There is a perplexing myth pervading journalistic commentary and even Labor party
thinking. The persistence and predominance of this myth not only illustrates the
power that the media wield and the ignorance they fuel but also shows how a
certain mode of thought, including key terms and phrases, saturates public
We are told constantly, to the point where it has even appeared as "news" rather
than commentary, that Labor’s policies on health and education at the 2004
Federal election were disastrous. When Kim Beazley ditched these policies at a
press conference on May 3 this year, this was reported as the removal of
commitments that were highly controversial and unpopular. Key terms originating
from the Liberal Party peppered journalistic commentary on the issue. Thus
seasoned ABC interviewer Tony Jones referred to "the private school hit list" when
introducing Beazley on Lateline.
How had this phrase become acceptable but not, for example, "the 67 wealthy private
schools draining the public purse"?
There is a certain economy of style with the term ‘hit list‘ and it
resonates with the moral fervour of similar terms in the arsenal of government
rhetoric such as ‘rogue state’ and ‘war on terror’. While there was no ‘hit list‘, note how Beazley accepted the
Liberal Party’s terms of debate: "Look, I think Jenny [Macklin] is interested
in making absolutely certain that our education policy is not distracted by a
focus on who loses…". Public schools lose under the current system of funding, but
we cannot let ourselves be distracted by that. Look at Beazley’s press release
the following day: "I will lift all schools, not drag some down". Latham and
the party as a whole had never talked of dragging certain schools down but
merely of righting past wrongs whereby an unseemly amount of government funds
went to schools more than adequately provided for. These 67 schools quickly
became known as the "hit list", through a combination of Liberal party rhetoric
and journalistic laziness.
Ever tempted by the sound bite, commentators could not resist the ‘hit list’ label.
And they were quite taken with that other liberal invention – ‘the politics of
envy‘. Even class found its way in to the media debate. The Labor party was
said to be waging ‘class war’, rather than merely tinkering with a system
infected by the politics of class and privilege. We were told by Peter Hartcher
and Louise Dodson that "Latham is unafraid to fight as a class warrior". A
little later in an interview with the Herald, Howard was to say "I think his
educational policies are based on class and envy".
Thus, the scene for the story of Latham was constructed by the Liberal party and painted
by the media: a class warrior, pushing the politics of envy and conjuring hit
lists like some mafia boss with Marxist leanings – the people saw his policies
for what they were and that is why they destroyed him. A wonderful story,
perhaps, but the facts speak otherwise. This is yet another example of the
truth being buried by powerful mythologies.
Allow me to put aside the reasons why Labor lost the 2004 election and to instead,
examine the public record with regard to its education policy. Numerous opinion
polls established that it was very popular, as did the worm in the debate
between Howard and Latham (which the worm gave to Latham decisively, proving
that media gimmicks cannot be reliable predictors of an actual election result,
although the debate was rather early in the campaign). Two separate AC Nielsen polls
– one in April, the other in early October – established public education as a
priority election issue. 86% in the first poll agreed that the Federal
Government needed to invest more in public education, while 78% in the second
rated public schooling as a significant election policy matter. The most
telling poll, however, was one that went against the grain and predicted the
massive swing to government. At the time – late September – most polls were
showing a close confrontation, with the usually reliable Newspoll having Labor
52.5-47.5 on a two party preferred basis and Morgan 53 to 47, while Galaxy for
News Ltd metropolitan papers gave the Government a narrow victory. So polls
were tending to favour Labor and at the time even Liberal party insiders
acknowledged that Latham’s standing was going up as a consequence of his policy
announcements, including that concerning education.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported in its weekend edition on September 25 that,
against all indications, an AC Nielsen poll showed that support for the
coalition had surged to 54% after distribution of preferences. A most reliable
poll, as it turned out. And what were its findings on Labor’s schools policy?
Two-thirds of voters approved "Labor’s policy of redistributing funds from
wealthy private schools to needy schools". Or, as Mark Metherell put it:
"Two-thirds of voters have backed Mark Latham’s plan to reduce government
funding to high-fee paying schools for the benefit of struggling government and
private schools." What a difference language can make. There were no hit lists
or envious politics or class war in these commentaries, just straightforward
reporting. Note that the very voters who would sweep the Government back into
power were not deterred by Labor’s schools policy at all. Indeed, even
Coalition voters all but supported the policy, with 47% indicating "approval".
Interestingly, the weakest support for Labor’s schools policy was amongst those
aged over 55 but even then 53% supported it.
Journalistic amnesia and slanted reporting are astonishing enough, but that is the way that sound
bite media works. More surprising, perhaps, is the fact that the Labor Party has
managed to convince itself of the mythology surrounding its electoral loss.
Herein lies the sad tale of a party without conviction or direction.
"Beazley battles on to hold the opposition leadership", reporter: Tony Jones, Lateline,
ABC TV, May 3, 2006
Kim Beazley, "My Message to Non-Government School Parents". May 4, 2006, press
Peter Hartcher & Louise Dodson, "…but Latham is unafraid to fight as a class
warrior", Sydney Morning Herald, September 18-19, 2004
John Howard, quoted in Louise Dodson & Peter Hartcher, "Back to Whitlam Era,
says Howard", Sydney Morning Herald, October 6 2004
Louise Dodson, "Blow for Blow, but no killer punch" & Cossima Marriner "Worm
signals a defeat for Howard, but he has proved it wrong before", Sydney Morning
Herald, September 13, 2004
"Public Education. It is our future. AC Nielsen shows 86% support public education" New
South Wales Teachers Federation media release, April 30, 2004
"78% of voters rate public education nfunding as important", New South Wales
Teachers Federation media release October 8, 2004
Louise Dodson, "Labor polls offer him victory", Sydney Morning Herald, September 24,
Mark Matherell, "Shock for Labor as Coalition Surges" & "Schools tick can’t stop
Labor crash", Sydney Morning Herald, September 25/6, 2004