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Edition 41

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Essay

Time to trade in

ON THE FRIDAY afternoon before a Sunday appearance on the ABC's Insiders couch, Barrie Cassidy emails the three panel members with a rough list of topics to be discussed. The note comes with an attachment of newspaper articles and transcripts. I used to skim the background material on a Saturday night while watching the football, or a DVD, to make sure I hadn't missed anything during the week.

The context of Barrie's care package has changed now that I am a former print journalist. Much of the information is genuine news to me because I don't pay as much attention during the week. I trust my friends in the media won't take this the wrong way. I just don't have the time to follow every inconsequential detail of Australian politics when I am working on a book and a documentary.

It's refreshing to be put in the position of the traditional reader without the prejudice of prior knowledge. The journalist becomes your guide, not a colleague or competitor. I can happily report the news coverage from the parliamentary press gallery remains of a consistently high quality.

But the vantage point of interested observer has its frustrations. My pet gripe of partisan commentary, annoying when I was in the media, is even harder to take from the outside. I'd like to share one example from Barrie's notes for the pre-Budget show, broadcast on 12 May 2013. The top item for our consideration was paid parental leave, which was back in the headlines after a small group of coalition MPs had called on Tony Abbott to dial down the generosity of his scheme.

The surprise for me in the attachment was the absence of any long piece of reporting that looked either at how the coalition policy might work in theory, or how the government's scheme had worked in practice. All we had to peruse were two columns, written from the gut. Eva Cox trusted Abbott, even if she didn't like him. Tanja Kovak didn't trust him because she didn't like where he was coming from.

I have no problem with how Cox and Kovak made their respective cases. By referring us to these opinions in particular, Barrie would have satisfied the crankytariat's demand that for every criticism of the Leader of the Opposition, there must be a back-slap to balance it.

However, there was nothing in it for me as a reader. I am not interested in another dissertation on the correct feminist or conservative response to paid parental leave. The ideological battle is over. Both sides of politics signed up years ago. Remember the government scheme, paying twelve weeks' leave at the national minimum wage of $622.20 per week, has been operating since 1 January 2011. The coalition's counter-offer, paying full salary for six months up to a cap of $150,000 ($2884.60 per week) was on the table at the start of the last election year, 2010. Surely, we have reached the point when we can assess the respective packages, not play another round of spot the snag.

The fact that we haven't moved to the details phase of the paid parental leave debate reminds us the media no longer has a critical mass of policy-focused journalists to serve the electorate. The void can't be filled by think tanks, lobby groups and energetic activists because their interests rarely align with those of the reader. The dirty secret of newspapers is the opinion and feature pages are struggling to fill the twenty-four-hour news cycle with thoughtful content. Provocation is what appeals to the commissioning editor now, not the messy nuance of how policy affects people.

I worry about our democracy when partisan commentary, from whatever part of the spectrum, becomes entrenched as the primary source of analysis for the reader. The genre divides by design, valuing emotion over evidence; party discipline over policy curiosity. It is the phoney American choice between Fox and MSNBC, where my guy or gal shouts better than yours. I understand why politicians reward those who suck up, but I wouldn't recommend it as an electoral strategy. Media cheer squads unthinkingly draw leaders into a circular conversation that swinging voters can't relate to. Consider the Fox News paradox. When George W Bush won re-election in 2004, the cable network had 1,474,000 prime time viewers. In the 2008 presidential year, the figure had jumped to a then record 1,793,000. In 2012, it was 1,853,000, 25 per cent higher than in 2004. But superior ratings did not stop Barack Obama winning comfortably on both occasions. On the contrary, it made it harder for the Republicans to hear the real America that didn't buy into the conspiracy about the un-American alien Muslim socialist president.

Partisan commentary is a symptom of wider systems' failure. The old growth models for politics and media are broken, yet our institutions are still hard-wired to the false certainty of the male brain: that stability can be restored by yelling.

The great global recession, now five years old, was meant to be the shock that restored the balance between the roles of governments and markets. It has done nothing of the sort. Regulators have yet to lay a single charge against the spivs who first paralysed the financial system in 2008. Businesses have yet to reset the expectations of their managers for more modest remuneration packages. And governments across the western world have yet to assure their people that the crisis has passed. The American Congress has gone on strike. The British coalition government is pursuing an austerity strategy that has dragged the economy to the edge of a triple-dip recession. The Eurozone lurches from one seizure to the next. Now the trouble is moving to Asia.

Here in Australia, the last rich nation standing, no leader seems to have the wit to make something of our relative strength. Announcements are made, but not explained, because there is another press engagement to rush off to. The media holds the system hostage by granting a well-off family, or a business chief, the first right of response to a government or opposition policy. The higher the income bracket, the greater is the space set aside for their front-page whingeing.

I've sat at enough business roundtables to know that corporate Australia is always looking for an excuse to pass on a cost: to the taxpayer, the consumer, and, if they are big enough, to smaller businesses in the supply chain. One notable discussion behind closed doors I observed last year began with CEOs complaining about the Gillard government. They needed more help to compete in the Asian Century, they said. The conversation then turned to the elevated dollar. Well-known companies would have to drastically reduce their labour costs if they were to remain viable, they warned.

Once all the toys had been thrown out of the cot, our CEOs admitted the hardest thing for them was retaining skilled workers.

I suspect both sides of politics have heard the same sequence of complaint and come to the same conclusion about paid parental leave. By placing greater weight on the first point, the cost to business, than the last, politics forfeited the right to drive cultural change. Paid parental leave could be a small, but important step to help restore the loyalty of staff. But meaningful reform in the office and the shop floor won't happen if the government says 'don't worry boss, this one is on us'.

Business people, as a contact reminded me in preparation for this piece, exist to pay less tax and to pay themselves more. If the government picks up the tab for paid parental leave, there is less incentive for companies to take their own schemes seriously. This is why the Abbott offer, while more generous on paper, is commensurately more risky. Consider the examples of my old employer, News Limited, and my occasional employer, the ABC. Why should News Ltd pay twice by keeping its own scheme while seeing its tax dollar help fund the scheme provided by the levy-exempt ABC?

Throwing cash at a social issue is a male way of problem solving. But it doesn't work anymore. The disruption of the internet, the rise of Asia and the collapse of the western business model of debt-led consumption --– take your pick, the zeitgeist is screaming the party is over. A new way of running our system is required to restore stability.

I've been writing for some time that the worlds of politics, media and business are disconnected from the society they serve because they carry excess white male baggage. Almost half the population now is either first or second generation immigrant or original Australians. Some 27 per cent of us were born overseas, another 20 per cent have at least one parent who is an immigrant and 2 per cent are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people. The economy has been transformed from blue to pink collar in our lifetimes.

Let's rewind to the workplace of thirty years ago, when Bob Hawke and Paul Keating took office as prime minister and treasurer. Men working full-time held 59 per cent of all the jobs in the economy. Half as many women were working full-time (they accounted for 24 per cent of all jobs) and another 17 per cent of the positions were women in part-time work. Men working full-time outnumbered all women in work by 1,364,000.

Thirty years on, the full-time working male is a minority in the workforce – he holds just 45 per cent of all jobs. Women working full-time haven't increased their share by that much; it was 25 per cent in April 2013. But the ranks of women working part-time has expanded by four percentage points to 21 per cent of all jobs. Women in work now outnumber men in full-time jobs by 72,500.

The top six industries when the Hawke-Keating deregulation project began were manufacturing; retail; health care and social assistance; construction; professional services; and education. Manufacturing accounted for 16.8 per cent of all jobs in November 1984, the professions just 3.9 per cent. The most recent data showed the two in a virtual tie – manufacturing at 8.1 per cent, the professions at 7.9 per cent. The top six industries now are health care and social assistance; retail trade; construction; manufacturing; education; and the professions. We have moved from a society that makes things and shops to one more focused on caring, building and thinking.

The real economy is approaching its final female tipping point, where married women are more likely to be participating in the labour market than unmarried men. In the early 1980s, the proportion of married women in work or looking for it was less than 40 per cent; the figure for unmarried men was above 70 per cent. The lines almost crossed last August, on the eve of Julia Gillard's misogyny speech, with married women at 62 per cent and unmarried men at 63 per cent.

One part of this story is familiar to us: the early return of mothers to work after having children. The other is not well understood. The unqualified male, who can't find work in either the brain economy or the brawn economy of construction and mining, is forming a new underclass. Keeping him in touch with the mainstream is as important for social cohesion as looking after sole parents and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the two groups that form the bulk of the underclass today.

And yet the blokes still hold the levers of the economy, despite being the less qualified sex in the brain economy. Women account for 52 per cent of all professional jobs, but men have 65 per cent of all the management positions.

Partisan commentators eschew complexity because it requires them to think outside the comfort zone of their tribe. But I have to confess, I no longer believe that simply increasing diversity is the antidote to a fracturing society. More women running companies, and more olive-, yellow-, brown- and black-skinned faces in our parliaments and on our TV sets will not, of themselves, make a difference if the new entrants simply adapt to the existing model. Our first female prime minister is a case in point. Julia Gillard's stated reason for seizing power on 24 June 2010 was that a good government had lost its way under Kevin Rudd. She wanted to clear the decks on the mining tax, asylum seekers and climate change, and then embark on a longer conversation with the electorate. On the third anniversary of the leadership change, only the third item in Rudd's in-tray had been cleared. Yet her successfully implemented price on carbon may not survive a return to coalition rule. Incidentally, her own agenda of disability insurance, education reform and budget repair also had a strike rate of just one in three.

The continuity between Rudd and Gillard is the gibberish of politics in the digital age. Neither leader could give Australians a strong enough sense of what they stood for. They remind me of a succession of editors here and overseas who thought they could recover lost readers and advertisers with a round of redundancies and a flash redesign of their newspapers. Or the TV programmers who chased the fool's gold of the reality format and wondered why viewers turned off in disgust.

I am wary of personal anecdotes, but I think there is a lesson in the way the professional loves of my life – newspapers and books – are dealing with the challenges of the twenty-first century. Newspapers are a collaborative venture, but with the ego of the editor sitting on top of the organisation. Editors still reserve the right to tell a reporter what to write. While I have sympathy for editors, they are losing cultural power because the internet now allows the reader to decide what the page one story should be.

Books, too, have many mothers and fathers, but the publisher has been loath to dictate subject matter. Writers, unlike journalists, have been brought up as soloists. They can always find another publisher. But the cultural power hasn't shifted in the book trade. The reader still runs the best-seller list.

Newspapers and books are losing market share at roughly the same catastrophic rate. But I'm willing to bet that authors are better prepared for the pay cut this implies than journalists, because publishers have a keener sense than editors, in fact most CEOs, that loyalty can't be bought, or bullied; it has to be earned. The business roundtable I attended last year couldn't solve the obvious question of how to convince Australian workers, pampered by more than two decades of uninterrupted growth, to accept a squeeze on wages while returning to the old-school habit of sticking with the same firm.

I don't pretend to have the answer either. But one thing I can say with confidence: the stridency of the male brain, from the CEO to the partisan commentator, isn't it. When women finally claim their fair share of the decision-making, they have to be prepared to change the model.

This is an edited extract from the inaugural annual Griffith Review Lecture, delivered by George Megalogenis in Brisbane on 25 July 2013.


From Griffith Review Edition 41: Now We are Ten © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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