MPs frozen in the ‘GOGO’ frame

Tony Smith, The University of Sydney

The recent article ‘Cartoonists and Political Cynicism’ by Michael Hogan (2001) should prompt some critical thinking about the ways in which other forms of media frame political stories. One profitable avenue for inquiry is to explore the distinction between those approaches that are cynical and influence political culture negatively, and those that are skeptical but have the potential to produce positive outcomes.

Skepticism is the traditional Australian approach to politics. It involves a general mood of anti-authoritarianism, suspicion of grand political designs, ideologies and passion, and a requirement that those in government justify policies on the grounds of common sense and pragmatism. Doubt is a means of seeking information and is a stimulus to education. Signs of skepticism’s darker alter ego—popular cynicism—include expressions of contempt for those involved in government, disillusionment with political processes, avoidance of civic responsibilities and ignorance of the system. It is convinced that politics produces nothing but evil.

There were hints of both approaches in the reporting of the announcement by Federal Health Minister Michael Wooldridge that for family reasons he would not re-contest his seat of Casey at the imminent election. While some media were sympathetic to his position as a father of two young children, other commentators asked whether his motivation was more complex. Some interpreted his departure as a sign that the Howard Government was disintegrating and that Wooldridge did not want to be associated with a defeated team.

Much reporting of politics foregrounds the contest between Government and Opposition.

The latter attitude is predictable given that Australian media operate within what we might term a ‘GOGO’ framework. Much reporting of politics assigns greatest value to stories that foreground the head-to-head contest between the Government and its alternative. So the underlying theme of most political reporting is ‘Government Opposition Government Opposition’ ad nauseam. In that context, it was obvious that many journalists would search for the GOGO significance in Wooldridge’s announcement.

The GOGO frame is useful to the extent that voters need to think about the government’s performance, but it has negative consequences for the way that we understand the political system, and especially for the way that we value our parliamentary representatives. Trends in by-elections and state and territory polls show that many voters anticipate the 2001 federal election as a chance to punish some members of the despised political class. If the anger of voters is misdirected, however, it will give little satisfaction and serve only to deepen frustration.

The GOGO frame tempts commentators to take the easy populist line and sensationalise or trivialise every action by MPs. This is valid when it shocks readers, viewers, and listeners into thinking critically about political behaviour, but can inflict immense long-term harm. Few retiring Ministers utilize their experience by remaining in parliament, precisely because the role of backbencher is poorly respected and undervalued. One senior MP implicated media in the problem, commenting that ‘It is a dangerous road to always knock politicians because you end up attracting only the vilest people’ (Smith 1999a).

A constant power struggle between media and ‘politicians’ seems to be an inevitable feature of democratic systems. The press gallery seeks to demonstrate that its coverage is influential, while political actors try to manipulate their publicity to advantage. This competition is healthy as long as it keeps the political process open and subjects government to scrutiny.

Unfortunately, the GOGO frame lumps together as ‘politicians’ people with distinct and sometimes incompatible roles. Too often the misdemeanours of Ministers who break codes of conduct are attributed to MPs generally, even though the ethics of the roles are different. In particular, Ministers must be scrupulous in administering their portfolios and must never mislead parliament. MPs are responsible to their electors alone.

It is true that in the Westminster tradition, all Ministers are MPs as well. Prime Minister Howard is the Member for Bennelong and Jackie Kelly is Tourism Minister and Member for Lindsay. This is however, no excuse for confusing the roles. On the other hand, of 224 Members of the Federal Parliament, only 30 are Ministers. This is a strong argument for ensuring that the distinction is clear. If it is not, then it is impossible to appreciate that the power struggle is in fact triangular—among parliament, press and executive.

When media conflate Mps and ministers, the MP feels that it is impossible to take an independent stance. When media acknowledge MPs only to the extent that they are members of the government or opposition, MPs have little incentive to distinguish themselves from the executive and to associate primarily with their electors. This inward-looking view undermines democracy. When members of sub-cultures believe that outsiders do not understand them, they cling to other insiders for support. An ‘us-and-them’ attitude is a precondition for corruption. When MPs prefer the career favours dispensed by the executive to the psychic salary accrued by representing constituents faithfully, MPs become alienated from their electors.

No MP can escape the cynicism attaching to all members of the political class.

While the farce of Question Time cannot be blamed entirely on media, the GOGO frame inflates government-opposition conflict in the House of Representatives so much that backbenchers must conform strictly to the instructions of whips. Their questions are reduced to tactical ploys in the skirmishing between the front benches and so very few questions raise the genuine concerns of constituents.

When parliamentary politics is reduced to a GOGO contest, voters perceive the selection of a local representative as merely a means to express an opinion about the performance of government. This erodes the average citizen’s awareness of the work of the MP, and when they are ignorant about parliamentary work, it is understandable that people are cynical when media highlight incidents of MPs working less hard or being better paid than their constituents. Occasionally the local MP is nothing more than a party hack who cheers on frontbenchers in the hope of securing personal gain, but much of the time, his or her role is multi-faceted and media would contribute more to accountability by distinguishing carefully the roles expected of MPs.

The GOGO tendency to stereotype MPs does not prevent media from condemning others who generalise from a few examples. When a Sydney magistrate commented about women manufacturing stories against men, the media response was savage. She was pilloried for making a slur against women generally. Unfortunately, generalizing from a few instances is precisely how some—perhaps even most—media disseminate images about MPs.

Consequently, respect for parliamentarians is at a dangerously low ebb. Once, there was general respect for parliamentarians. More recently, there was tendency for people to respect their individual MPs but not ‘politicians’ collectively. Now, no MP can escape the cynicism attaching to all members of the political class (Mackintosh 1976, Smith 1999b). A newer arrival in Parliament said that ‘there are three broad age groups. Older people treat you like Jesus Christ with a now out of date reverence. Those in middle life have a predisposed hatred for politicians. Younger people are relaxed, not fussed, not excited or disrespectful’ (Smith 1999a). Unfortunately, it seems that this youthful open-mindedness is quickly destroyed.

In its extreme form, GOGO is guilty of yet another conflation by subsuming parliamentarians and party apparatchiks under the heading ‘politicians’. The humble backbencher, sandwiched between the parliamentary leadership and the party organization, is stigmatized not only by the misdemeanours of ministers but also by the misbehaviour of party hierarchies. Parliamentarians are not necessarily responsible for branch-stacking, dubious campaign tactics and the concoction of extreme policies. With a little effort, media could help people to understand that local MPs come under intense pressure to represent their parliamentary leaders and their party machines and so to appreciate the importance of maintaining contact with them.

The case of Andrew Thomson in Wentworth highlighted some of the forces blurring the responsibility of parliamentarians to their electors. Educated, multi-lingual and a person of moderation and integrity, Thompson projected as Tourism Minister a positive image of Australia. The Government did not appreciate these talents and he was demoted from the Ministry and the Liberal Party removed his endorsement for the Sydney Eastern Suburbs seat.

The worst feature of media negativity is that it diminishes the civic lives of ordinary Australians.

When Thomson was overseas on government business, media discovered that he was anticipating life after politics. The general spin was that he was misusing his time and allowances. While it is difficult for an outsider to know how hard Thomson worked on behalf of electors, media seemed to content to accept the Government and Party lines and ignored the fact that electorate tasks vary enormously. In a prosperous seat, constituents place fewer demands on a Member’s time. The sub-text in this case was that electors cannot trust their local Members. Yet MPs work long, irregular hours and must snatch time for family and relaxation when they can. We should guard carefully our confidence in these ‘trustees’ because we need them more today than ever before.

The GOGO frame manifests some of the worst features of an ideology when it fails to recognize the consequences of its own world-view. A recent press item criticised Premier Carr’s tight control over his cabinet ministers’ media relations. It is difficult to know what else the Premier should do when media will ensure that the next election is a judgment on his personal performance. Coverage of election campaigns is so centralized and presidential in style, that a Premier must have broad control across all portfolios. The journalist remarked that if the Premier did not trust his ministers, then there seemed to be little reason for the media or public to trust them either.

This is an interesting suggestion but it is based on a false assumption. Citizens have no reason to trust ministers and every reason to regard their assertions skeptically. MPs, who are from the people and of the people, scrutinise ministers on our behalf and it is MPs we must trust. They must reflect our concerns by employing skills and resources that electors individually lack. Constant criticism of MPs and stereotyping them as ‘politicians’ prevents them from carrying out this function, especially when public respect diminishes.

In the cases of parliamentary privilege and the role of upper houses, media wage campaigns with little recognition of the long-term implications. Privilege ensures that MPs are not prosecuted for any remarks they make in carrying out their duties. Occasionally, they use privilege controversially by disparaging private citizens, and media are quick to accuse them of using parliament as a ‘coward’s castle’. This can mean that the broader importance of privilege is forgotten. Privilege is an indispensable weapon in the parliamentarian’s fight on behalf of their constituents against excessive government authority.

When commenting about upper houses, media emphasise the small quotas on which some Members are elected in the system of proportional representation, but they seldom scrutinise electoral arrangements for lower houses in which a party with 10% of the nationwide vote might not secure even 1% of seats. Such criticisms strengthen the hands of governments as they claim popular mandates and attempt to avoid negotiating with upper houses where they lack majorities.

In the three-way competition with parliament and the executive, media have little incentive to help boost the reputation of parliament. When respect for parliament declines, media becomes the only avenue for expression of public indignation about government excesses and so government is forced to respond to editorial dictates. If upper houses are impoverished, then media becomes by default the champion of freedom of information. Media have a vested interest in diminishing the public respect for parliament and parliamentarians.

The worst feature of media negativity is that it diminishes the civic lives of ordinary Australians. It should be possible for any citizen to have a public life that is enjoyable, satisfying and empowering. The avenue for this participation should be through communally owned and accountable institutions. We should feel comfortable approaching our MPs, and should give them support and encouragement or criticism where necessary. We are entitled to feel pride in our MPs and to have great expectations of them. It would not hurt should media occasionally take a break from inviting citizens to deride parliamentarians and instead remind us that we also bear responsibilities towards them.

Civic life should not be the preserve of those who have sufficient media savvy to read between the lines or those who can communicate their demands directly to government. Parliament is the only political institution that is indisputably owned by the people. Criticisms of MPs are criticisms of the people and so should be balanced, accurate and moderate. Media can play the GOGO card and threaten governments with electoral catastrophe as much as they like, but they would serve the community better if they found a way of doing this without engaging in wholesale denigration of parliamentarians. A healthy skepticism about government is perfectly compatible with some straight reporting of the role of the backbencher. Such a balanced approach would encourage public interest and make a positive contribution to the strengthening of Australian democracy.


Hogan, M. 2001, ‘Cartoonists and Political Cynicism’, The Drawing Board, vol. 2, no. 1.

Mackintosh, J.P. (ed) 1976, ‘Introduction’, in People and Parliament, Teakfield: The Hansard Society for Parliamentary Government Saxon House.

Smith, T. 1999a, ‘“Words from the Wise”: Advice for a New Colleague in the New South Wales Parliament’, Legislative Studies, Autumn 13(2) 78–92.

Smith, T. 1999b, ‘Too much talk of politicians’, Australian Rationalist, 48 Summer/Autumn 24–29.

Tony Smith is Associate Lecturer in Government and International Relations in the School of Economics and Political Science, The University of Sydney.

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