Journalists need to improve the quality of their questions rather than chase ‘gotcha’ moments with political leaders, writes Dr. Tim Thornton.
AS MOST READERS will probably know, on the first day of the election campaign, Labor leader Anthony Albanese was asked to specify the unemployment rate and the official cash rate, which are 4% and 0.1% respectively.
Albanese did not initially offer a figure for the cash rate, saying the unemployment rate could be 5.4%, later adding that he was unsure of that figure. Such a response is not surprising given that, until now, we did not expect our politicians to concentrate on memorizing numbers with such precision.
This is how it should be. In fact, encouraging our leaders to focus on this kind of detailed memorization is likely to crowd out the higher-level thinking we really need from them.
When former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard was asked by journalists to comment on Albanese’s alleged blunder, he replied:
“Is that a serious question? Well, Anthony Albanese didn’t know the employment rate, so what?
Later, Howard changed his tune and obediently got on the line, saying that Albanese should have known the number. However, Howard’s initial response, given on the fly while campaigning for Hasluck’s seat, is arguably the most accurate representation of what he really thinks.
So what can we reasonably expect from our leaders in all aspects of economics?
First, leaders need to be able to specify economic indicators at least in general terms. For example, knowing whether interest rates or unemployment are currently high, low, or around the historical average is essential, even if they can’t specify it with full precision to the nearest percentage point.
Second, our leaders must be able to understand and explain economic trends and what public policy can do in response. We’re getting very little of the latter right now and that’s the most fundamental problem.
Why is coverage of economic issues so puerile? Multiple factors are at play. Some journalists find it to be a great sport and something that can generate a lot of heat (albeit low light) with little effort on your part.
And obviously, the Murdoch mainstream media seeks to harm non-L-NP politicians by whatever means they can get away with, right or wrong, although it must also be said that other media organizations like ABC have also been surprisingly obsessed with Albanese’s alleged blunder. At a deeper level, part of the problem is the limited levels of economic literacy both in the community and in the media.
How could things be done differently? Higher levels of economic education inside and outside the Press Gallery would greatly help the quality of the national economic conversation, which in turn would greatly strengthen Australia’s democracy and society. However, little progress will be made on this front until we improve the relevance and quality of economics teaching.
Just as important, politicians need to step up and simply tell us what they know about the particular issue at hand and what (if anything) they plan to do in response to it. In fact, if they can’t do this, it would constitute a “gotcha” moment of genuine meaning.
We can see the beginnings of such an answer in Greens leader Adam Bandt’s recent presentation of an easy-to-grasp question in his recent appearance at the National Press Club. When asked what the current WPI (Wage Price Index) was, he replied: “Google it, mate” and argued that the election process should be a “ideas competition” it is not a fact-checking exercise that turns people away from politics. In particular, this front foot response has worked infinitely better than Albanese’s never-ending apology.
Journalists themselves could be game-changers for the quality of their questions. This could even go beyond a greater focus on why something is happening and what needs to be done, to see if leaders can also demonstrate familiarity with any conflicting ideas or explanations on a particular issue.
This is reasonable given that the entire economy is largely a contest of ideas. If a politician cannot demonstrate knowledge of a competing perspective, then he reveals that he has not made an informed decision and has simply been guided by his own ideological and/or material interests. Or they are simply repeating what someone else told them.
Well, imagine any of those things if you can.
Dr. Tim Thornton is Director of the Melbourne School of Political Economy and Senior Research Fellow at the Economics in Context Initiative at Boston University.
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