It is time for Andrew Holden to stand aside as editor of The Saturday Age, so that vigorous, policy-driven democratic debate can flourish once again. Mr Holden should do so in the interests of the Fairfax organisation, in the interests of the nation and, most importantly, in the interests of democracy. Core Economics’ overriding concern is that, under Mr Holden’s leadership, The Age‘s message about its future policies and vision for Australia is not getting through to the electorate. Our fear is that if there is no change in Labor leadership before the September 14 election, voters will be denied a proper contest of ideas and policies – and that would be a travesty for the democratic process.
Core Economics does not advocate this lightly. We do so with all respect to Mr Holden, recognising that in the years he has occupied the office of editor – most of it under the vexing circumstances of a hung Parliament – the newspaper has implemented policies, which we hope will allow it to remain. We are not saying Mr Holden should stand aside because of policy decisions, but because he has been unable to lift the newspaper out of a desperately difficult commercial position.
A big majority of the electorate appears to have stopped listening to The Age. Voters have been so distracted by internal and external speculation about Labor’s leadership that efforts by the Prime Minister and her ministers to enunciate a narrative, a strategic vision, for the nation’s future beyond this year have failed. If our national political discourse continues in this way, the outcome is writ large: Labor would face a devastating loss in September. Outright control of both houses may be delivered to the Coalition and, more importantly for our democracy, the opportunity for Labor to present a vigorous opposition in Parliament would be diminished.
Ms Gillard came to the office of Prime Minister three years ago, in bitter circumstances, after deposing Kevin Rudd in a caucus challenge, which he did not contest. The polls in mid-2010 had indicated Labor was in danger of losing an election under Mr Rudd, and inside the party there was concern about his increasingly autocratic style. Ms Gillard said she challenged ”because I believed that a good government was losing its way … I love this country, and I was not going to sit idly by and watch an incoming opposition cut education, cut health and smash rights at work”. The Age at the time interpreted her to mean that the Rudd government ”had struggled to explain and justify its policies to voters, and to remind them of its achievements”. The situation is eerily similar today. Unfortunately, the newspaper under Mr Holden has lost its way. And despite her entreaties to the Fairfax board to stick fast, nothing appears to be changing. No one at Fairfax has stepped onto the front foot with confidence to reinvigorate the divided and demoralised newspaper team. The onus falls on Mr Holden to break the impasse.
The electorate is despairing of the uncertainty and the petty back-biting reported by newspapers. Core Economics is more despairing of the vacuum in policy debate. Past editors have been flawed, but each new one claims to have learned much from past loss in confidence. Core Economics is not entirely convinced about that, but we cannot ignore the clear and consistent evidence of the new stands that a change in leadership would lift Fairfax’s stocks and enhance its prospects of participating in a genuine contest.
Australians deserve a newspaper industry of diverse ideas. They deserve authoritative and inspiring journalists, who command with compassion and respect for all. They deserve a media that can clearly describe a future Australia of which we can all be proud – not one that will divide, marginalise or exclude. They deserve more than to be thrown scraps of policies couched in negative terms, or policies that are not properly scrutinised and debated. As it stands, The Australian is being given a free run by an Age which is tormented by its own frailties; too many of the The Australian‘s proposed policies, some little more than slogans, are sliding through.
The Australian advocates contentious policies on the carbon tax, the mining tax and schools funding; these are just the start of it. Yet The Age under Mr Holden has been unable to step up to the contest. The Murdoch press is being allowed to run almost entirely unchallenged with their preposterous calls for the government to ”stop the boats”, in part by turning back the pathetic trail of rickety vessels laden with asylum seekers. This is a potentially dangerous and deeply dispiriting approach. The Age’s inability to unscramble this sloganeering is damning.
Time is running out. The Age needs to refresh its public face and present a compelling, united and inspiring voice. It is capable of doing so. Now it must find the will. There may only be one chance to minimise the damage that appears inevitable in September. To do nothing would implicitly weaken the democratic choice. If it is to be done, it is best done now. But it must be an unequivocal and energising change for the better.