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Monday, 30 December 2013

Fairfax keeping Abbott honest

As anyone who's done desktop publishing can tell you, changing the margins in a book can have a big impact on page count. And as anyone who loves books can tell you, fatter margins give a book a richer, more voluminous feel. Thinking about Tony Abbott's performance over the months since he was elected, I see a lot of tinkering in the margins - in addition to the three big policy switches. Those were, of course, the NBN, asylum seekers and the carbon price.

The tinkering is happening with things like the current issue of charging a $5 fee for doctor visits under Medicare, but it's also visible in the ways Abbott says he wants to adjust the NDIS. I think part of the reason for this hesitancy is due to two things, and they are probably related. One is the continuing willingness of the Fairfax press to challenge every move Abbott makes, highlighting specific problems asylum seekers are having under the Morrison regime, for example, or taking Abbott to task over the projected budget blow-out. The other is the way the Coalition is doing in the opinion polls.

The position taken by Fairfax is really important because of the way the Murdoch press heavily promoted a change of government in September. (Fairfax joined in with its own push for change, but only at the last minute and it's clear the honeymoon is already over.) With Fairfax now working to control the media cycle with negative stories affecting the way the government is perceived broadly, pressure is put on Murdoch vehicles to run related stories or risk looking out-of-touch. So Fairfax will run a story on an asylum seeker who is separated from her newborn in detention, and Murdoch papers will also have to go with the same story if it looks like gaining traction - and with social media operating the way it does now it's sure that any misstep by the Abbott government is going to get people talking online.

The way Fairfax has moved from backing Abbott to challenging everything he says or does, or everything that happens as a result of his policy initiatives, reflects changes that took place at the company in the 1970s. For most of its history, Fairfax was a family-owned enterprise - much like Murdoch companies are today - and the proprietor tended to be conservative and interventionist (again, like with Murdoch now). But things changed due to the efforts of investigative journalists at Fairfax who began to report stories that were unpopular with the government of the day, and to demand more independence. (You can read about these things in Colleen Ryan's excellent Fairfax: The Rise and Fall, The Miyegunyah Press, 2013.) This push, coming at the same time as a major boardroom change, meant that Fairfax started to look like what everyone these days expects newspapers to be like: independent and fearless.

In a sense, the Medicare tinkering Abbott has flung out into the public sphere in Australia at this point in time might be interpreted as a gesture to test the waters. What other, similar gestures might have functioned in the same way? Certainly, Fairfax has been quick to take Abbott on and publish pieces that question and challenge the surcharge. Is Abbott softening up the electorate with this gesture or is he merely demonstrating a lack of ideology, and a practical bent, by making the proposed change so moderate? Maybe it's both. Either way, I think we can thank Fairfax for working tirelessly to keep Abbott honest.

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