Wearing your heart on your sleeve

There was a time when The Sydney Morning Herald was arguably the quality daily newspaper of record in this nation. The hallmark of this status was its impartiality: the notion of journalism prevailing over commentary. Alas, if the paper’s Political Editor, Peter Hartcher, is anything to go by The Herald is little more than a Labor Party rag. This assessment is framed by Hartcher’s weekend piece in the Opinion section: “How Rudd can outflank his noisy opponent”.

The headline is brutally clear about the intention of the article: it advises the Labor Party what it should do to outscore its political opponent, Liberal Leader Tony Abbott. And the mini-manifesto does just that. Which is fine for a topic, even a prescriptive one, but it niggles when it comes from what readers should surely hope would be a non-partisan incumbent of the influential pulpit of Political Editor. In the absence of any disclaimer such as – the author’s views are entirely personal and do not necessarily reflect those of this paper nor are they reflective of the essential impartiality brought to the role of political editor by Mr Hartcher in the customary course of his duties – we can only assume the proprietors endorse his partisanship.

Hartcher opens with a frank account of how Abbott has turned the tables on the Labor government, and its prime minister in particular, by questioning Kevin Rudd as being essentially all talk and no action. Hartcher’s apparent personal anguish at the success of Abbott’s approach is plain for all: “This impression of Rudd as ineffectual is potentially fatal to his credibility if Labor allows it to go unchecked. And so far, it has.” You can feel him bleeding can’t you?

So, Hartcher swings into stride as a campaign strategist and gets straight to the point: “Rudd has a powerful two-punch counter-narrative available if Labor chooses to use it.” Impossible to escape the inference that they damned well should and not muck about doing so, eh? Hartcher’s recommended strategic approach is dictated thus: “Labor needs to drum into the public consciousness a shortlist of a few Rudd government achievements so that whenever anyone says ‘What’s Rudd actually done?’, three or four key items come quickly to mind.”

In analytical terms, he’s spot on. But then be betrays his journalistic version of the Hippocratic oath by detailing just what should be portrayed as Rudd’s achievements. For the sake of brevity, allow me to summarise: helping save Australia from global recession; or raising the pension for 3 million age pensioners; or cutting income taxes; or increasing the childcare rebate. One can almost hear Hartcher starting to breathe heavily as he pounded those keys. But the crescendo has yet to peak and he strokes the topic further. “Second, Labor can make a powerful case against Tony Abbott. It can confront his perceived strength, that he’s an authentic, conviction politician, and turn it into a weakness.”

Warming to his task, Hartcher thrusts hard and strong: “How? Abbott does like to say what he thinks. But he’s thought so many different things, often on the same policy, that Labor could fit him up not as a ‘conviction politician’ but as an opportunist, a flip-flopper of the first order.” Things are tightening down below, aren’t they, Mr H? We can all start to feel it now. Just to slow things, though, (climaxing too quickly is no fun at all) Hartcher delivers an example of his stratagem by quoting American political experience in the way Dick Cheney maligned John Kerry in 2004 by portraying him as a flip-flop. Ah, a wander back to the past and a fleeting foray across the oceans has settled things down and we can now pick up the tempo again.

So, in case Labor’s backroom boys missed the point, Hartcher explains: “This line of attack was one of the reasons George Bush won a second term.” And, just to reinforce his unaligned credentials, Hartcher dots his i’s and crosses his t’s: “For Labor in mounting a critique of Abbott, there is plenty to work with.” And he proceeds to do just that: “For instance, Abbott was in favour of Rudd’s carbon emissions plan before he was against it. Flip-flop. He was in favour of a federal takeover of public hospitals before he was against it. Flip-flop. He was against paid maternity leave before he was in favour of it. Flip-flop. He was opposed to extending the compulsory ‘income management’ of welfare payments beyond Aboriginal communities into white communities until he was in favour of it. Flip-flop He was opposed to new taxes until he announced one two weeks ago. Flip-flop.”

But, wait, there’s more. Yes, I know, how much more stroking can we take? We all feel nearly spent by this stage but Hartcher is nothing if not tireless in pursuit of a conquest. So, he deals with Rudd’s acceptance of Abbott’s dare to debate health and hospitals. Remarkably, Hartcher is one of the few who sees this as a clever triumph by Rudd and a potential disaster for Abbott. He may well be right but it’s not hard to categorise this view as a minority report. But Rudd’s anticipated victory is all but drowned out by Hartcher’s triumphal, climactic howl as he delivers his last pumping jolt: “The polling from Nielsen and Newspoll shows that Labor would win an election held today by 53 per cent to 47 per cent. That’s exactly the result that delivered power to Labor in 2007. So, for all the sound and fury, the Coalition has made a net gain of absolutely zero.”

Honestly, Mr Hartcher, you’ve done more than Pope Benedict XVI to make onanism on the nose. It’s not often one comes out of the closet with quite such gusto. Careful now, as you do up your zipper.