Cynicism and politics go together like bread and butter. For example, a cynic might think Treasurer Christian Porter’s announcement on Tuesday about cuts across the public sector was timed to coincide with Julia Gillard’s visit to WA yesterday.
After all, he sheeted home some of the blame to her Government’s grab of $600 million in extra GST revenue from WA.
A cynic could also suspect that the Prime Minister’s front page blast about Colin Barnett being a “boom time” leader was a deliberate shot across the Premier’s bow before Ms Gillard’s plane touched down here.
But every now and then some proof pops up showing how government media minders actively work to manipulate the 24-hour news cycle.
An email written in November by Mr Barnett’s most senior media adviser — former television news reader Dixie Marshall — gives some insight into a day in the life of a so-called spin doctor.
It was obtained by the Opposition after a Freedom of Information application surrounding the sacking earlier this year of another Barnett media adviser, James Larsson.
He was judged by the Premier to have “crossed the line” by emailing a Google image of Labor leader Mark McGowan’s house in Rockingham to argue he wasn’t the common man he was claiming to be.
Two months before that, Marshall’s email to her team of ministerial press secretaries was full of praise for the way the Government was travelling in media coverage.
The following is the email in full, which includes some typographical errors such as a reference to one press secretary, Aimee Jones.
“It is not a fluke we are on a roll…remember this was always the plan...fun and frivolity with CHOGM...followed by tough, decisive announcements around law and order. As a media team we are being disciplined and smart.
“Yesterday, worked because we had FESA/DEC in the morning, a drop on the stadium in the afternoon, a further drop to ABC on lobbyists...diversion in the house on carbon tax...nimee keeping the west honest around balance...good talking points to backbenchers around cost of living so we are all on message...a quiet coffee with a senior commentator to plant some seeds...a strong response on Katanning, backgrounded and positioned perfectly.
“This is all not happening by accident..it is happening because we — our media team — is pulling together. That said — it can all turn to s… in an instant, so keep your wits about you!!”
Anyone who knows Marshall, including Inside State, understands she shoots from the hip and often complements her straight-talking with colourful language.
It is a trait she has carried through her extensive media career. Some love her for it, while others suggest she needs to show more restraint, especially since being appointed director of government media last June.
When she took over the role, staff received an email from Marshall describing her first impressions of being inside the government machine.
“My first impressions is this really is like the West Wing…loads of bright young women, cute blokes with dodgy dress sense, haggard wise old hacks,” it said.
It was the sort of repartee that might have some in the stereotypically staid and conservative bureaucracy believing Marshall was a breath of fresh air.
Likewise, there are raised eyebrows over her folksy memos and emails and whether they might embarrass the Government if made public.
Pep-talks via email about media “drops” and a “diversion in the house” might turn faces red given that Mr Barnett and other senior Liberals complained that the previous government was more about “style over substance” and trying to control the daily news cycle.
“What you have is a government which is addicted to spin and addicted to generating positive publicity about itself rather than deal with the substantive issues which confront this State,” Troy Buswell said in 2007.
Public Sector Commissioner Mal Wauchope, a long-time friend of the Premier, made it clear in a report after the Larsson affair that ministerial advisers had to understand what their role is in government.
“Their role in advising ministers is for the purpose of governing and not for party political purposes,” Mr Wauchope said.
“Events which call into question their conduct can have negative consequences for the reputation of the Government and the confidence the community has in the effectiveness of ministerial offices.”
He went on to insist that Department of Premier and Cabinet staff be re-issued with the public sector code of ethics and undertake “accountability and ethical decision-making training”.
Inside State isn’t naive enough to think media advisers don’t plot and plan the day’s events or devise strategies to project the government in a favourable light.
It’s a demanding job given the speed with which events are reported these days and the way new-world media gobbles them up and remains hungry for more.
But it’s rare to see extracts of the master plan in writing.
Labor seized on the email as part of a trawl for anything incriminating around the Larsson issue, which it claimed stemmed from a “dirt unit” inside the Premier’s office.
“It shows Colin Barnett’s obsession with media manipulation,” shadow treasurer Ben Wyatt said. “I’m stunned that the most senior media adviser in government is so comfortable she would distribute such a cynical email.”
Mr Barnett saw the email very differently.
“This email shows the director of media doing her job,” he said. “This is what she is meant to be doing — co-ordinating the government message, communicating with her team. The email proves she goes about her business broadly, positively, and with good humour. OK, she occasionally says a swear word. She was, after all, a journalist for more than 25 years. Dixie has promised me she will never ever, ever, ever swear again in emails.”
Marshall will probably curb her enthusiasm for writing emails altogether.