The Liberals are playing the ref by tagging Labor’s dividend imputation policy a ‘retirement tax’. It is not surprising they see this as a productive strategy since the same thing worked with their carbon tax scare campaign.
Political journalists self-identify as watchdogs for democracy who hold the powerful to account by shining a light on the political system. This position places them between opposing political parties much like an umpire or referee neutrally enforces the rules of the game by calling out infringements.
But what happens when a team is infringing and the umpire fails to blow their whistle? Football fans know the loudest boo is reserved for bad umpiring. The rules are sacred. When they are flouted, the game is not fair, the cheaters prosper and sometimes it can even feel like the opposition has an extra player.
If rule-breaking becomes a winning strategy, umpiring business-as-usual needs an urgent review. Even with the best of intentions, if umpires are emboldening rule infringements or even encouraging blatant cheating, something urgent must be done to bring civility back to the game.
There is much discussion of journalism in crisis. Technological disruption, the rise of independent and social media and unprofitable business models are often cited as the problems. There is less analysis of how journalists’ media routines might be contributing to their own harm.
One of the most common routine formats which is supposed to represent balanced umpiring for reporting of politics is what media critic Jay Rosen refers to as ‘he said, she said journalism’. This style, however, turns journalists into stenographers rather than critical analysts of politics and is akin to an umpire ignoring the holding-the-ball rule while protecting their own credibility through the alibi of quotation marks.
Politicians take advantage of this media routine. They have learned they will get away with tucking the ball under their arm and striding boldly through the goal posts unencumbered by the whistle. The Liberal’s tagging of Labor’s dividend imputation policy as a ‘retirement tax’ is such an example of them successfully playing the ref.
By any definition, it is demonstrably false to depict Labor’s dividend imputation policy as a tax. No doubt journalists can see this for themselves. However, they have backed themselves into a corner by quoting directly Liberal government spokespeople and advertising which uses the phrase ‘retirement tax’. This coverage convinces the public Labor is introducing a new tax, thereby representing a distortion of reality.
The words ‘retirement tax’ are now in the public lexicon. The fake tax becomes a thing which is basically impossible for Labor to get rid of. The voting public rely on news media to tell them about politics. When the umpire fails to do their job, there are consequences not only for the health of democracy, but for the health of the journalistic profession. Who will ever trust the ump again?
It is not like journalists haven’t been here before and seen the damage for themselves. The Labor government’s Carbon Price was not a tax. Yet, from the very first day it was announced, the name of the policy was interchangeable with Tony Abbott’s tag of ‘carbon tax’. Using The Australian as an example, from the day Labor released the Carbon Price policy on 27 September 2010, the newspaper has referred to the carbon tax 7,735 times, as compared with the Carbon Price 2,260 times.
To add insult to injury, Gillard’s ‘failure’ to win this policy argument was then framed as her responsibility. For example, Ross Fitzgerald writing in The Weekend Australian on 30 July 2011 said the carbon tax debate was negative for Gillard because of her ‘flawed political judgment and poor communication skills’. By blaming the players for their poor result, the umpire maintains their self-perception as a neutral arbitrator of the rules and fails to see how their own actions have influenced, sometimes decisively, the terms of the debate.
In 2017, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s chief of staff, Peta Credlin, admitted the Carbon Price was not a carbon tax. She confessed the coalition ‘used that label to stir up brutal retail politics’. The players knew they were cheating. Why not if cheaters prosper? But what is the role of the umpire in brutal retail politics? According to The Australian’s Chris Kenny, ‘Scare campaigns are to politics what tough defence is to footy – an unavoidable part of the contest if you want to win’. When the umpires put down the whistle and see clear-as-day infringements as just par for the course, it is no wonder footy supporters are walking away from the game.
There is no such thing as Labor’s ‘retirement tax’. The Liberals are playing the ref by using journalists to pervert truth and in turn legitimise their misrepresentation. The Guardian’s Katharine Murphy said on ABC’s Insiders that Labor is ‘facing a battle to explain’ their dividend imputation policy. Labor have explained their policy numerous times. Of course it is up to journalists how they choose to frame such information.
Murphy agrees that calling the policy a ‘retirement tax’ is clearly not an accurate description. Outlets who parrot this Liberal phrase are misrepresenting and constraining public debate about the policy, serving no one’s interests except the Liberals’.
Journalists are under no obligation to uncritically repeat and adopt false information from the Liberal government. Footy is a game, but politics is not. The public need journalists to blow the whistle in the interests of democracy. If they continue to fail to do this, they are forgetting the very reason they exist.