Friday, August 22, 2003

Ululate for the Dole programs, and “Sooling the rednecks for a late 2003 election” revisited

In May I wrote this.

There is no particular current reason to revisit the election-prediction side of this; rather, my trigger was a brief story today, about (inter alia) Ray Martin botching something involving unemployed people. As to which reference any Australian reader with at least a few remaining brain-cells will of course nod: “Ah, the Paxtons”.

But first, to get rid of the current Ray Martin (very minor) controversy. In today's The Australian's “Strewth” column (no URL), the story "A bit rude for Rudy" tells of how Ray, MC-ing a dinner for Rudy Guiliani, ommitted to “explain” that the choir singing the Oz national anthem as well as a “rap-version of Star Spangled Banner” were not professionals, but clients of the charity Mission Australia. Reading between these lines, I can only assume that the said choir was not quite up to scratch – but as to whether there is in fact a “scratch” at all on rap-versions of the US national anthem (?) is a fair question indeed. Anyway, I say, good on ‘em for trying – and who really cares if Ray may have (indirectly, I assume) mocked their efforts. OTOH, I have just a sneaking suspicion that the choir might not have been strictly speaking clients of Mission Australia, the charity, but of Mission Employment, the hard-nosed contractor who “provides”, among other “services”, Work for the Dole programs. Hence, was the choir actually a “Ululate for the Dole” chain gang? Nothing would surprise me.

But back to the Paxtons, and the role of "dole bludgers" as THE wedge issue in the 1996 election, in which of course John Howard and the Libs swept in. I mentioned this in May but without elaborating. I’ve now combed through a bit of stuff, and come up with this Paxtons chronology, in support of my case. While it’s not footnoted, I can vouch that it generally comes from the record, apart from the 11 March Ray Martin interview with PM John Howard (sourced from my notes only). Oh, and one other – preparing to write this, I realised that I’d hopelessly conflated the two “A Current Affair” hosts of the time, Ray Martin and Mike Munro. Same difference to me, but if it’s not to you, then you have been warned. (However, I note that I have taken out the host’s name where I haven’t been reasonably certain.)

A Paxtons chronology

?? January 1996 Sunday Age runs article on unemployment, featuring the Paxtons

19 February 1996 First Paxtons episode airs on “A Current Affair”

It showed Shane Paxton going into his younger brother's bedroom and saying "Mark, get up, it's 12 past 12, get up."

Apart from the clichéd shots of unemployed youth sleeping-in, however, this was was no ordinary fly on the wall insight. With an election looming, Shane Paxton was goaded into disclosing that he intended to vote Labor – for the simple reason that it was the pro-dole entitlement party. The story was also intercut with the opinions of an outside rent-an-expert, Bob Gregory, who stated that smoking cigarettes (as the Paxtons did) and keeping a dog (as the Paxtons also did) seemed to be unwarranted luxuries for people living on the dole.

Nine didn't get that footage straight away. "It took us three days of shooting to get that, because one of the boys wouldn't get out of bed," said ACA's executive producer, Neil Mooney.

Nonetheless, a fiction that this was a straight fly on the wall story prevailed and persisted at Nine. “This started as a program on generational unemployment in Victoria. And Shane Paxton was the person who showed our crew around, you know, pointing out the houses where no one had a job” (Peter “I wish we had more stories like that” Meakin)

1 March 1996 Election-eve Paxtons “teaser” on ACA (?)

On a Friday, it is usual practise “A Current Affair” to publicize, via short teasers, big ACA stories that will be screening the following week. (I have no information on whether this actually occurred; if anyone can corroborate (or authoritively deny) it, please let me know)

2 March 1996 John Howard wins Federal election

4 March 1996 Second Paxtons episode airs on “A Current Affair”

In which the three Paxton kids were flown to South Molle Island, where they knocked back kitchen-hand, lawn mower, and food service jobs.

5 March 1996 Third Paxtons episode airs on “A Current Affair”

The “public outrage” starts. Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett gets a on-air vox pop. A neighbour of the Paxtons, who has a grievance against them, vents on-air.

6 March 1996 Fourth Paxtons episode airs on “A Current Affair”

7 March 1996 Fifth Paxtons episode airs on “A Current Affair”

Brief doorstop of their mother, Dawn Paxton.

11 March 1996 Ray Martin interviews new PM, John Howard

The Paxtons come up as topic

13 March 1996 Sixth Paxtons episode airs on “A Current Affair”

Host Mike Munro has on-air stoush with Les Twentyman, a youth worker who calls himself the Paxtons' defender

15 March 1996 Seventh (and final) Paxtons episode airs on “A Current Affair”

?? March 1996 Radio journalist, Paul Barber sacked

Paul Barber, a journalist at the Melbourne radio station 3AW, attacked A Current Affair's treatment of the Paxtons and urged a public boycott. He was then sacked when Channel 9 withdrew $300,000 worth of advertising.

?? March 1996 Daily Telegraph runs Paxton story on front page.


?? March 1996 Mike Munro writes article in the Herald-Sun

Munro wrote in the Herald-Sun, in a piece entitled "They aren't the victims. We are", that he didn't set out to do a hatchet job on dole bludgers. Quite the contrary. "I wasn't convinced they were lazy... they just seemed different... I wanted to portray them as a social problem, not as kids not trying hard enough."

Addendum 23 August 2003

I realised late last night that in my enthusiasm for assembling a Paxtons’ chronology, that I had missed the wood for the trees; i.e. given that most of “it” happened after the 2 March 1996 election, I had not explained how dole bludgers, as personified by the Paxtons, could have been an effective wedge issue for voters minds, a fact which obviously requires the wedge to be sunk before (but preferably just) election day. With this is mind, I’ve redone/amplified the earlier bits of the chronology.

Otherwise, I accept that the 4 March 1996 episode was far and away the most important single unit in the whole affair. Indeed, everything that happened after this was probably only echoes, as far as the “minds” of redneck electors were concerned. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the extra five Paxtons episodes on Nine all rated their socks off, or that the whole imbroglio, including the Prime Ministerial interview, gave Nine’s owner, Kerry Packer, a chance to insinuate himself even more into the new PM’s good books, and vice versa.

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