By Jonathan Green
That was a prick-up-your-ears moment: why was there a need to set the two spheres side by side? Did I miss the divorce? And it's true, politics and policy are now almost formally separate entities ... this is accepted in the routine analysis of the Gillard Government: that it is achieving well in terms of policy and reform, but failing utterly in the daily political battle to present a coherent and convincing public face.
Surely the problem is one of priority? Forgive the naivety of the question, but when and why did the pure politics become more important? How did this become the inevitable focus of attention? Is this a result of public demand, a thirst for the soap opera of power? Or is it a function of the modern media/political pas de deux?
There must have been a time (or is this just a fanciful imagining?) when politics was simply the means of selecting both a set of policies and their delivery mechanism.
Politics was a means to an end, and that end was policy and governance. Now that we're locked in a daily slog for ratings and attention, the polarities have been reversed.
It's hard to absolve the coverage from culpability in this shift ... the fast changing character-rich melodrama of pure politics obviously makes for easier media meat than the often complicated, sometimes tediously worthy world of policy and the actual business of government.
But even in the giddy game show of politics you can be trumped. Take Monday, when the world of commentary had spent the morning agog at the ineptness of the Prime Minister, struggling to find the line in the sand on which she had tripped, spilling Peter Slipper and Craig Thomson from her small circle of confidence. Column after column called for her head.
And then ... Clive Palmer. Sudden. Shiny.
The troubles of the Prime Minister were forgotten in an instant as the media were diverted by the appearance of the attention-seeking, megalomaniac miner.
Having been thus distracted, the commentariat quickly regained its poise, then doubled back, offering, with an entirely straight face, the view that the Opposition had own-goaled by distracting attention from the problems of the government.
Chicken, meet egg. Egg, chicken.
Political journalism seems to be caught - incapable of holding a thought one moment, obsessed by a narrative of its own imagining the next.
The resulting relationship between media and politicians is weird, like an elaborate evolutionary accommodation of a parasitic organism in which the parasite, while still dependant, nonetheless conditions the behaviour of the host.
And it's getting weird. Last week's Bill Shorten viral sensation is a good case in point. You've seen it?
Shorten, not having heard what the Prime Minister has said, nonetheless supports it: "I'm sure she's right."
Funny, first for its absurdity, but also, more cuttingly perhaps, because his response reads like the substructure of what might have been a better and more politically astute response.
The politician interviewed in these circumstances would normally mouth the approved political platitude. Shorten takes it to another level, piercing the fourth wall of political performance and revealing the mechanics of the pre-meditated, on-message answer.
There would be no viral video sensation if Shorten, whatever his personal belief, had mouthed the normal, authorised, politically savvy line. Instead he spoke a deeper truth.
Ask yourself this: is there really a difference between the two beyond the words chosen to flesh what in effect would be an identical performance? I either parrot the PM, or declare that I intend to parrot the PM. Hilarious. Beckettian!
And on we roll through the serious deliberations of the Reserve Bank, whose earnest comments around a rate cut are soon lost in a loose interpretive interplay on whether the cut suggests an economy in its death throes or a measured monetary response to the government's fiscal restraint ... serious stuff, but the preferred political narrative hangs around imagined assaults on the PM's tenure.
One commentator (paywalled), deprived of any genuine activity observed, in his mind concluded:
The Labor leadership is now an empty shell. Gillard has lost public support and internal party support, and her agreement with Peter Slipper and Craig Thomson in the Parliament faces months of uncertainty as the federal police investigate allegations of Cabcharge fraud against the Speaker.Which is to say 'nothing is happening but look at all the activity!', a situation which far from being an impediment to the filling of newspaper columns is beginning to look like an ideal growth medium.
Despite the leadership vacuum, no challenges are planned, nor are challengers prepared to come forward.
What we, the people apparently served by all of this, ought to ask is how long we want the processes of government to be obscured by all this smoke.
An election? Sure. But would a change of government actually alter the new rules of politically obsessed media engagement? Probably not. How then can we use what popular power we might have to insist on some new and better way of doing actual 'things'?
There's a question. As they say on breakfast radio, never mind the politics, feel the policy.
Jonathan Green hosts Sunday Extra on Radio National and is the former editor of The Drum. View his full profile here.
Subscribe in a reader