The Boys on the Bus is a political campaign classic in which Tim Crouse covers the journalists covering the 1972 Nixon-McGovern presidential race. It was one of the first books to expose the inner workings of the symbiotic relationship between journalists and political campaigners. The Australian equivalent was Mungo McCallum’s Mungo on the Zoo Plane (1978). The zoo plane in US parlance was the third campaign jet that carried foreign correspondents and the TV technicians and their equipment.
It is an open secret that both the major political parties run election campaigns just like the Reagan administration ran the invasion of Granada in 1983. Put simply, journalists accompanying the leaders are given minimal information about where they will be going and what will be announced. The story that journalists are sent a text message saying “the bus leaves at 0800 and pack for overnight” is not an urban myth. Journalists are given little time to scrutinise policy announcements, and no time to research the issue of the day. After all, rigourous scrutiny of policy is the last thing we want in an election campaign.
The purpose of such secrecy is to ensure that the key campaign event of the day is transmitted in its purest form to viewers of the nightly television news. Chasers and activists take attention away from the main message. Indeed anything, or anyone, not “on message” is to be eschewed. Anybody unpopular is warehoused for the duration of the campaign. What was Morris Iemma doing for the past six weeks; and what of Kevin Andrews and Phillip Ruddock? Both Tony Abbott’s lateness and bad language, and Jackie Kelly’s promotion of Islamophobia as a Chaser-style prank saw them become campaign pariahs.
Indeed, given the discipline that governs modern campaigns, it is incomprehensible that Kelly’s gang could go off on such a damaging frolic of their own, without at least some head office knowledge. Either someone in campaign management was complicit, or the Liberals had given up Lindsay as lost, and the guardhouse had been abandoned.
It’s the unscripted moments that cause heartburn for campaign managers, which is why Howard, battling from behind had to do the tough gigs with Tony Jones, Neil Mitchell, and Kerry O’Brien. Take for example this exchange between Kerry O’Brien and John Howard on November 20.
JOHN HOWARD: You learn by experience. You have to go through things to actually understand it ...
KERRY O'BRIEN: Or you can learn by a study of the past.
JOHN HOWARD: You can't learn by reading a book or uttering a mantra or uttering a focus group tested line.
KERRY O'BRIEN: We can't learn from history without being a part of it?
You can't learn by reading a book. A wonderful line, which, with today’s technology can be up on YouTube as an attack ad overnight. In hundreds of thousands of lounge rooms, voters who see education as the pathway to social mobility purse their lips and say “Hmmmm”.
This “campaign bus as a detention centre” model of political campaigning is why Laurie Oakes, Michael Brissenden and Paul Bongornio stay studio bound in Canberra, and rarely go on the road. They will attend the big set piece events such as the campaign launch, but that’s the limit.
On occasions the major players complained. Howard got testy at one point that the heavy hitters were not in the pack. If they weren’t, he’s only got himself to blame.
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