On Q&A Monday night Feb 3 the Minister for Agriculture, Barnaby Joyce made the astounding suggestion that if a person acting as the local journalist for his own street discovered something about one of his neighbours and reported it, he might find his house burned down. The context of his comment was a discussion about what stories should or should not be reported. The panel was arguing whether the ABC should have reported the story concerning the leaked Edward Snowden files concerning the bugging of the phones of the Indonesian President and his wife and the claims of Navy brutality against asylum seekers.
The comment caused some gasps of disbelief with the audience and a hesitant reaction by Tony Jones, but was largely overlooked by the panel in favour of continuing with the broader subject. In hindsight, that was a good move. Goodness knows where the conversation might have gone had it continued in that vein. We are all familiar with Barnaby’s penchant for colourful analogies not to mention some pretty spectacular gaffes from time to time. But this one was interesting largely because of the context. Barnaby seemed to be implying that when news stories are published and create sufficient controversy as to threaten irreparable damage, they might generate a violent response. Well yes, I suppose they could. But is this a reason not to publish? It would be a sad indictment of the media generally if it were. It suggests that publishing stories is the problem, not the subject matter. There were many such examples of intimidation of the media in Nazi Germany in the 1930’s. But I don’t think it applies here in Australia today; or does it?
Over the past week we have heard the Prime Minister cast doubt over the editorial independence of the ABC. We have heard Malcolm Turnbull disagree. We have heard Barnaby Joyce’s plea on behalf of drought affected farmers in the North. We have heard Kevin Andrews make some noises while Joe Hockey has said there is no bail-out money and now Dr. Sharman Stone has let fly with the ‘L’ word. There is no suggestion any of this should not be reported, but what it does suggest is that all is not well inside the government. It sounds like there is trouble in paradise.
Last week, the Minister for Social Services, Kevin Andrews commented on the activities of the ABC saying that “what goes around comes around.” I emailed him asking if he could clarify that comment. He had previously stated, “I think the ABC should be open to constructive criticism about its performance as it would be about the performance of other people and other institutions in Australia.” Fair enough. In that context what goes around does come around. I can’t help thinking though, that there was a more subtle message embedded in that comment; something like: mess with us and we’ll mess with you. Then again, that might simply be my erratic mind in overdrive. We’ll probably never know.
But Joe Hockey is certainly feeling the heat. Ministers and fellow MP’s are clawing to the left and right of him seeking assistance for beleaguered industries in their electorates and his response is brutal. “The age of entitlement is over, and the age of personal responsibility has begun,” he said. Joe realises only too well that if all his rhetoric about debt and deficit prior to the election is going to have any validity he has to lock the vault and, if necessary, stand guard himself. That’s going to be tough. He will be fighting some lone battles both in and outside of cabinet. One could say the internal wars have begun and Sharman Stone, the member for Murray has fired the first shot. She has wasted no time in challenging the accuracy of comments by Joe, Tony Abbott and Eric Abetz concerning the union pay deals the workers at SPC Ardmona have negotiated with the management.
At such an early part of the government’s tenure, this seems extraordinary. It is pretty clear that there is a lot of infighting going on right now and it is mostly to do with money. It probably won’t surface in the mainstream media just yet. But, be assured, the fermentation process has begun. So I’m wondering how they will manage this premature breakdown in communication. Will they pass it off saying, as they so often do, that the Liberal party is broad church? Or that this is just part of the cut and thrust of politics generally? Whatever it is, it will be a huge test of Abbott’s leadership abilities, particularly his people skills.
Abbott is, perhaps, the most complex Prime Minister we have seen in more than half a century. In his own words he supports the preservation of the Catholic Church and its mission rather than have it face the truth. Does he feel the same way about governments facing the truth? One of his own has accused him of lying. Watch this space. Sparks are about to fly.