Rats all at sea

Tuesday, 3 June 2008 

The latest Newspoll has Rudd’s popularity as preferred PM slumping to, er, 66% and Nelson’s soaring to, um, 17%.

The voting intention, of course, remained unchanged at 57-43. Given the screaming headlines over what a shocker of a week it has been for the government (and Nelson’s increased exposure probably accounts for his better rating), it suggests last week was more about the media’s changed relationship with the government than the electorate’s.

There is a strange disjuncture between the media and the government at the moment. It is almost as though the government and the electorate are having a private conversation with each other while the media is left out, unable to understand what either is talking about.

Take the media’s analysis of last week. It generally focussed on the machinery problems (leaks etc.) but could not get a fix on the politics of it and finally ended up denying there was anything much going on at all. The only grasp they had on it was that it seemed a repeat of Howard’s interest rate promise and that the public had been let down by Rudd’s admission that he could only do something at the margins. Yet the same latest Newspoll shows how the electorate interpreted what Rudd was saying. While a majority believed Rudd promised to lower petrol prices only 20% believe Labor is the most capable of doing so, 20% preferred the Liberals but a whopping 44% thought neither side was capable of lowering petrol prices. In other words, when Rudd proposed a bit of consumerist fiddling like PetrolWatch to take a couple of cents off, far from being the political gaffe the media presented it as, it was pretty well in line with what the electorate expected.

What has happened here is that throughout the election campaign, and after it, Rudd has lowered expectations about what government is capable of, in line with what people generally think. The media has not yet, by and large, followed them down. It still sees it as a political game of broken promises without seeing how the promises are changing.

For the media, the early days of Rudd were full of symbols, without seeing what he was really doing, getting rid of Howard’s political symbols. They then waited breathlessly for the real agenda of the government to emerge in the Budget, but it never came. That only made last week’s kerfuffle seem like a double disaster because it looked to be taking attention away from the Budget. The Australian cried that the petrol row meant that the government’s economic message had been lost and it could now not sell the Budget. But the government never had any economic message to sell in the first place, except for its New Sensitivity backed by the type of consumer action talked about last week. Perhaps of all the commentary, it was Ross Gittins who got close on the absence of the usual political agenda in this government.

Nor does the media see the political basis for this scaling down in the climate change agenda. For them last week only makes it harder for the government to propose putting up petrol prices to fight global warming. In fact, the reality is upside-down, the climate change agenda will only further depoliticise rising petrol prices and further legitimise the government’s inability to do anything about it (already some are saying that maybe higher prices are not so bad as we should be thinking of alternatives anyway).

The media are not helped by the fact that the Liberals are also struggling to catch up with this new scaled-down politics (it especially confuses those sections of the media close to the coalition). It is understandable the Liberals are unhappy about this, as they are now left with little base for posing an alternative. Rudd meanwhile poses himself less as the politician, but the technocrat functionary extraordinaire, and must be only too happy to hear the complaints of public service officials and tales of his workaholic schedule. Probably the biggest sign of the confusion of both the Liberals and the media, is that they both think this is bad news for the government!

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 3 June 2008.

Filed under Media analysis

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