Sky's the limit for Abbott

As if his election year was not already fraught enough, Tony Abbott has opened up a new front by involving himself in the media wars.

In announcing that the government’s $250 million rebate to the commercial TV networks looks like a bribe to ensure favourable election coverage, the opposition leader has aligned himself firmly with the moguls who run Pay TV in their ongoing battle with their free-to-air rivals.

He has already been firmly slapped down by the heavies on channels Seven, Nine and Ten; he must be hoping that the support of the others, and particularly Rupert Murdoch, whose News Ltd owns 39% of Sky News. So far it seems to be working; Murdoch’s tabloid attack dogs have become even shriller about the awfulness of Kevin Rudd and Abbott has had a very smooth run.

But the strategy remains high risk; the Dirty Digger’s favours are notoriously fickle and he does not like losers. If Abbott is seen to be unelectable, he will be cast aside like a burnt sausage at a barbecue.

It may be significant that Abbott waited a fortnight before entering the fray, and only did so after a private breakfast with Murdoch. A News Ltd spokeslackey says that media policy was not discussed at the meeting, but the News Ltd campaign against the rebate was well under way by then. The spokeslackey made the position clear: “We’ve never asked the government – or oppositions before they become governments – for any money. But we don’t like them giving money to our competitors with no strings attached.”

Fair enough, but there are various favours Pay TV has asked for: access to major sporting events presently confined to free-to-air under the anti-siphoning provisions and the ability to tender for the new Asia-Pacific TV network. The stakes are pretty high and each side is accusing the other of attempting to duchess the relevant minister, Stephen Conroy. Conroy appears to have been even-handed, accepting every invitation that is offered and indulging in as much hospitality as is available.

But his justifications for the $250 million handout have been less than convincing. He has cited the cost of changing to digital; but way back in 2000 the Howard government kicked in $260 million for just that purpose. Then there is the expense of providing the statutory 55% local content; but the commercial networks fill it up with quiz shows and so-called “reality” TV, cheap as chips and far less nourishing. There is no suggestion that any of the $250 million might be spent on improving the quality.

The Australian last week stepped up its campaign with a full page attack on Conroy and all his works. The whole thing reeked of self-interest, indeed direct conflict of interest, but the government is yet to provide a convincing reply. Certainly commercial television, once described as a licence to print money, appears an unlikely recipient for government largesse, especially at a time when spending is supposed to be undergoing stringent cuts across the board.

Some commentators have noted that the networks employed Rudd’s old boss, former Queensland Premier Wayne Goss, as their lobbyist, and this was the reason for their success. Pay TV seems to have responded by enlisting Tony Abbott. He may find it hard to achieve a comparable result.

The weekend saw the belated publication of Malcolm Fraser’s memoirs, in which he excoriated John Howard for, as he saw it, portraying himself as a dynamic, reformist treasurer hamstrung by his leader’s caution and timidity.

The extract featured in The Weekend Australian gave the impression that this was the chief cause of the long-standing antipathy between the two. But in fact the rift is much deeper and more fundamental.

Howard was the only member of Fraser’s cabinet to oppose the Prime Minister’s welcoming of Vietnamese refugees and, more importantly, to oppose the imposition of sanctions against the apartheid regime of South Africa. Fraser saw a pattern developing, and it was one that had more than a suspicion of racism as its basis, which for Fraser was an unforgivable political crime.

He promptly dropped any thought he might have had of anointing Howard as his successor and instead endorsed the more internationalist Andrew Peacock, despite their frequent disagreements; Peacock had even resigned to stand against him at one stage, describing his behaviour as manic and unreasonable. But this act of treachery mattered to Fraser less than the prospect of having a narrow-minded bigot as Australia’s head of government. Subsequent history has shown that Fraser’s concerns were fully justified.

And we can’t let the week go past without congratulating Miranda Devine for inventing a wonderfully pragmatic new moral philosophy. In her column in last Thursday’s Sydney Morning Herald Devine’s obsessive hatred of green left issues climaxed in what she called “the burning batts fiasco,” which brought together those two notorious moral degenerates Kevin Rudd and Peter Garrett.

After a couple of dozen paragraphs of barely controlled bile, she summed up the situation in a quotation from a relative of one of the victims: “If someone gives people the opportunity to be dodgy, they’ll be dodgy.” This, she says, is the moral universe most people live in.

And a very comfortable one it must be. In this universe you don’t blame the dodgy installers who made the dodgy decisions that actually caused the accidents: you blame the government. Nothing’s ever your own fault. So much for those silly old doctrines of free will, personal responsibility and the need to choose between right and wrong. The Pope will be surprised.

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