The Estates of the Realm

Musings from the second and third estates on the state of NSW and the  fourth estate, and from the Fifth Estate on the above*

Comment: 29 October 2010 – Two former premiers –  Jeff Kennett from Victoria and Bob Carr from NSW – made public appearances in early October with views on the state of NSW Government, which faces an election in March.

In a lengthy commentary slamming the state of NSW politics and offering his blueprint for political success, Jeff Kennett spoke in front of a 500-strong Property Council crowd at the ritzy Westin hotel in the Sydney CBD.

Bob Carr, questioned  (OK, probably ambushed) by The Fifth Estate after his launch of a new book by sustainability coach and TFE columnist Michael Mobbs, spoke at the back of Mobbs’ quiet inner city terrace in Chippendale, in front of an audience of maybe 50 people.

Interesting was that with both former premiers there was not a hint of a failure of confidence in the job that they had done. Both sparkled with wit and intelligence. Fascinating was that both made strong points about the media – though from two quite different angles.

First Jeff Kennett. In Victoria, some people will never forgive Kennett’s ruthless slashing of the public service in the early 90s and his sell off of nearly every public asset to which a balance sheet could be attached. Yet, he is credited with bringing the state back from the brink of financial ruin and a deep depression that was palpable on the streets.

NSW, he told the property and business crowd, had “damaged the product and the brand,”and because it was so big and Australia’s “door to the world, would “would pull us all down.”

In NSW there was “evidence of fundamental corruption, and that spreads to the community like a disease,” he said.

As could be expected, Kennett had a ready list of answers that would put NSW back on its feet: strong leadership (of course) disregard for dissenting voices (naturally),  the need to deal with the vision and big picture – the “the light on the hill,” as well  as the law and order that dominated both sides of politics in the last federal election.

He advocated that the new premier surround him or herself with excellent ministers and heads of departments; that they be snared from other states if necessary as he did with Ken Baxter who came, ironically, from the NSW public service. where he had headed the premier’s department under Nick Greiner.

Whether Barry O’Farrell, NSW Opposition Leader, and his team have “got what it takes as an alternative, whether that’s exciting enough” remained to be seen, he said.

“It‘s no good being good and responsible, you’ve got to excite people” and “If they haven’t got the vision now they’re never going to get it.”

Kennett said he feared there would be a change, not a significant enough change in the upper house.

Be warned, Kennett said, a lot of responsibility lay with the media.  It needed to be more positive.

Now Kennett didn’t elaborate a great deal on his media views during his talk. But co-incidentally a few days later, the daily newspapers started publishing extracts from a memoir by Bruce Guthrie, a former editor of The Age newspaper in Melbourne. Guthrie provided plenty of elaboration.

According to Guthrie, Kennett knew no bounds in pursing his belief that the media should be positive about his government. In fact he exacted such pressure on Guthrie that the Victorian governor invited him to a private briefing to offer support and encourage him to keep up his critical scrutiny of Kennett’s regime. All to no avail. Under the pressure Guthrie’s reign lasted only two years.

It’s probably fair to infer that Kennett wanted The Age to agree with him and that it was OK to take harsh measures  because, as he believed, it was in the best interests of the state.

The problem is that countless tyrants have said the same thing. Even if he was right that his regime spawned new growth – and he may have been – it was in the way that a devastating bushfire forces growth. In such a painful and destructive time for so many, the role of the media is precisely to apply scrutiny and be as impartial as possible, or at least provide a view from the other side of the fence.

After all, slashing and burning human capital is not the only way to regenerate a healthy economy. The property industry itself constantly calls for carrots instead of sticks in order to stimulate better outcomes. Maybe the good-guy attitude can extend beyond the business community.

That’s why Kennett’s comments calling for a “positive” media are so dangerous. He already had access to countless talented media people to tell his story, but the ones he wanted were the ones not on the payroll.

(To show how painful Kennett’s regime was, on one day not long before the state election in 1999 a team of doctors and specialists at a major Melbourne hospital cancelled all their appointments to attend a kind of industrial action meeting to discuss funding cuts to the hospital. Such medical people are generally a highly conservative bunch but it was clear that Kennett had gone too far. He lost that election.)

The problem is that the independence of the media is already on thin ice. Journalists are pushed to breaking point but instead it is their craft that breaks, with little time for genuine research, let alone the luxury of being able to go out and “dig” for what’s happening in the places that don’t have a public relations department to send out a media release.

But even a well resourced newspaper may be unbiased. Unless the newspaper is owned by a wealthy family that has decided to embark on a career in the service of the public in the classic sense, such as, famously, the Washington Post owners and once, the Fairfax family, most newspapers are now owned by shareholders, whose interests must be balanced with the public interest.

Newspapers deal in an esoteric and perhaps nebulous commodity – influence. And for this they need respect. So a tricky path must be negotiated. Agreeing to report positively on a government is not part of the deal.

TFE has promised to be an optimistic on-line newspaper. But we are not impartial. From day one we said our objective was to “help save the planet” but for this to work it must be in ways that are appropriate to the industry we work in.  We need to adhere to the best code of ethics we can manage within those bounds. This would not include giving equal airplay to a coal miner, for instance.

But then the major financial newspapers are also not impartial. They are there to foster the interests of the business world – not the unemployed, the unions or the sick. And not the planet. Though to their credit they are waking up more and more to the importance of the built environment as a fundamental pillar of the economy they seek to support.

Bob Carr, like Kennett, also had some pertinent comments to make about the media.

Asked what his response was to the frequent criticism that NSW had not invested enough in infrastructure during his time in office, Carr flatly denied this.

“No-one said that at the time,” he told TFE.

“The only criticism I had from the media was that I wasn’t doing enough on debt retirement. I had it from The [Sydney Morning] Herald; I had it from The Financial Review.

“I’m talking about the 10 years I was Premier, the investment in infrastructure was $61 billion and the debt retirement was $10 billion.

“That gives you the scale.

“We rebuilt our teaching hospitals, we completed a ring road around Sydney, the M7 Westlink, The Epping to Chatswood rail line – both the biggest transport infrastructure projects in Australia.”

Asked to comment about Kennett’s criticism of NSW Carr said: “Poor Jeff led the Liberal Party to five elections and lost three of them. I don’t think Barry [O’Farrell] will be following his advice or program.”

“What’s lacking [in Kennett’s advice on leadership] is a specific alternative,” Carr, said.

“Apart from the management of Sydney ferries what are they going to privatise?

“Are they going to force the retirement of thousands of public servants? Are they going to unleash a string of charter schools to compete with public schools?”

On the performance of the NSW Government, however, Carr would not be drawn. “I’m not going to comment on other politicians,” he said.

How would he get NSW back on track, then?

“It is back on track. The problems are political – too many changes of ministers and too many ministerial scandals.”

Apart from the [cancellation of the] Metro the big policy failure was the failure to privatise electricity,” Carr said.

But then that’s another story.

The estates of the realm:  First is clergy, the second the aristocracy (and the politicians that represent them, we reckon;) the third is for the commoners, (ditto), the fourth is for the media, and the fifth…well as we all know, that’s for the planet. Or see the Wikipedia entry for a more conventional interpretation