Is News Ltd bringing discussion about cities to a standstill?Posted: July 30, 2011
One of the more bizarre examples of ‘story manufacturing’ in the media I’ve seen for a while – and we regularly have some doozies – went down in News Ltd papers right across Australia on Friday.
Sydney’s Daily Telegraph ran a front-page story headlined Congestion road tax on drivers is highway robbery. The lead para told us: “workers struggling with a carbon tax are about to be hit with a second wave of Greens-inspired tax pain”. This story was repeated in News Ltd papers across the country. Melbourne’s Herald-Sun was so concerned at this imminent threat it even published an editorial on the matter, No to a new Tax – “Australians do not need another new tax”, it thundered.
And what exactly is this new tax workers are about to be hit with? Well, there’s a clue in the rest of the Herald-Sun’s (short) editorial:
Even the idea of a congestion tax, put forward by the Federal Government yesterday for discussion at the tax forum, will have taxpayers shaking their heads. Fortunately, the Gillard Government will not be able to impose this tax on top of the carbon tax, and all the other taxes Labor has brought in, because it needs the agreement of the states. A congestion tax on cars was suggested by former Treasury secretary Ken Henry to help cut petrol excise, but the taxpayers can take only so much. No, no, no.
“Even the idea”?! The incontrovertible fact is there is no new tax. All this supposed angst is manufactured from a handful of words in the Government’s new 36 page Discussion Paper released on Thursday in advance of October’s Tax Forum. The Forum is one of the conditions the independents set for their support of the Government.
The Discussion Paper canvasses a wide range of tax issues participants at the Forum might wish to discuss. These relate to personal tax, transfer payments, business tax, State taxes, environmental and social taxes, and tax system governance. At page 30, it notes the Henry Review recommended governments consider the introduction of variable congestion pricing and therefore poses the following question as a prompt for discussion:
Is there a case to more closely link road charging to the impact users have on the level of congestion on particular roads?
That’s it. It’s just a question. Moreover it’s one of 34 proposed for discussion. And so it should be – I’d be very upset if the most important prospective policy for improving the way we manage our cities wasn’t at least on the table.
But it doesn’t follow (or is even probable) that the Forum will support it. And the Government is in no way bound by what the Forum – which is just a talkfest – thinks anyway. It’s obvious the Government, which is battling to bed down it’s carbon tax, will have nothing to do with road congestion pricing. After all, this is the Government that exempted petrol and diesel from the carbon tax.
In fact one of the Herald-Sun’s many siblings, The Australian, reports the Gillard Government has added congestion pricing to the list of Henry recommendations it’s ruled out taking action on! Further, as the Herald-Sun itself observes, any tax would require the agreement of the States, none of whom have ever done much about congestion pricing – the Sydney Harbour Bridge is the only contender I can think of. I might also add that the last time I looked, The Greens did not support congestion pricing.
This is an utter non-story. In fact it’s much worse than that – it’s a perversion of public discourse. Is News Ltd’s interpretation evidence of political bias? I don’t know – another interpretation is the company is simply prepared to do anything to manufacture a sense of controversy.
But I do know it’s exceptionally bad for policy-making and open discussion in this country when even “the idea” of a new policy being discussed at a community forum is attacked by the press in such histrionic terms. This sort of press behaviour is not serving the good of the country, it’s undermining it. This is an example of a deep and fundamental problem in the structure and ethics of our media that needs to be addressed – the old ways aren’t good enough anymore. And it has to be said that the weakness of the Federal Government is part of the problem.