Australian Labor party refuses to play ball with Murdoch press

News Corporation journalists speaking out about perceived bias ahead of election

Labor opposition leader Bill Shorten raises a beer at Saint John Bar in Launceston, Australia on May 13th. Photograph: Ryan Pierse/Getty

Labor opposition leader Bill Shorten raises a beer at Saint John Bar in Launceston, Australia on May 13th. Photograph: Ryan Pierse/Getty

 

It happens in almost every Australian campaign, and it’s happening again now: Labor’s polling numbers fall as election day gets closer.

For almost three years, the opposition Labor Party has led the governing Liberal-National coalition in every poll. Two months ago, Labor led 54 per cent to 46 per cent after preferences (Australia uses a preferential voting system), but the latest polls show that has narrowed to 51-49 ahead of Saturday’s election.

Fifty-one per cent is enough for a narrow win if the swing to Labor is uniform, but the swing is never uniform. Local factors mean some seats buck the trend and swing the other way. In 1998, Labor got 51 per cent of the vote, but still lost by 13 seats. Three years later, the coalition got 51 per cent and won by 17 seats.

My real conversation is not with the rich and powerful in this country

Betting agencies are often more accurate predictors of an election outcome than polling companies, because they reflect who people think will win, regardless of how they plan to vote themselves. The bookies have Labor at barely above evens, while the coalition is at 9/2.

Some commentators have said that one of the most striking things about this election campaign is the intensity of the anti-Labor coverage in the Murdoch press (which accounts for 70 per cent of Australia’s daily metro newspaper sales). But, bar 2007, when some News Corporation outlets backed Kevin Rudd when it was obvious he was going to win, they have always backed the coalition.

The real difference this time is that Labor has refused to play ball with Murdoch and some former and current News Corporation journalists are speaking out about perceived bias.

‘Anti-Labor rubbish’

In January, Labor leader Bill Shorten revealed he turned down an invitation to fly to New York to meet Rupert Murdoch. He also declined to meet Murdoch when the publisher was in Sydney recently. It was a strident move by Shorten, even if he played down its significance. “News Limited and Mr Murdoch shouldn’t take that as any view on him in particular,” he said.

“I’ll deal with their local management just as I deal with the local management of the ABC [public service broadcaster]. But my real conversation is not with the rich and powerful in this country.”

Last week, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph tabloid, under a front page headline of “Mother of invention”, accused Shorten of lying by leaving out some details about his mother’s academic record while speaking in a television appearance about the sacrifices she made to raise him and his twin brother.

Bill Shorten shakes hands with Australian prime minister Scott Morrison (right) before a debate at the National Press Club in Canberra, Australia on May 8th. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/EPA
Bill Shorten shakes hands with Australian prime minister Scott Morrison (right) before a debate at the National Press Club in Canberra, Australia on May 8th. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/EPA

But Shorten had spoken regularly previously about how his mother eventually achieved her dream of becoming a barrister at the age of 53.

If this was payback for Shorten spurning the invitation to meet Murdoch, it backfired spectacularly. News Corporation’s army of apologists (most of them earning an income from it or its close relative, Sky News Australia) defended the story, but it was roundly condemned by most others as an attack too far.

Tony Koch, a multiple-award winning journalist who spent 30 years working for News Corporation, said of his former employers: “No editor I worked for would have put up with the biased anti-Labor rubbish that, shamefully, the papers now produce on a daily basis.”

This was followed by Rick Morton, a current News Corporation journalist, saying in a podcast that “the craziness has been dialled up”. “Something has changed in the last six months. I don’t know what it is. Death rattles or loss of relevance?”

Unified front

Despite the polls and bookmakers saying he is headed for defeat, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, is not giving up without a fight. He is more at ease with the public than Shorten, who can sound robotic as he repeats carefully practised talking points.

But Morrison is mostly a one-man band. Six of his ministers are leaving politics and the rest of the cabinet seem to be in witness protection, so rarely have they appeared on the national stage.

In some cases they are staying local to defend seats in danger; in others, it’s because they are so disliked that their appearance is a hindrance; and in at least one case it’s because the minister is widely thought to be out of their depth in their portfolio. Not for nothing did Shorten say “Where’s your environment minister?” to Morrison in a televised debate.

With three different Liberal prime ministers in the past six years, it’s difficult for the coalition to say its internal warfare is over. Labor, though, is presenting a united front, with Shorten and a half dozen of his shadow cabinet appearing in ads.

With about three million people expected to have already voted before the official election day, and postal votes and votes from Australian embassies and consulates to be factored in, the final result may not be known for several days.

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