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RICHARDSON: Mum’s the word as News Corp’s own goal upends campaign

Opinion

Labor weighed in on migration, the Premier was conspicuously absent and one of his ministers lurched from crisis to disaster. But, writes Tom Richardson, it was the Murdoch media that stole the spotlight for the wrong reasons in an eventful week in politics.

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Shades of Elder in Labor attack?

Remember that racist dog-whistle of a campaign leaflet Labor distributed in the state seat of Elder a few years back?

The one that many ALP insiders have privately (though none publicly) disavowed, wherein the then-Liberal candidate Carolyn Habib, of Lebanese descent, was targeted in a flier depicting a bullet-ridden wall with the words across it: ‘Can you trust Habib?

A bit has changed since then.

Habib eventually won the seat four years later, is now an assistant minister in the Marshall Government and has since taken her married name of Power – ironically, given ‘can you trust power?’ would have been a fairly effective anti-Labor slogan in the aftermath of the statewide blackout.

But there appeared, at first blush, to be shades of that campaign in the Labor Opposition’s recent attack on the State Government’s designated area migration agreement with Canberra.

The program, an extension of a Northern Territory prototype, allows SA employers to sponsor skilled overseas workers for positions they are unable to fill locally.

The Advertiser carried a story noting the deal was “under fire after it was revealed overseas workers could get a visa older, on 10 per cent less wages and with lower English requirements”.

It detailed Labor leader Peter Malinasukas’s concern that migrants “could be paid 10 per cent less than the current yearly threshold for skilled migrants — $53,900 — in a move he said will make it harder for locals in regional SA to get a job”.

It quoted him as saying: “South Australians will be shocked to learn the Premier has signed an agreement with Scott Morrison which will bring in migrant workers on lower wages to compete for jobs against locals in regional communities.”

Which, in the heat of a federal election campaign, appears not a million miles away from a particularly tiresome trope much beloved of some of the parties seeking to take votes from the Liberal/Labor duopoly:

Business SA certainly thought so, putting out a statement condemning Labor “scaremongering”, and pointing out the Temporary Skilled Migration Income Threshold had been set above market rates of pay for many occupations, preventing regional employers from being able to fill vacancies.

That’s certainly the view of Mark Glazbrook, a migration agent who argues the NT pilot has been a failure, with only 60 visas approved over the past two years.

Glazbrook told a recent parliamentary inquiry the threshold salary for DAMA participants was too high, noting the existing $53,900 minimum salary level for temporary skilled migrants was “above what a lot of people get paid in regional areas and in different occupations”, and noting a Labor pledge to increase it further would “effectively render a lot of the occupations that are within the DAMA inaccessible”.

There are, of course, worthy discussions to be had about how to raise SA’s population and address the structural problems in regional areas with entrenched job vacancies.

Malinauskas kicked off that conversation in a series of questions to Premier Steven Marshall in state parliament last week, quizzing him on “why he has signed an agreement with the Commonwealth that provides for migrant workers to earn 10 per cent less than the mandated minimum migrant salaries in regional areas”.

“Why should workers who are employed under your DAMA be paid 10 per cent less than other migrant workers?” he demanded.

And then: “Could the Premier rule out regional employers seeking lower paid migrant workers in preference to local residents entitled to higher salaries?”

Now, I believe that Malinauskas – whose grandparents first arrived in Australia as Hungarian and Lithuanian refugees – wasn’t intending to raise the issue as a dog-whistle.

Indeed, he tells me he took great care not to couch it in those terms, nor to be drawn into media comment on the age or English language requirements for migrant workers.

His whole premise, he insists, was predicated on two points – not putting downward pressure on wages “at the exact time the country needs a wage rise”, and ensuring that migrants, skilled or otherwise, shouldn’t be treated as second-class citizens.

Malinauskas, with state frontbencher Chris Picton, federal candidates Saskia Gerhardy and Nadia Clancy, and Kingston incumbent Amanda Rishworth, has been active on the campaign trail. Photo: Kelly Barnes / AAP

The thing is though, as Business SA points out, “there’s a perception in parts of the community that migrants take jobs at the expense of local workers”.

Stoking that sentiment is a hell of a lot easier than shifting it.

To even raise the spectre of “local residents” is misleading – the reason these areas have been identified under the DAMAs is because local employers are unable to fill vacancies with local workers at market rates.

Moreover, there’s not much point in creating a specialist migration zone if you apply the same market strictures as everywhere else.

In the context of a hard-fought election campaign, it’s hardly surprising the media focus on the debate was on migrant workers undercutting local jobs.

It was News Corp wot won it

But that’s the thing about election campaigns: however the parties try to spin them, they’re inevitably disseminated through the prism of the media reporting on them.

It’s well understood that most Murdoch outlets in particular have shifted their approach in recent years to a more overt barracking modelled on a template forged long ago by their stablemates in the UK.

The days in which the tabloid dailies would reveal their true colours with a demure editorial that weighs up the pros and cons of both sides after a lengthy campaign are a wistful memory, replaced by outright propaganda.

The precedent for such barracking was famously set by the anti-Labour tone of News Corp’s British tabloid The Sun, which warned voters on election eve in 1987 that if Neil Kinnock won, the last person out of the country should turn off the lights.

When Thatcher was returned for a third term, the paper’s gleeful headline declared it was “the Sun wot won it”.

Similarly, if Australia’s federal election goes the way it now seems destined to go, Murdoch’s Sydney masthead could aptly claim: “It was the Tele wot won it.”

For a widely-condemned Daily Telegraph front-page hit-piece on Labor leader Bill Shorten, accusing him of omitting pertinent details of his late mother’s life story in a personal reflection delivered on the ABC’s Q&A, has proven to be a triumph of political propaganda – in an ironic kind of way.

In a single less-than-deft blow, the Tele has succeeded in completely re-drawing the dynamics of the 2019 election campaign.

Labor’s campaign had to that point been flailing, unable to find a way to cut through with any resonance and dogged by its leader’s wooden demeanour.

In a single, two-minute monologue, Shorten managed not only to distil his campaign narrative into a warcry that seemed to resonate across broad sections of the country but to display more genuine emotion than he’s shown since taking the Labor helm in 2013.

Among the spontaneous responses, social media outpourings of generational hardship, sacrifices made and dreams lost, under a poignant hashtag: #MyMum

Moreover, it was a moment that seemed to galvanise public antipathy with the Murdoch media’s relentless barracking.

The backlash was immediate, and fierce.

This was a moment that drew a battleline not merely between the Labor Party and the News Corp media, but between the News Corp media and many of its own readers.

And, indeed, within News Corp itself, as the fallout continued among both former luminaries and current employees.

Even the company’s conservative poster boy Andrew Bolt was moved to point out, “despite being a Telegraph columnist” that “Shorten spoke truly when he said his mother sacrificed her dream to be a lawyer, taking up teaching to help her siblings… there is no invention here”.

“That she decades later, after a great career teaching, finally realised her dream has been well-reported and does not negate at all her admirable sacrifice,” he wrote on his blog.

“I note that the Herald Sun, my employer, chose not to run this story. I support that decision.

“There is an unfortunate tendency of critics to assume that what one paper does is part of a wider ‘Murdoch media’ campaign. It is not.”

When News Corp columnists are forced to appeal to readers not to judge their publications by the standards of their stablemates, you know things have gone pretty badly awry.

While the Herald Sun did not run the copy in Shorten’s home state, Queensland’s Courier Mail ran it, like the Tele, on page one.

Here in SA, the ‘Tiser, as always, couldn’t make up its mind whether to go tabloid or take the high road, and – as always – opted for the middle ground, running the story downpage on page 16 (probably as much to fill a hole as anything else).

As such, it avoided most of the national backlash, but lost the high moral ground to claim it had taken a principled stand against publication.

The next day, also downpage on page 19, it reported on the national fallout with a story that began disingenuously: “Bill Shorten has paid an emotional tribute to his late mother as he criticised a newspaper article accusing him of omitting a key fact about her career.”

This may well prove to be the inadvertent turning point

If the Tele was attempting to help the Liberal cause (as it clearly was), it was akin to Blackadder’s hapless sidekick Baldrick coming to the rescue with his ominous refrain: “I have a cunning plan.”

If Labor wins, this may well prove to be the inadvertent turning point – not just for this campaign, but for Australia’s understanding of the relationship between its media and political elites.

The Ministry of Stuff-Ups

If South Australia’s Murdoch daily was keeping its head down amid the fallout, it was emblematic of the state’s broader relevance to the entire election campaign.

With only one seat at risk of changing hands (or two at a stretch), SA has barely registered a blip on the national radar. So localised has the campaign been, Labor has been bombarding the airwaves of statewide broadcasters with attack ads against a lone backbench MP – first term right-winger Nicolle Flint.

Flint and Labor challenger Nadia Clancy at a community debate this week. Photo: Al Fraser

Australia Institute polling back when the Coalition’s national two-party vote appeared in the toilet still had Flint marginally ahead in the southern suburbs seat, so one might only presume where her vote sits now that Morrison’s campaign appears to have recovered some of that shortfall.

But it doesn’t make the timing of Premier Steven Marshall’s US sojourn any more peculiar.

To remove one of the party’s more effective campaigning tools during the crucial stages of a clutch election campaign appears to be what Sir Humphrey might have euphemistically called ‘a courageous decision’

Marshall will miss much of the run home to polling day on his trip to attend the Sea Air Space maritime expo, essentially in place of outgoing federal Defence Minister Christopher Pyne, who is in caretaker mode (and quite possible take-it-easy mode as well).

If the federal Liberal vote holds up in SA, it will be arguably thanks in no small part to Marshall’s own popularity, with his year-old government retaining some residual goodwill, despite not having achieved a great deal of note to date.

So to remove one of the party’s more effective campaigning tools during the crucial stages of a clutch election campaign appears to be what Sir Humphrey might have euphemistically called “a courageous decision”.

Particularly when that leaves one of his fledgling ministers to fill the void with a decreasingly competent run of public statements about A Series Of Unfortunate Events in his portfolio.

First up, Transport and Infrastructure Minister Stephan Knoll was forced to announce he’d backflipped on poorly received plans for a “staggered T” traffic solution to a problematic ‘dogleg’ intersection in Daw Park that has long been a local bugbear.

The problem was, his new plan was pretty much the same one Labor had previously put up, one he’d sneeringly derided as “purely political [that] would actually increase travel times on average during the morning peak period”.

“Only the Labor Party would think that spending more taxpayer dollars to get a worse outcome is a good idea,” he said at the time.

He spent much of the rest of the week defending a thrifty but shifty move to reduce carriages on various metro train services, including along the Belair line, and offering decreasingly confident explanations about what was going on with his crumbling Darlington road project.

He also defended not actually turning up to see the damage for himself, arguing it would do no good because “I’m not an engineer”, before insisting it was Very Important that he went for a day-long drive to the south-east to look at dangerous country roads, despite his stated lack of engineering nous.

That was before also attending a Mount Gambier Liberal fundraiser, and then on his return making a big point of actually attending the Darlington debacle. Even though he’s not an engineer.

Knoll insisted he was all over the detail of the “evolving” mess because he was receiving “constant updates” from his department while he was away.

However, questions from InDaily to his office during this period went unanswered because he was, we were told, out of mobile range.

Some years ago, Knoll’s then-Liberal forebear Martin Hamilton-Smith coined a less-than-flattering term for then-Transport and Infrastructure Minister Pat Conlon: the Minister for Stuff-Ups.

Time may have proven that the title is more by dint of the portfolio than the man or woman administering it: it goes with the department, and comes with the job.

But it’s fair to say that the Marshall Government now has its own “Minister for Stuff-Ups”.

And, for now, no Premier to wheel out the requisite good news.

You may note that each of Knoll’s misfortunes in recent days carried particular resonance in Adelaide’s inner southern suburbs – Boothby, to be precise.

Nicolle Flint must be ever so grateful.

Tom Richardson is a senior reporter at InDaily.

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