It can be an interesting exercise to look at the local media's election coverage. With a circulation of more than 24,000 in the Victorian seat of Batman, last week's edition of The Northcote Leader offered a telling glimpse of the substantial reach but narrow focus of some local election reporting.
With only three editions to go before polling day, the election didn't make the front page this time around, though the previous week saw some glancing coverage identifying climate change as a big issue with Batman voters in the safest ALP-held federal seat in Australia.
Make it to page five and we get a Q and A of the candidates' 'favourite local hangouts, from restaurants to parklands'. But it's on page seven that cynical amusement could begin to creep in. 'Sticky John riles Rudd' reads the headline above a large colour pic of a Northcote resident (one Cathy Rudd) holding her Martin Ferguson placard besmirched with a glued-on, photo-copied portrait of a smiling PM with a 'Howard 07' caption – Ferguson the victim of a hideous head transplant.
Martin Ferguson, MHR for Batman and the ALP's safest bet, declares the vandalism of the frontyard promotion 'beyond a joke', describing the admittedly silly act as 'clearly thought-out and orchestrated'. Curiously, he then expresses doubt that the Liberals are behind the prank.
Obvious but unanswered questions are who he thinks might have hatched the devious masterplan and what political mileage is in it for them. This Batman mystery is not Murder on the Orient Express – with only six candidates, the political suspects are limited; one – the Liberals – apparently already ruled out.
If I were more optimistic, I'd be pleased to see Ferguson take this stand, because voters could read it as a rejection of the kind of tactics the ALP itself used in a misleading propaganda campaign against the Greens in the contest for Northcote at the November 2006 Victorian State election. Of course one could argue that it's an entirely different ballgame, except for the fact that back in November 2006 Ferguson was spruiking on the steps of Northcote Town Hall for then ALP candidate and later Northcote MP, Fiona Richardson. It was Richardson's husband, ALP State Secretary Stephen Newnham, who authorised the so-called 'Gotcha' campaign against the Greens.
So this time, if he is sincere, Ferguson seems to be signalling that we'll see no unbranded but ALP-authorised flyers appropriating the Greens logo and featuring the heads of prominent Liberals at its centre. Transplanted heads? Is Ferguson insinuating some kind of ham-fisted Greens payback in the current stunt? That, of course, is the less optimistic view: Ferguson's cryptic comments in the 'Sticky John' report could signal just the kind of stupidity that besieged our letterboxes last November.
Of course, this is all somewhat complicated by the preference deal that now seems to have been sealed between the Greens and Labor. How do you falsely insinuate a deal between the Greens and other parties when you've done a deal with them yourself? Maybe you insinuate questionable campaign tactics instead.
While we'll have to wait and see if a misleading ALP campaign becomes a feature of the federal contest for Batman, the trouble with this kind of beat-up masquerading as election coverage is that it displaces real issues and fails to engage in actual debate.
The previous week's edition of the paper devoted a tiny paragraph to the key issues for Batman as identified by Roy Morgan research – improving health services and hospitals (39 per cent of responses); improving education (25 per cent); and fair workplace and employment regulations (23 per cent). Fast-forward to last week's 'Sticky John' edition and two of these issues are implicated in a worthy commentary piece ('Stomach it?', p.6) by Heather Gallagher, who was admitted to the emergency department of a local hospital during the recent Victorian nurses' dispute.
Unfortunately, the issues covered in the article were not followed through in the paper's election coverage, so we were given little indication of where the candidates stand on issues that clearly concern many Batman voters. Given recent events, however, a closer analysis would have challenged the major parties, with the Victorian Labor Government having invoked WorkChoices in its attempt to break the nurses' dispute, and the Federal Government badly embarrassed by the seeming failure of its pork-barrelling takeover of Tasmania's Mersey hospital.
While it would be easy to frame serious questions around these events to bring out the positions of all the candidates, it seems the best we can hope for in the coverage is trivial shenanigans that distract us from the issues. In Ferguson's case, it's a distraction based on a double-standard regarding appropriate campaign tactics. Let's see if some substantial issues emerge in this week's edition of the paper.
All comments welcome, but, in the case of the ALP, that might risk addressing the real issues – don't you think, Martin?