January 12th 2002

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Articles from this issue:

Cover Story: Eyewitness in East Timor

Editorial: Population - time for a new approach

Canberra Observed: Howard understands ALP better than it knows itself

Straws in the Wind: Cries for help / Political terrorism / Opium of the children

Public policy and the family

Books: Demons and Democrats - Re-evaluating Labor's disastrous 'Splits'

Media - Selective indignation / Ideological consistency

US welfare cuts coming home to roost?

Trade: Debt will return to haunt us

The search for meaning

Books: Don't despair: 'The Skeptical Environmentalist', by Bjorn Lomborg

'Queen Victoria: A Personal History', by Christopher Hibbert

Books promotion page

Media - Selective indignation / Ideological consistency

by John Styles

News Weekly, January 12, 2002

On December 15, a Sydney Morning Herald editorial criticised what it saw to be an ageist quip made by a federal minister.

"The sour observation by the Minister for Employment, Tony Abbott, that 'Simon Crean has picked a couple of 70-year-olds to modernise the Labor Party' was not only predictable but reveals a disrespect for septuagenarians unbecoming for a minister," the newspaper chided.

Actually, it seemed more like Tony Abbott was displaying a healthy disrespect for Simon Crean; but perhaps the newspaper had a point. After all, ageism is a loathsome form of discrimination. Almost everyone, except those on the receiving end, seems to tolerate it. Even if the aged take offence, they can't do much about it. Ageism isn't politically incorrect yet, let alone a legislated crime like other forms of discrimination. So, with some exceptions, the thought police don't get involved.

It seemed commendable, therefore, that the SMH should speak up if the newspaper's editors truly believed that Mr Abbott's remarks were indeed discriminatory. But it was selective indignation. Where were the SMH's editorial writers just a few weeks earlier when another minister, the National Party's Peter McGauran, vented his spleen on those in their 50s? McGauran had tried to explain the party's loss of Farrer to the Liberals by claiming that that's what happens when you pre-select a 55-year-old. There was no indignant SMH editorial then. There was a column by Adele Horin under the patronising headline, "Some oldies can still be real goodies," but no editorial.

And when the ALP's Jenny Macklin trumpeted Labor's supposed "generational change"-as if the age of the Labor front bench rather than under-performance was the cause of the party's failure-the SMH was there not to condemn but to offer helpful advice.

In a 16 November editorial, the SMH editorial observed that "generational change" was the "mantra of the week" and that "[t]he only difference between young hacks and old hacks is that the former tend to hang around longer". The editorial concluded, "Labor will have to do much more than put new faces on its front bench if it is to recover from Saturday's [election] rebuff."

So it seems that the Sydney newspaper's editorial attack on Mr Abbott's alleged disrespect for septuagenarians was motivated as much by the nature of the politics involved as by the principle.

A Liberal minister taking a shot at the new Labor leader - that rates censure from the SMH editorial writers. But a new Labor deputy leader boasting about "generational change", well, all the SMH wanted to do was talk about that change in a constructive way.

As for Peter McGauran's exercise in ageism, apparently no problem there either. Presumably, a 46-year-old National attacking a 55-year-old National is just fine with those who write the editorials at the SMH.

All of which is a great pity. The politicians and social commentators are constantly reminding us about the economic implications of Australia's ageing population. One solution, they tell us, is for people to work beyond the retirement ages of 60 or 65. Yet the sackings and forced redundancies of people in their 40s and 50s continue. And we have the Macklins and McGaurans, by implication, condoning, even promoting, the practice.

If the politicians believe that so-called "generational change" will make their parties more electorally appealing at precisely the time when the population is ageing, they should remember what happened to Jeff Kennett. He moved to bring about "generational change" in the Victorian parliamentary Liberal Party too - at the 1999 election!

The X-Generation may be doing the hiring and firing right now. And writing some of the editorials. And deciding that this issue is best ignored. But the politicians shouldn't ignore it. They should remember that each X-genner has but one vote. The baby boomers, we are told, are, in the main, healthier than previous generations and likely to live longer. If I were a politician, I wouldn't want to let a baby boomer see me cosy up to the X-Generation for quids.

Warren Beeby, group editorial manager of News Ltd, was reported to be able to "barely believe it". ABC broadcaster Phillip Adams was in danger of sustaining collateral damage from one of the PC brigade's legislated restrictions on freedom of speech. Adams was under investigation by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission for alleged racial vilification in one of his Australian columns.

In the column, Adams had launched yet another attack on the Americans, fuming about "Christian fascism" and so on. An American complained about the piece to HREOC and Adams found himself under investigation.

Adams, in fact, opposed the introduction of the kind of legislation that is now being used against him. But the anti-free speech laws are the product of his ideological soul mates. As they say, them's the breaks. But an interesting part of the saga came when columnists on the Right, with admirable ideological consistency, took up the issue. Voltaire-like, they rallied to Adams' defence.

Piers Akerman in the Sunday Telegraph wrote, "While disagreeing with Adams, disliking him or even holding him in utter contempt is easy, the HREOC has no right to attempt to censor him."

Tim Blair in The Australian concurred, "I never thought I'd say this, but silencing Adams would be a crime."

If Akerman and Blair had heard the Sydney Morning Herald's Margo Kingston on Adams' ABC radio show, they may have wondered why they bothered. According to Kingston, it simply meant they are "feeling defensive".

The political war never stops.

  • jdstyles@optushome.com.au

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