Spreading political word down the years

Author Julian Fitzgerald is writing a history of the press gallery.
Author Julian Fitzgerald is writing a history of the press gallery.

He had a private secretary and carried his government documents and letters in a black bag. She has an iPad, a Twitter account and literally thousands of professional communications advisers on the government payroll.

But is Julia Gillard equipped to be a more effective political communicator than Edmund Barton back in 1901? Perhaps not, suspects Julian Fitzgerald who is in the final stages of writing a history of political communication by Australian prime ministers since 1901.

Mr Fitzgerald says Australia's most senior federal politicians were adept at getting their messages across to the public and embracing new technology to do so.

Realising the potential of motion pictures, NSW premier and future federal cabinet minister William Lyne commissioned the Salvation Army to film the ceremonies staged to celebrate the inauguration of the Commonwealth of Australia.

"He was manipulating the media from day one,'' Mr Fitzgerald says.

Australia's early prime ministers were experienced communicators but had limited assistance from public servants in the early days of federation.

This changed as the federal government grew and the number of media operatives within the government expanded.

Documents uncovered by Mr Fitzgerald in the National Archives show that by the 1930s, government press staff were actively seeking advice from their counterparts in London and Washington. "What you have in 1930s is much more professional media operations in London and in Washington and that filters through to Australia,'' Mr Fitzgerald said.

Other documents unearthed by Mr Fitzgerald show that during the 1960s Labor leader Arthur Calwell didn't want his ambitious deputy Gough Whitlam to have a press secretary of his own.

"Calwell actually advised [prime minister Bob] Menzies not to give Whitlam any press assistance.

''The request for Labor was to have more press advice but Calwell wanted the only press advisers to be in his office, deliberately undermining the deputy leader.''

Mr Fitzgerald grew up in Canberra and is the son of Canberra journalist and satirist Alan Fitzgerald, who died last year.

Along with archival documents Mr Fitzgerald is using the recollections of former government media operatives to research the book. He argues that although 21st century governments have large communications machines, this is not always helpful to the prime minister of the day.

Mr Fitzgerald attributes this to a lack of channels for direct communication between the prime minister's office and departmental media advisers.

"I think you can make a very strong case for governments around the western world, this is why they struggle with their message. Even though they have more people than ever, they spend more money than ever, but I think it's because they're not organising simple, clear distinct messages.''

This story Spreading political word down the years first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.