Why has the issue of expense claims by House of Representatives Speaker Bronwyn Bishop dominated the news since mid-July? To understand how this one issue, of all the many political issues, has seized public attention, we need to understand how agendas are set.
At any time, many issues are competing to get onto the public agenda. This has been defined as “that set of items explicitly up for the active and serious consideration of authoritative decision makers”.
The media certainly have a role in saying that X or Y is an issue worthy of public concern. Often such issues rise and fall within a day or two. Some issues emerge again and again.
Let’s look at some examples. As Ken Robinson argues, what’s worth knowing is very arguable. Yet the call for schools to “get back to basics” is a perennial one.
In the late 1970s, some fundamentalist Christians centred on Baulkham Hills certainly used it to demand that the NSW Department of Education’s schools do more reading and writing, and drop the “frills”, or unnecessary things, like a course called “Man: A Course of Study”. They argued it was somehow anti-Christian because a comparison of human and animal life implied that evolution had occurred.
It seemed as if the Hills were alive with angry parents, but the various groups – Concerned Parents, Parents in Education – could all be traced back to one post office box. The arguments were powerful and long-lasting, though, because of the underlying concern among all parents that their children were being well prepared for life.
Our next example is the so-called Cronulla riots. Based on the account of a student who witnessed it, we argued that the event happened largely because the media – in particular, one radio commentator – had framed the issue in a certain way. This could be summed up as “Who rules our beaches?”.
We reported that the day progressed uneventfully. Late in the day, affected by too much sun and alcohol, sections of the crowd showed uncontrolled hostility to dark-skinned people. Recorded for TV, these events have been referred to many times since.
Violent events occur in various Australian cities: why did this one gain such lasting prominence? Once again, there was an underlying issue: is Australia a free and fair society, or liable to become racist? Once again, a substratum of perennial importance gives events a longer life than would otherwise occur.
And so we turn to the Bronwyn Bishop saga. Australians learnt on July 15 that she had chartered a helicopter flight instead of making the one-hour drive from Melbourne to Geelong. Treasurer Joe Hockey conceded it failed to pass the “sniff test”. It was “not a good look” for the government on whose behalf he had declared the “age of entitlement” was over.
Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.