Is this The Conversation we should be having?

Here’s a barbecue topic for Australia Day: What is happening to the quality of public discourse? Over the holidays, I read The Conversation’s 2015 yearbook, “Politics, policy & the chance of change”. It’s a collection of individual articles from the past 12 months, grouped into broad themes, covering key issues of the day, at least among the academic and chattering classes. As a summary of the year in Australian political, economic, cultural and social reportage, it’s not a bad effort. With “news” increasingly bifurcated between a dominant commercial duopoly and a disintermediated social media maelstrom, The Conversation can offer a calm rational voice and an objective alternative.

Screen Shot 2016-01-24 at 6.43.50 PMThe title promises a new direction in political debate, and I went to the book’s Melbourne launch at the start of the summer, where Michelle Grattan, The Conversation’s Chief Political Correspondent held court in an audience Q&A. I was looking forward to the event, because part of The Conversation’s remit is to foster informed debate that is more than tabloid headlines, news soundbites and party room gossip. It has also positioned itself as a non-partisan, independent and authoritative source of news analysis.

I was hoping the Q&A would provide a considered discussion on some of the key policy issues facing the country – long-term tax reform, addressing climate change, updating Federation, dealing with the post-mining boom economy, improving the quality and efficiency of our education, health and infrastructure systems, etc.

Instead, the first three questions from the audience concerned Mal Brough, Ian Macfarlane and Tony Abbot. How demoralising. Haven’t we moved on from this cult of personality? Haven’t we learnt anything from the past 10 years or so? If the same event had been held during Julia Gillard’s term as PM, the names would have been different (Craig Thomson, Peter Slipper, Kevin Rudd?) – and for quite separate reasons, I hasten to add – but the context and implication would have been very similar: “Never mind policies, what’s the chance of (another) leadership spill? How are the numbers stacking up in Parliament? When’s the court case?”

Although I admire the aims of The Conversation, and I understand why it exists, I have some concerns about the type of discourse that The Conversation is actually fostering among its audience. As with many public institutions, I appreciate that it’s there (even though I am not a frequent reader), but like other news media, it risks confirming the bias and prejudices of its audience. It can also feel as if it is serving only the vested interests of its contributors, partners and sponsors.

So much of Australia’s recent political history has been dominated by self-delusional egos, nefarious party factions, insidious vested interests and character assassination (which I blame for giving us five prime ministers in as many years).

When it was my turn to ask a question, it concerned the recent bipartisan compromise between the Coalition and The Greens to publish the tax records of companies generating more than $200m in revenue (as a step towards tackling corporate tax avoidance). I asked, “Should we expect to see more of this seemingly new approach to politics?” Although Ms Grattan gave a detailed (and somewhat technical) explanation for this particular Parliamentary outcome and its likely implications, I felt that most of the audience were not interested. They would probably have preferred to be talking about the ins and outs of the party rooms. For me, this does not bode well for the level and quality of public debate we are having on (non-party) political issues that really matter.

I also have a few other niggles about The Conversation and the 2015 Yearbook:

  1. By only sourcing content from “recognised” academic experts and policy wonks, I think this overlooks contributions from commercial and industry experts which are just as valid. As long as such authors also declare any interests, it should ensure balanced commentary – but to exclude them from the debate just because they don’t have academic, public or research tenure is self-limiting.
  2. The site as a whole (and the book in particular) is rather thin on actual data references, and when research data is included in articles, there are rarely any charts, tables or infographics. I think this is a shame and a missed opportunity.
  3. The book hardly mentions the critical issue of tax reform (which barely merits half a dozen pages). Whereas, reform of the education system (including academic research funding) gets around 40 pages – which rather smacks of self-interest (and bias?) on the part of the academic authors

Finally, The Conversation provides a valuable (and from what I have seen, an impartial) service via its factcheck section, which in tandem with the ABC’s Fact Check is doing a sterling job of trying to keep our pollies honest (at least in Parliament…). More power to it.

Next week: David Bowie Was – “It’s a god-awful small affair”

 

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