On Anne Ruston, Newstart and gotcha journalism

Photo: Peri Strathearn.
Photo: Peri Strathearn.

On September 25, federal Families and Social Services Minister Anne Ruston spoke at a Soroptimist International event in Murray Bridge on the theme of single mothers and poverty.

Remarks she made on the night about her reluctance to raise the rate of Newstart payments have since attracted national attention.

For clarity, a transcript of the majority of her remarks, as taken down by me on the night, follows.

Anne Ruston

We do have a challenge ahead of us. What we have to do is make decisions in the broadest possible context. How do we change why these things (social problems) are happening in the first place?

Three months ago I inherited responsibility for the national redress scheme, disability, child abuse (et cetera) ... More and more Australians are becoming victims of something.

Thirty-five per cent of our taxes are spent on social welfare. We continue to pour money into this area and see worse and worse results. What's the solution, and what are we going to do as a society to try and make things better? We're sticking Band-Aids on sores and not addressing the root of the infection.

Some of the things Terese Edwards has said are complete no-brainers. Why should a child support-paying parent not have to put a tax return in and the other parent incur a Centrelink debt if they don't?

I hope I have an opportunity over a period of time to make some changes.

We can't just keep on adding money to this bucket, because we're not making a difference. There are many, many people I see on a day-to-day basis (as Families and Social Services Minister) for whom giving them more money would do absolutely nothing. Probably all it would do is give drug dealers more money, give pubs more money...

What we need to do is take a proactive approach to how we look at social welfare, look at the social cohorts and work out what it is those corhorts need.

If, at the end of the day, there's a way for single mothers to get additional payments, (good).

(She continued to speak about the need to crack down on "people out there who are not playing by the rules", with reference to parents who did not pay child support.)

We've got to be fair to the people who pay for it - taxpayers.

I do want to make a difference. I want to make sure people get what they need.

The Canberra bubble

Senator Ruston's remark about her beliefs with regard to raising the rate of Newstart made me raise my eyebrows at the time, and I believe it is reasonable for her to be held accountable for it.

I was also interested to note her suggestion that government spending was not "making a difference" in terms of solving society's problems.

Still, I would suggest it was fair to say her remarks were made in a particular context, both of the issues being discussed and of a relatively quiet weeknight forum in a blue-ribbon Liberal electorate - albeit in a regional city in which unemployment and the rate of Newstart are huge issues.

Perhaps it is an indictment of my news sense that I did not make put that quote at the top of my story, and the story on the front of my newspaper.

I am not a big proponent of "gotcha" journalism.

But perhaps that is also a reflection on the differences between the outrage factory that is political journalism, into whose maw this little episode has been sucked, and local journalism, in which one must endeavour to work constructively with all comers.

It's hard for anyone to get a holistic view of what's going on across Australia: for politicians with vast electorates, for journalists with broad remits, or for pollsters, as this year's federal election showed.

So I mean no disrespect to my journalistic colleagues in Canberra - they have a tough gig, breaking down complex issues over long hours with a lot of travel, each trying to get an original story angle or ask the most insightful question.

Lifestyle is the reason I have chosen to practice my career in a regional centre where I can live 100 metres back from the River Murray, ride a bike to work and take lunch breaks with my kids.

The likes of Barnaby Joyce have been ridiculed for suggesting that people move out of the cities and seek jobs in the country, but I think there is a kernel of truth behind what he was trying to say.

Many in journalism view the regions as a starting point or stepping stone; but to me, they are also a place where one can have more of an impact on the public conversation, relatively speaking, than a Chris Uhlmann or a Laurie Oakes can have on a national scale.

And once in a while one finds the federal Opposition Leader publishing memes with a quote one jotted down in an A5 notebook at a Uniting Church on a Wednesday night.


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