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Federal Election ’22: From the Road with Amanda Copp

Gokarna Avachat

Gokarna Avachat

The end of the road

Amanda Copp

After six long weeks the election campaign is done and dusted. The brilliant team at SBS’s ‘The Feed’ sum up my feelings here. But aside from the comedic value of having to readjust to normal life, it is interesting to look back at how the media covered the campaign through the lens of the election results.

I was on the campaign buses for much of those six weeks. The experience gives you an in-depth look at how each major party is approaching the campaign, and the reception they get from voters. However, the relentless schedule gives you tunnel vision, only able to focus on what the major parties want you to see.

Media companies spend tens-of-thousands of dollars sending their reporters on the campaign buses, and there are always questions about whether the money is worth it. But this year in particular, media companies must ask, does a surging vote for minor parties and independents make the major party buses less relevant?

While Australia has a new Prime Minister and Labor is emerging from the wilderness, it’s the Greens and independents who recorded the biggest swings towards them. The size of the cross-bench in the lower house is set to more than double.

While the two major parties were the ones who would inevitably form government, this year, the coverage of the Liberal and Labor camps didn’t reflect how Australia voted. While the media was obsessing over the two-party-preferred vote and who was preferred Prime Minister, Australians were turning away from the major parties in droves. Around a third of voters gave their first preference vote to a minor party or independent. Almost matching what Labor, the eventual winners, recorded for their primary vote.

While many media commentators pointed to the ‘teal independent’ threat for the Liberals, I don’t think anyone predicted the total wipeout seen on May 21. The surging vote for the Greens in Queensland also caught many off guard. It begs the question: should so much reporting focus be directed at the major parties when so much of the vote is heading elsewhere?

The 2019 campaign made the media rethink how much faith we put in the polls. 2022 should prompt a rethink on how much focus we put on the major parties.

 

Listen to Amanda’s latest conversation with senior political reporter Malcolm Farr

Week 6: Politicians avoid questions, but the media isn’t blameless

The final days — hours even — of the election are here and the energy in the press pack has reached fever pitch. Journalists, pushing through a month-and-a-half on the road, are becoming increasingly forceful in press conferences, not satisfied when politicians don’t answer the question. They interrupt more, point out when leaders are being evasive and insist their questions are answered.

But as the campaign concludes, I think it’s important to question our own practices in the media. Has our reporting better informed the public? Have our questions helped Australians understand the policies that affect them? And are we keeping politicians accountable on issues of national significance?

For the most part I think the answer is yes. However, the public seem to be increasingly sceptical about whether the media is fulfilling these duties.

There must be space to reflect on how our own reporting is shaping modern politics. The game of cat and mouse we play with politicians, asking questions that are rarely answered in full, contributes to the diminishing faith the public has, not only in politics, but the media too.

Many journalists point the finger at politicians themselves, or their crafty advisers, but do we ever think, maybe these ‘gotcha’ questions  contribute to politicians becoming ever more evasive and opaque?

I recently heard a media adviser say, “the trick is answering the question you wish you’d been asked, not the one you were actually asked.” But that misses the point. What questions do Australians want answered? Because those are the people who matter. This feeling that politics and political journalism is a game, with one side trying to catch the other out, has become increasingly disturbing. Politics is not a game, it’s about the future of the country and everyone in it.

Getting the answers to questions Australians have should be the role of the media in an election campaign, and it should be the role of politicians to answer honestly. But we must ask ourselves whether the questions we’ve seen over the course of the campaign really achieve that. As with many complex problems, there is fault on both sides. But the media should not think we are blameless for the state of politics today.

Week 5: The Albo Express waits for no journo

We’re in the final stretch of the election campaign and I am travelling with the Labor Party to see if Anthony Albanese is cruising to victory, or if the wheels are coming off in the last days of the campaign.

I was curious about joining the Labor bus ever since that disastrous first week. I was told the Labor team had been scrambling since then. Stilted press conferences followed by secondary doorstops clarifying yet more mistakes. After Albo’s Covid diagnosis, the seven-day break seemed to hit the reset button. But I was keen to see it up close.

On the road the team is no longer scrambling. The campaign is similar to the Prime Minister’s, with its frenetic pace, but feels like there are slightly more interactions with the public. But what is curious, is the difference in how his communications team treats their media charges.

On the Prime Minister’s bus it felt like everything was scheduled for the express purpose of maximising media coverage. In the week I was there, we rarely left hotels before TV breakfast programs ended, ensuring live crosses outlining the PM’s plans were broadcast to the nation and set the news agenda for the day. Early evenings were always free so TV journalists could make live cross spots for their evening bulletins. One time, an unexpected delay in schedule, led to the PM’s team holding the plane on the tarmac so TV journalists could make their evening crosses.

Even little old community radio was taken into consideration. The PM’s media team repeatedly checking-in, offering to delay the bus, if I needed more time to file before jumping to the next location. Every night there was an embargoed announcement dropped to the media on the bus about the following day’s plan, ensuring the PM’s agenda kicks off the news cycle in newspapers and morning radio.

On Labor’s bus, I haven’t seen a single drop since I arrived several days ago. The media is relentlessly kept in the dark when it comes to scheduling, making planning for crosses and deadlines difficult. Journalists complain that the bus often leaves before they’re able to do live crosses for big-audience breakfast TV. While Labor sometimes gives us bigger blocks of time to file, the bus waits for no one. Journalists are repeatedly left behind, reduced to scrambling for taxis instead.

If polls are to be believed, this lack of strategic interaction with the media won’t matter for Labor in the end, but I am confused about why there is not more thought put into prioritising the needs of the very organisations needed to spread the Opposition’s messages.

Week 4: The Wombat Trail

The view out the plane window turns into a patchwork of agricultural land. Cattle, sheep and wheat fields dot the landscape. I touch down in Armidale for my first stop on what’s colloquially referred to as ‘The Wombat Trail’ – the National Party’s meandering trip around regional Australia, convincing people outside the city limits to vote for them. It’s tradition that a literal carved wooden wombat accompanies the travelling team.

Armidale is in the heart of New England, Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce’s seat and the person I have been following for the last week. His campaign launch is held at the newly renovated local pub. It’s filled with enthusiastic locals, many sporting bright yellow “Barnaby Army” t-shirts. He’s friendly, relatable, and laughs easily. The vibe couldn’t be more different from the Prime Minister’s campaign. However, in somewhat of a bad omen, the travelling wooden wombat was broken during an overly enthusiastic photoshoot with a supporter during Barnaby’s launch. It hasn’t been seen since.

Campaigning with Barnaby is relaxed. The media travels with him on the plane, often invited to sit and have a yarn with “the boss”. Everywhere we go, the public is there too. We stop at McDonalds for a quick lunch or the local pie shop. Barnaby talks to everyone. “Hello! I’m Barnaby,” is constant. Everyone gets a handshake.

Compared to the army of journalists, cameramen and staffers that follow the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader around, the entourage following Barnaby is miniscule. There’s only one other journalist here aside from me. But the interactions with locals are invaluable. Areas where most of the Canberra press pack would be talking about climate change, locals seem to care more about simply having a job, particularly in the mining industry. Where the media might ask about ICAC, locals say it’s roads and infrastructure that will swing their vote.

The Wombat Trail feels more real than the other confected political campaigns, and aside from the rogue heckler, people seem genuinely happy to see Barnaby’s iconic Akubra enter their towns. I think if more of the media had travelled on the Wombat Trail in the 2019 election, where the overwhelming prediction from the press was a Labor win, then Scott Morrison’s eventual “miracle” victory would have been less of a surprise.

Week 3: Campaign Control

This week I was back in Canberra, taking a breather from the madness of reporting from the campaign buses. It was an opportunity to get a bird’s eye view of both political parties. On the road, you are fully immersed in one side of politics, but from the Press Gallery in Parliament House, you can watch each party from afar and get a better sense of how the competing campaigns compare. While the perspective shift was good, being back at base gave me a taste of just how tightly parties control the media during election campaigns.

In normal times, media requests for comment are often sent directly to politicians, who can give their two cents immediately over the phone or while passing in the corridors of Parliament House. If you’re not so friendly with said politician, you talk to a helpful staffer who promptly tees up an interview. However, during an election, everything becomes far more cumbersome.

Every media request is funnelled through centralised ‘Campaign Headquarters’. Both sides have one – CHQ for Labor and CCHQ for the Coalition – where strategists and staffers gather to work out how their party is going to win. You get the sense that every media request is being vetted based on its political merit and risk, going through multiple layers before final approval is granted (or not).

I somewhat naively hoped elections would prompt politicians to be at their most transparent, dishing out information and explaining policies to as many media outlets as possible. Disturbingly, that is often not the case, with requests for interviews not met, or official comments missing deadlines. Questions probing for details on policy areas are often brushed away with vague and general statements that don’t reveal anything of substance. Labor in particular seems very heavily guarded. The Sydney Morning Herald reported this week that key frontbenchers seem to be frozen out of the media spotlight for what looks like factional reasons.

This is an alarming and disheartening reality. In a time where voters need to be fully informed about who they are voting for and why, political parties have become masters of evasion, delivering half-baked answers to media questions and unclear explanations about how policy objectives are going to be achieved. It might be good for political parties to leave the media and the public in the dark, but it sure ain’t good for democracy or the future of the nation.

Wanted: real voters (Week 2)

You’d think being out on the hustings would mean meeting so-called ‘real voters’.

During an election campaign the media and politicians traipse around the country to all of Australia’s most marginal electorates.

It’s my first time out on the election road show, and I thought it would give me an opportunity to take the pulse of what matters to those crucial swing voters, to get a read on what everyday Australians think about our political leaders.

How wrong I was. 
Never before have I felt so cut off from real people.

The relentless movement of the campaign means journalists spend a large chunk of time sitting inside whatever bus or plane is taking us to our next destination.

The brief snatches of time that we are off the bus are spent corralled inside carefully chosen factories and businesses.

The people we meet there are usually the CEO, the company directors, or others important people desperate to make a good impression on a Prime Minister gracing their business with his presence.
 
The handful of conversations I had with ‘real’ workers were often cut short by operations managers who quickly moved me on for “safety reasons”, concerned a lone media straggler might somehow fall into one of the many machines we were passing.

Many of the workers talked about cost of living concerns, but when I asked about their thoughts on Scott Morrison, many shot furtive looks after the Prime Minister and the trailing media pack, anxious to say anything too critical about a man only just out of earshot.

These curated events make for colourful TV and photographs, showing our political leaders getting amongst the workplaces of ‘real Australians’. However, up close, it felt anything but.
 
The first time we broke out of the manufactured photo opportunities was at the Royal Easter Show in Sydney, and that was on day six of the campaign, after we’d traversed three states and more than half a dozen towns.
I’m now back home in Canberra and feel like I’m having more interaction with real voters just talking to my friends and family.

The experience has left me questioning the media’s role in covering these events, when so much of it is artificial.

Travelling with political leaders is an essential part of the campaign, but how accurate is the coverage if everything is planned and controlled by the very political parties the media is supposed to be critiquing?

On the Road: Week One

Canberra, Nowra, Sydney, Geelong, Torquay, Launceston. They’re all a blur, but that’s where three days on the campaign trail with the Prime Minister takes you and there’s so much more to come. 41 days of movement and madness before we arrive at our destination – the Federal Election on May 21.

Week one has been a total blur. Wake up, pack your bag, get on the bus. Tour a factory, get back on the bus, tour another factory, bus again, factory, bus, plane, bus, stop. Sleep. Wake up. Do it again. Opportunities to file stories come in 15 to 30 minute bursts, squashed into days moving at a frenetic pace. Sleep is the only reprieve.

This is the first time I have travelled on the media buses during an election campaign, playing follow-the-leader in a frantic dance around the country’s marginal electorates. Each day is packed with visits to businesses, factories, sports halls, and charities.

‘The bus’ is the term used to refer to the travelling media pack that follows both political leaders around Australia. Journalists, photographers, and cameramen from all the major TV networks, newspapers, and radio stations are chaperoned by media staff from the Prime Minister or Opposition Leader’s offices to mystery locations that often remain unknown until moments before arrival.

The Prime Minister and his closest advisers travel in separate cars, planes, and buses, and the media generally only interacts with the leaders at stage-managed photo opportunities and press conferences.

Filing is done sitting on gutters in car parks or while staving off motion sickness on never-ending bus rides. Even the onboard lavatory isn’t immune from filing requirements, the less squeamish journalists using it as last resort when a quieter space is needed for recording voice overs. Journalism, glamorous? Hardly.

The campaign is fast, disorienting, and relentless, and I’m loving every second of it. I love the news with its chaotic energy. And this is it, in its purest form.

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 Sydney Morning Herald and The Age

April 21, 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

Bonus Episode: Tony Windsor

May 2, 2022