The Sounds of Silence Down Under

The new Australian government has a passion for secrecy.

Australian Pprime Minister Tony Abbott.

Australian Pprime Minister Tony Abbott

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The general sense of secrecy has extended beyond immigration policy, and not surprisingly, Abbott has lost the media. Laurie Oakes, the dean of the Canberra press corps, told The Sydney Morning Herald that the government is "thumbing its nose at voters," adding that "they're busily trying to avoid the media as much as possible and to control the media and so far they're getting away with it but I don't think they will … for too long." Or as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's "Media Watch" put it, echoing an increasing complaint about the policy, "stopping the quotes is supposed to help stop the boats. … [But] it's more likely to be useful in shutting down political debate."

That conclusion – the appearance of secrecy as a tool for stifling debate – is one of the logical consequences of the starve-the-beast approach. Recall the George W. Bush-era secrecy wars involving Dick Cheney. It's the ultimate expression of the pol's fantasy that, in the age of Twitter, Facebook and blogs, the media can be circumvented entirely. Another consequence is that this strategy tends to produce the kind of messaging fecklessness last seen in the other Bush administration, when George H.W. resolved that his actions would speak for him in a way that would obviate the need for the bully pulpit. But even then disengagement didn't lead to silence but rather to someone else's message.

The secret to the new media world – which no one has cracked yet – is finding the balance between slavishly chasing the ever-shortening news cycle and unilaterally disarming. Sydney may be a world away, but the adventures of Tony Abbott and the media are worth watching anyway to see how this attempt fares – because if it meets with any success, you can be sure it will find its way to Yankee shores.

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