pledged his support for Shorten.
    It is to be decided on friday when Labor Caucus meet and any challengers can put themselves forward then.
    At this stage there appear to be no challengers, but 1 sleep is a long time in Labor politics
    The deal is “under the leadership rules introduced by Kevin Rudd and adopted in 2013, the Labor leadership is automatically thrown open if the federal parliamentary party does not win the election and nominations must remain open for a week.

  9. Dan Rowden


    Ah, so it seems my bum is a more reliable source of information than I thought. I hope the leadership contest goes nowhere. I think Shorten can quite validly claim he’s done more than enough to retain his leadership. He was never my choice but I think he can legitimately make that claim after a pretty decent effort.

  10. cornlegend

    I was not a Shorten supporter but he has grown into the job and deserves to stick with it,
    I have let all and sundry within caucus know my feelings {not that it matters a jot} as I reckon any disunity now would be a bad look.
    I think Shorten has the temperament to deal with an almost hung Parliament and his calm approach could be the difference when an anything but calm Parliament resumes

  11. Jack Russell

    This election, the Coalition just barely scraped over the line to win themselves a battle – and a nightmare of their own making.

    Labor, on the other hand, won enough listening ears to know they have laid a great foundation of understanding for bringing the rest of the population with them to the next election – and win a war.

    Hoist. Petard. Popcorn. Patience. ?

  12. Angry Old Man

    @ Steve Laing

    Well said, sir.

    @ Jack Russell

    Patience is indeed the watchword, but how much time do we have?

  13. townsvilleblog

    The main point for me is that the general populace does not follow politics as closely as we do, if they did Labor would have romped in, if common sense were applied. For example ‘giving $48 bn of “our” taxation money to corporations who pay little to no tax themselves for a 0.1% improvement to our economy over 10 years, does not bear scrutiny, let alone all the other “austerity cuts” from these tory bastards.
    Obviously there is a large percentage of the population who don’t follow what is being done to them and continue to vote LNP ’cause Dad did. The progressive forces in this nation need to combine their resources in search of a common goal, we need to have delegations go out into the regions as Dr Denis Murphy did in Qld some 20 years ago to convince country and rural people that Labor was not their enemy. However for that amount of enthusiasm to take hold, the Labor Party needs to throw themselves open to democracy, one vote one value and no backroom meddling from right wing unions such as the AWU and SDA, pure open transparent democracy in the party from branch level through the candidates put up for election, through to a whole of party vote for both party and parliamentary leadership.

  14. Steve Laing -

    Unfortunately I think that there is a sizeable minority who like to “pick the winner”, as if voting is some kind of bet. For them the winning or losing is the thing, rather than what this actually means for their day to day life. Getting the winner right gives them some weird sense of pride given that they don’t really understand, or actually care about, the actual policies being discussed. They just aren’t interested.

    This is where the MSM’s complicity in repeating the Coalitions claims that they will win, rather than listen to the opinion polls, is sickening. Their failure to be objective encourages the “gambler voter” to vote that way.

    Even the left leaning media, like The Guardian, have failed on this account. Even they got caught up in the circus, the 24/7 news cycles churning out mountains of crappy commentary, and failed to produce the decisive, policy rich stories, that might have alerted people that the LNP were quietly trying to pull a quick one yet again. I called Katherine Murphy out on it today on twitter, and she just deflected. Like Howard, absolutely no remorse.

    Secondly, there is a significant number of people who vote because of where they think they ought to. The “I’m middle class and have a good job and a mortgage therefore I need to vote LNP”. I had a friend who did the ABC poll finder thing, and surprised himself that from a policy perspective he should be voting Green. However I bet he still voted the LNP again (mind you, where we live that’s all we ever return – useless, lobby fodder representative that we have).

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