"...The 2010 election campaign was the journalistic gift that just keeps on giving.
I had intended to draft these remarks once the result was known. But remembering that I was speaking at the Melbourne Writers' Festival rather than Improv Night at the Comedy Festival, I couldn't wait for the white smoke. This election has changed how we think of 'politics as usual' in this country. It has also triggered significant debate about the practice of political reporting. And I can't let the opportunity of this speech go by without wading into these murky waters.
So let me make some muddied observations about the campaign and how it was handled by the fourth estate and then make some tentative suggestions about implications for the media and the nature of news coverage.
Then - following the proud traditions of these events - it will be time for questions, where you can tear into me. The toughest Senate Estimates sessions are merely training for encounters like this.
I want to break with the curmudgeons who talked about a boring election campaign, saved only by a thrilling election night and the epic drama that followed.
The long-standing, predictable narrative train of the election, predestined when the Government soared 20 points ahead in the polls, was derailed in the dead of a Canberra winter's night.
Now, for the first time since 1993, we had two new leaders in the top jobs fighting their first election. The most inexperienced Prime Minister to ever face an election. A dangerously honest Opposition Leader with - to use Annabel Crabb's memorable phrase - a truth parrot squawking on his shoulder. Polls in flux, strategies in disarray. An electorate polarised, idiosyncratic, unpredictable. And important matters in play: the economy, the environment, national infrastructure. A nation at war.
Rare ingredients for journalists and journalism. A remarkable opportunity to use old tools and new tools to bring the story to the Australian people.
A few days into the campaign, the ABC launched its long-awaited 24-hour news channel. While Sky had been on air for 15 years and has increasingly focused on live events and reporting from Canberra, with ABC News 24 we created a news channel that was an option for all Australian homes, not just the 30 per cent with pay TV.
The mixed model of public and commercial news services has served Australia well for over 60 years - and will serve us well in the age of 24 hour news as well. Competition, despite the protestations of the monopolists, has been to the advantage of both audiences and practitioners. Sky, for example, greeted our arrival by winning more money from its owners and putting that to good use. They had a strong campaign - as did ABC News 24.
Modern campaigns are a political version of The Truman Show. Keep the channel on and you know what I mean. He's on a bike. She's on a train. He's running with kids. She's eating a cake. He's making a speech. She's holding a doorstop. He's looking cranky. She's looking tired. Where is he now? Why's she wearing that hat? She drinks Guinness. He drinks shandies! If he had done it in week two rather than on the final day, Abbott's liking for a shandy made with light beer could have killed him in those Western Sydney marginals.
Campaigns always had these features. But now everyone can see it. Outsiders became insiders. And now we have the truncated news cycle: which advances stories and then responses and then generates further iterations throughout the day, rather than simply setting up the evening news and tomorrow's papers.
It exacerbates the phenomenon. The politicians always seem on. And we see now what only the journos once saw: the politicians are scripted - they say the same things over and over again. Less variation in response means fewer choices for journalists to report on something you don't want. The old maxims taught to politicians apply more than ever:
"Just when you are sick of saying it, people are beginning to hear it for the first time."
"Don't answer the question they ask, answer the question you wanted them to ask."
"Don't change the argument, change the audience."
And the journalists are shunted and controlled and frustrated and increasingly sick and tired.
It might be more controlled, there might be more events, things might be more closely scripted - but this is modern campaigning. It is just that we can all see it now, live, around the clock. Every press conference, every speech, every photo op, and in the background, every nodding local candidate.
It may be refined, but it is not new. There have long been books written about this stuff: pioneered by Teddy White with The Making of the President 1960. But now we can all see how political campaigning is done - and like seeing the law or sausages being made - it's not always an edifying experience.
But it is important. The scrutiny, the performance under pressure, the way questions are answered and avoided, unexpected events are dealt with, managing the tiredness, the frustration, the disappointments - this is part of the political crucible our leaders must endure. Attention must be paid to this. There needs to be a bus, journalists need to be on it. Asking questions, waiting for the unexpected, watching it all and reporting back.
This was, after all, one of the great achievements of Tony Abbott in the campaign. The most mercurial of performers, disastrous in 2007, prone to erratic bursts, turning in such a disciplined performance. After a shaky start, he reminded me of a marathon runner, clocking five-minute miles, mile after mile. That consistency allowed people the opportunity to rethink him and what he might offer. Just as the lack of consistency from the Prime Minister, the articulated shift from the programmed to the real, caused people to rethink their view of her also.
Another great political classic of the past was The Boys on the Bus by Timothy Crouse - about the journalists covering the 1972 presidential campaign. Well now we know all about the 2010 bus. Journalists tweeting their frustrations, snap commentaries, collective fury. Live crosses back and forth - to the news channels, to local radio. The journalists add to the colour of the campaign.
Off the bus, senior journalists sit back, read, watch, review, dig and come to judgement. The field of reference is so limited on the bus it is hard to see the broader field - so many of the big guns simply don't climb on board. What was significant here was how senior journalists would break stories - good old fashioned scoops - that would set another agenda for reporters to follow up on the bus - a different one from the one prepared by the parties for their daily policy announcement.
Chris Uhlmann on the young political staffer sitting in on top level defence meetings. Lenore Taylor and her scoop on Treasury's costings of the Coalition's proposals. Laurie Oakes on the Prime Minister's reluctance to embrace parental leave. Phillip Adams, at 10 o'clock at night on Radio National, getting the former prime minister to break his silence. Stories that dominated every press conference for days after - reporters on the road following up the lead that every editor wanted to advance.
And while there has been some discussion over whether there was an over fixation on these issues, I would simply argue that at any time, in any campaign, they are great scoops - delivered the way any great journalist delivers a scoop: authoritatively, mysteriously. A reflection of experience, credibility and contacts cultivated for just this moment..."