Rachel Withers finds the daily story in Canberra’s hourly insanity

The editor of The Monthly's politics newsletter explains how she covers the day's political narratives without buying into them.

9 Nov 2021
Written by
Rachel Withers
How To
Reading time

Photo: Shutterstock

Each day, in the early afternoon, I am faced with a deceptively simple question: what happened today in Australian politics? Or, more specifically, what will have happened today, when The Politics, my daily newsletter for The Monthly, goes out at 4 P.M.? After reading, watching, listening to and quite often grinding my teeth at the goings-on in Canberra and beyond, my task is to fire off an afternoon column about it, one that places a coherent narrative around the day’s flurry of activity. I try to give readers a clearly defined sense of the day’s developments—one they can consume in less than 10 minutes, a brief reprieve compared to the multiple hours I have just spent trawling through it all.

And hours it is. My job is to condense all of this—dozens of articles, from across multiple publications—partly so that recipients, who no doubt have their own jobs to be doing while Question Time is going on, don’t have to. Even if it means listening to every exasperating thing Barnaby Joyce says in the course of a morning or, more painfully, each awful new turn in a rape allegation saga that never seems to end.

Because somewhere, between the headlines, interviews, press conferences, Question Times, Senate committees, policy announcements, “exclusives”, live blogs and tweets I consume, there is a unique story waiting to be carved out.

But how to find “the narrative” amid the noise, the story amongst the spin? And how to cover the prevailing political narratives of the day without buying into them? After all, I’m far from the only one dealing in the art of storytelling here.

The most important part of any day, and often the most challenging, is choosing the main topic, or topics—the issues that made today today. I obviously can’t cover every maddening event that occurs in Australian politics on a daily basis, nor would readers want me to. But there is usually—though not always—a selection of occurrences that set that day apart, even in the endless series of groundhog days that Australian politics so often feels like.

Some days a unique event is blindingly obvious. An apocalyptic UN climate report (and the government’s predictably lacklustre response to it) is the existential tale of our time. A popular premier’s shock resignation, history in the making. Oftentimes there are two major developments that clearly speak to one another, or perhaps a tone deaf politician has callously linked them for me; other times I must draw these parallels myself. Fortunately, there are a few key attributes that link almost everything the Morrison government does, whether passivity, short-sightedness, self-interest, a fear of scrutiny, or a lack of accountability. Sometimes an issue needs to be contrasted with another that isn’t in the news at all that day, with their amalgamation revealing something of the government’s hypocrisy.

My job, after all, is just as much about working out what the story isn’t.

Other days’ events may be less earth-shattering, but nevertheless represent important shifts, or echoes within a patterngnawing sorrows rather than shocking new scandals. The recalcitrant Nationals are misbehaving again (what do they want this time, and is it noteworthy?). Scott Morrison has another plan (so?). Other times, the story is merely one episode in a longer character arc—as Christian Porter’s drawn-out unravelling has turned out to be. There are the odd days where there seems to be nothing that makes the day unique. Fridays tend to have this problem—parliament doesn’t sit on a Friday, though even non-sitting weeks seem to experience an end-of-week lull. But there is often a uniting theme lurking in the surrounding days, such as a lack of transparency, or allegations of politicisation, with individual threads able to be woven together.

Looking back at the array of newsletters I have written over the past eight months—eight months of COVID, sexual misconduct, and more COVID—I can see the headlines and corresponding images as a snapshot of what each day stood for, as mini-chapters in the political timeline. In hindsight, many of these topics seem self-evident, as if that day could not have been characterised in any other way. But they were, of course, choices—choices that could have easily gone another way. Sometimes stories that would later become monumental are not given the full treatment the day they broke. But that too is part of the historical narrative—it took almost a full day (and an interview on The Project) for the political class to truly grasp how Brittany Higgins’ allegation of being raped in a ministerial office would shake and shape the nation.

The key story of any given day can unfortunately be upended at any time before the newsletter goes out—such as when news breaks at 2 P.M. that the health minister failed to take up early meetings with Pfizer when offered. The prime minister sometimes steps forward to deliver an unforeseen press conference at around this hour. But it is usually immediately apparent whether Morrison has anything meaningful to add that will substantially alter the narrative, or if he’s merely trying to take control of it by adding his own spin to the day’s events. My job, after all, is just as much about working out what the story isn’t.

Once the day’s unique story is determined (or should I say, decided), the next step is to pick apart its elements. What’s happened? Who’s involved? What are they saying, and where are they saying it? Where has this come from? Is this part of a larger ongoing story, and if so, when did that start? The goal here is to give the reader the who, what, when and where before I necessarily give them my why, so they can go into an event with as much background as I have after a full day of following it. I want to tell them as much as I can, but I also don’t want to waste their time—many of the day’s events have already wasted more than enough people’s time as it is.

Working out why a given narrative works often requires you to step back, to see what role the wider media played.

One of the most crucial elements to all this is understanding the many other political narratives being spun, and the reasons why—especially during the cacophony of sitting weeks, as politicians of all stripes jockey to control the outline of the day. This was particularly important, for instance, back in August, when state and federal governments argued over what the COVID “national plan” really meant. The Morrison government worked especially hard to create its own crude version of that plan—which, it must be acknowledged, had some effect. Working out why a given narrative works often requires you to step back, to try to see what role the wider media played. Similarly, Gladys Berejiklian’s ICAC-induced resignation created a new range of narratives to pull apart, as the Coalition attempted to reframe it to pursue an agenda.

Sometimes the prevailing narrative coming unstuck is the story. Such days involve explaining what the narrative was, in order to explain what it then became. July 9, for example, was a day that began with Morrison triumphantly spruiking his Pfizer “ramp-up” deal, with most of the media jumping on board, only for the story to unravel mid-morning when it became apparent that there was no deal (and no substantial increase in doses, according to my reading). Other days the story sticks, even when it probably shouldn’t, and it’s necessary to think about why.

It is my great privilege, and one that I take very seriously, to get to put my daily stamp on Australian politics, to shape the chaos into something meaningful for those who don’t have the time to follow along. As Joan Didion’s most famous line goes, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live”. We let others tell us stories about politics in order to deal with the sheer white noise of it all. But it’s critical to always keep in mind just who is doing the telling.

* The Politics was formerly known as The Monthly Today

Sign up to
The Story Newsletter

The best of the website, with bonus newsletter-only trimmings. Delivered to your inbox every so often.