They who must not be named
What's wrong with Australian political journalism, unsourced commentary edition
Among the many things wrong with Australian political journalism, the treatment of anonymous sources is one of the most serious, and linked to lots of other failings. There are some limited justifications for anonymity (protecting whistleblowers, for example), but as practised in Australian politics, it’s dishonest and corrupt.
This story in the SMH, on the Stage III tax cuts, is an example. The story begins with across the board condemnation of the tax cuts as regressive and wasteful, from economists, unions, the welfare sector and the Greens.
The journalist then went looking for Labor Ministers and MPs willing to defend the tax cuts. He didn’t find any. That should have been the story.
Instead, he reported a bunch of evasive comments, including one on the record from Josh Burns, waffling about the need “to have a broader, mature debate about tax and the tax arrangements we’re leaving for future generations.”
The report went on to quote
“Another Labor MP, who wished not to be named, said the Greens were peddling a “magic pudding economic argument” and that ditching the stage three tax cuts was “not a structural fix to the budget mess the Liberals left”.
What possible justification is there for anonymity here? The MP is not a whistleblower exposing wrongdoing, or even a dissident who might fear retribution from his own party. They are presenting an argument in support of government policy that’s so weak they are not prepared to own it publicly.
It’s important to observe that “dump tax cuts so we can have more necessary expenditure” is the opposite of a “Magic Pudding” argument saying we can have something for nothing. If the MP in question had been named, they would have been (deservedly) torn to shreds on social media, if nowhere else. But it’s hard to spend a lot of time refuting anonymous sniping.
The prevalence of anonymous comments reflects an assumption that politics should consist of a contest between Labor and the LNP, and that any outside interference (for example from Greens and independents) is a threat to the proper working of the system. Even more, it reflects the cosy relationship between the political commentariat and the politicians themselves, epitomised by the name of their favorite show, Insiders.