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Federal Election ’22: Media used to sound independent alarm

Image: Gokarna Avachat

Image: Gokarna Avachat
Malcolm Farr

If there were an award for election overreaction a prime contender would be news coverage of a handful of unaligned candidates challenging in previously comfortable Liberal seats.

The spectacle of the Liberal Party soiling itself over the appearance of strong, well-organised campaigners, mainly women, will be a gripping feature on the night of May 21, adjacent to the drama of the election count itself.

This has been made certain by the handwringing and alarms sounding in news coverage of those independents and the stark Liberal apprehension of them.

It’s teal terror, named after the identifying shade used on some of the interlopers’ campaign material.

The warnings of impending crisis have been premature, according to opinion surveys this week debunking fears of a hung Parliament. Although the Liberals might still get a kicking in some high profile seats.

These expectations come after extraordinary attempt to portray independent candidates as chaos merchants whose presence on ballot papers is an assault on democracy. And their presence on a parliamentary bench would be worse, apparently.

“The most destructive, harmful and dangerous vote anyone can make in the forthcoming election is for a teal independent or the Greens,” wrote The Australian’s Greg Sheridan on May 3.

“They are both a direct threat to our national security.”

Former Liberal treasurer Michael Yabsley, coincidently also on May 3, used Crikey to attack the funding of some independents by Climate 200 and Simon Holmes à Court.

Yabsley saw melodramatic elements at play.

“While Holmes à Court’s intentions may be good, when it comes to money in politics, the truth is Climate 200 is one of a thousand hacking at the branches of evil,” he wrote.

‘Teal wave’ could polarise politics

Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce had a confessional moment when he argued that if the independents succeeded in eliminating their moderate Liberal rivals in urban seats, the knock-on effect would be the Coalition moving further to the right, past even his own brand of conservatism.

On April 29 The Australian Financial Review reported: “Joyce warns a teal wave would polarise politics like never before, pushing the Liberal Party’s centre of gravity further to the right than the National Party.”

And every step is being monitored, as the independents in Bradfield and North Sydney discovered reading The Sydney Morning Herald on Thursday.

“The Coalition says two prominent independent candidates have ‘questions to answer’ after they attended a fundraiser hosted by an unregistered Chinese community charity and, in one case, directly criticised the government’s approach to China,” reported the SMH.

There are several more examples of the fundamental claim that any election outcome that does not cement a two-party political system will endanger the nation. Rather than examine why a major party is suddenly vulnerable in seats long considered permanent possessions, the Liberals are contesting the right of independents to exist at all.

The aggressive media attention given to funding source Climate 200 and its wealthy backer Simon Holmes à Court hasn’t been relentless and unprecedented.

The Daily Telegraph, for example, breathlessly reported this week he had “acknowledged his mission to install teal candidates into once-safe conservative seats could result in Peter Dutton becoming Liberal leader, which he argued would make the party he once supported ‘unelectable’.”

We haven’t seen the same coverage applied to the world’s richest woman Gina Rinehart, a political ally of many conservative MPs, including Barnaby Joyce.

And the requirement of independents to vow they will follow a preset voting pattern doesn’t seem to apply to Liberal and National MPs, who boast they can vote in Parliament as principle might take them.

This freedom is not considered a source of chaos.

But there has been chaos in the Coalition governments of the past decade, with revolts and junked legislation lining this path.

On Wednesday LNP senator Matt Canavan repeated his view the net zero emission target by 2030 — Coalition policy — is dead and buried.

Labor also has its worries over outsiders moving into its territory.

Cosy ACT Senate seats under threat

The Australian Capital Territory was given Senate representation in 1975 — just two, elected every general election rather than every six years.

In the 47 years since, one Labor and one Liberal candidate has been elevated every election, the cosiest representation arrangement the country has seen.

But this election former Wallabies rugby union hero David Pocock and ANU law professor Kim Rubenstein are running separate, independent and high profile campaigns to become one of the two senators and break up that sharing monopoly.

Their appearance is seen by some as a danger to conservative sitting Liberal Senator Zed Seselja, who has been in the Senate for 12 years.

However, Pocock and Rubenstein are a greater menace to incumbent Labor senator Katy Gallagher. They both have human rights and climate change priorities which will be attractive to so-called progressive voters and could take support from Labor and the Greens.

And what do you know, some Labor figures are asking familiar questions of the two: Who would you support, what would you vote for?

The notion that elections are catastrophes if your choice doesn’t win is the fundamental arrogance behind the attack on independents. It dismisses the concept that democracy works even if you don’t like the people elected.

Episode 1: Get your go-bag ready

April 6, 2022

Episode 2: Hire me, please

April 12, 2022

Episode 3: Press pack mentality

April 20, 2022

Bonus Episode: Tory Maguire, executive editor, The SMH and The Age

April 21, 2022

Episode 4: Positively negative campaigning

April 26, 2022

Bonus Episode: Anthony De Ceglie, Editor in Chief, The West Australian

April 28, 2022

Episode 5: Mounting criticism of the media

May 2, 2022

Episode 6: Bush politics

May 9, 2022

Inside the Media Scum

Have you ever wondered how and why journalists and editors cover elections the way they do? Don’t know your doorstops from your divisions? Have you ever wanted to be inside the media scrum to see what happens behind the scenes of the biggest media event and most consequential form of democracy in Australia?

During the 2022 federal election the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas will take you Inside the Media Scrum to give you an insider’s guide to how and why the media is covering the election the way they are.

Veteran journalist Malcolm Farr, who has covered every election since 1993 and has written on federal politics for publications across the media landscape, including The Australian, news.com.au, Crikey, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and more, will provide an eagle-eye view of the media during the campaign.

Amanda Copp, Political Reporter for the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia’s National Radio News, is covering her first federal election. She will be out on the road with the major parties and will provide a first-hand perspective of what it’s like reporting on a national election.

Each week Malcolm and Amanda will be filing stories, newsletters, video and podcasts to help you keep across the media in Federal Election 2022. So, sign up for the latest updates and follow JNI on social media to go Inside the Media Scrum.