How a conviction politician was reborn

Wednesday, 16 June 2010 

Can I just say this: reform is a tough business. 

K Rudd 15 June 2010

In these difficult times, it must be at least some consolation to the government that the media is being so supportive. You can hardly pick up The Australian these days without it being chock full of helpful advice on how the government can turn its fortunes around. The Australian’s concern over the government’s fate certainly marks a sharp change in direction for a paper that until now had been giving the very strong impression that it wanted the government to go.

Never mind that such advice doesn’t seem to be much more than “Dump Rudd” or “Dump the tax”. Glenn Milne let out the electoral secret that the Liberal party must have hoped he wouldn’t, that if Labor replaced Rudd with Gillard, they would romp home. And dumping the tax is a no-brainer. On Insiders last week, Barrie Cassidy, along with much of the press, was incredulous that Rudd appeared wlling for the argy-bargy with the miners to go on for months let alone weeks. Albanese and Rudd yesterday were both essentially agreeing with the media that opposition to the tax was destroying the government’s polling but that this was the price of reform.

This is all wonderful nonsense. The government isn’t floundering in the polls because of its controversial reforms, it was floundering in the polls for the exact opposite reason, because it wasn’t appearing to stand for anything, especially after Copenhagen. It was the drift in the government, which lost the only agenda it had, that has made it seem out of control, including, to some degree, when it came to bringing in a tax on the mining industry. However, what has happened in the last week is that the government has turned this reality on its head and now we have Rudd the battler prepared to make the tough decisions and fight the tough fights even if it loses him votes. How the government was able to do this was helped by a media agenda that struggled with what the polls have been starting to tell them in recent weeks.

It has been delicious watching the media interpret polls that would have led them to two highly unpalatable possible conclusions. The least unpalatable was that it showed the rise of the Greens as a new force in Australian politics. This was the one reached by Glenn Milne in a piece last week when he talked about how Bob Brown was leading the Greens to have a similar effect on the Australian political scene that Nick Clegg did in the UK. What, taking his party’s vote nowhere and actually losing seats at the election?

Certainly Gerard Henderson, never knowingly passing up a chance to burst delusions of left-wing commentators like, er, Milne, was ready to put him straight. According to Henderson, the Greens represent no more than the “affluent inner-city professional class” (he says it likes it’s a bad thing!) that will never be anything than a minority concern. But in pooh-poohing the rise of the Greens, Henderson can’t bring himself to draw out the only other conclusion from recent polls; that they are less about the Greens breaking through than, as we see already in all the states, the major parties breaking down.

The media are uncomfortable with the vacuum at the centre of Australian politics. It is why when faced with it, they prefer to either ignore it, or else to make up a ‘challenge’ that will apparently resolve and fill in the vacuum no matter how fanciful it may seem. So as we watched the hole open up in the centre of the Howard government in its final months, we had the Costello ‘challenge’ that had no basis in reality in the Liberal party room, largely because it had no basis in the electorate either.

Yet the Costello challenge seems positively tangible compared to the political fantasy of the Gillard ‘challenge’ in recent weeks. Even Shanahan, after yet another comatose Labor caucus, finally had to concede that there was “no leadership challenge under way, in any form”. So what on earth has everyone, including Shanahan, been going on about? What we are left with now apparently is, according to Shanahan, no challenge but still a “leadership under threat”, whatever that means.

Just as we have fantasy challenges at the top to fill in a vacuum, so we have also had fantasy grassroots challenges such as that around the mining tax. The media might like endlessly repeating clips from the same over-choreographed demo in Perth last week, but other than the small portion of the working population directly working in the mining industry, it is hard to see on what basis anyone, other than some annoyed billionaires, would have much of an opinion one way or the other on this issue. Even those in the industry might struggle to work out how shareholders having to pay more tax would necessarily affect them. Nor will the supposed beneficiaries of the tax be too excited either, given that we are talking about all of 3% extra in super that won’t come in full until almost half the working population have already retired.

What we have had in reality is a media campaign between the mine owners and the government that has only been turned into a titanic battle because the government’s lack of social base makes it isolated and appear vulnerable. It was nicely summed up in the non-event of the community cabinet in Perth last week and (the classic sign these days of the insecurity of the political class) the excessive security that surrounded it. The Liberals had been helping this image of a groundswell of opposition by the usual tactic when trying to take up a position that isn’t especially supported or opposed in the electorate at large, try to make it tangible by focussing on certain seats where it may be having an effect, swiftly followed by a host of dodgy small sample polls from the said electorates.

However, in the last week we have started to see Rudd and the government look to turn this media perception to its advantage. It began with Rudd’s interview in The Australian and followed up by a bravura performance from Albanese on Lateline last night when he pretended that all the government’s bad polling started when the mining tax was proposed. Rudd the flip-flopper has been turned into Rudd the battler, fighting the elites and the special interests and so becoming an eerily familiar rendition of that conviction politician from those phoney battles of the past. All we need now is the chin jutting out, that whiney persecuted voice, and morning jogs in the green and gold.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 16 June 2010.

Filed under Media analysis, Tactics

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15 responses to “How a conviction politician was reborn”

  1. Michael on 16th June 2010 11:59 am

    Interesting analysis.
    “All we need now is the chin jutting out, that whiney persecuted voice, and morning jogs in the green and gold.”

  2. P.F on 16th June 2010 12:49 pm

    P S,

    You let your anti-Lib / anti-Howard sentiment get the better of you.

    Opposition to the tax is not driven by the media. Opposition exists because a plurality of the country doesn’t like it.

    Given Labor’s abysmal primary vote, a sour electorate appears to be venting more on them than those opposite.

  3. David Jackmanson on 16th June 2010 1:13 pm

    One thing that strikes me about the lack of a social base is the $38 million ad campaign the Government is using to get support for the mining tax.

    If they had a social base, if they had a network of sub-branches and members around the country, they wouldn’t need to advertise. Instead, a majority of the country’s voters would know someone who was a local ALP activist, and that activist would be making the pro-mining tax argument.

  4. Michael on 16th June 2010 3:10 pm

    P.F – Where is the evidence there is a large cross section of opposition to the tax? Outside of interested circles you would be lucky to find someone who could explain what the RSPT is. It seems to me that slugging foreign mining companies would have a broad popular appeal. Big media is losing this one.

  5. P.F on 16th June 2010 3:45 pm

    From what I recall, every opinion poll published since the ridiculous tax was announced has shown a plurality of responders in opposition to it.

  6. Yoyoma on 16th June 2010 4:50 pm

    P.F, every opinion poll has also shown large numbers of people undecided on the RSPT. This strongly suggests that many peoples’ opinions are not strongly held, and often only formed when directly questioned on the issue.

    It seems the RSPT is not exactly the polarising issue of fundamental concern you’d want to exclusively focus upon in an election, hoping it will turn votes.

  7. The Piping Shrike on 16th June 2010 4:53 pm

    Initially, in early May the polls were in favour, with Morgan (5 May) showed support for the RSPT (47/45). Essential as well (52/34). By mid May polls showed support falling with Morgan against (42/50) but with Essential still showing support but with a smaller majority (43/36). Newspoll late May showed a narrow against (36/41). What has been striking, as Possum pointed out, is the rise in don’t knows suggesting the campaigns are more confusing rather than polarising the electorate. This is what I base my comment that the general public appears neither especially for or against the tax.

    The reason for the perception that they have been consistently against may come from the constant media focus on seat polls taken in Qld and WA which have generally shown a strong opposition.

    Always willing to be corrected on bias getting in the way of facts.

  8. Lloyd on 16th June 2010 8:22 pm

    P.F lays all his cards on the table with ‘the ridiculous tax’.

    Not so ridiculous according to some with still functioning brains.

  9. James on 17th June 2010 11:22 am

    The mining tax seems like a good idea to me. I just don’t see how the average voter would have a problem with it once it’s explained to them. Rudd’s problem is that the issue has arisen after several disastrous months for the government, so the momentum and general public scepticism are against them.

    Rudd’s current plunge is fascinating. I know the policy flips seem to explain it on face value but his downward spiral seems more complex than that to me. The mainstream media is very cliquey and journos from most facets of the political class seem to despise him. His personal inter-relations with the media seem to be a factor and that seems to be interacting destructively with the general public’s current perceptions of him. But not even that adequately explains the situation to me. His plunge isn’t like anything we have seen in the modern polical era, don’t you think Shrike?

  10. Graeme on 17th June 2010 6:47 pm

    David, I’m not so sure. Let’s take a now common historical analogy. Yes, Chifley Labor relied on the unions to support nationalisation in the fight with the banks (who advertised heavily and mobilised their employees, in a way that makes the miners look plutocratic). No, Rudd has neither that rapport with the unions, nor do the unions or the ALP have that sort of membership these days. Yes, Chifley Labor not only did not advertise using party let alone taxpayer funds. No,Rudd has no such moral compunctions about spending $38.5m on a PR campaign. And … yes, Chifley lost that more momentous battle on all fronts.

    People seem to assume that fleecing mining companies inherently should be popular. In some ways it is: it crosses political boundaries (conservative nationalists are as likely to see minerals as ‘ours’ as anyone; unionists dependent on mining for inflated salaries as as likely to believe mining company threats as anyone).

    But ultimately, it’s a classic case of taking on a big, established sector, for diffused benefits. There’s a a loud squealer to rail against the tax, but the public policy benefits are an orphan.

    The government’s deeper problem is it spent years trying to give the miners credit for prosperity rather than the Howard government, but no time tilling the soil of public perception before announcing its tax.

    Instead, Rudd under the shadow of Abbott’s he-man game, seems to have thought from early this year that a ‘tough’ guy battle with the mining companies is his version of Howard’s GST bravado.

    Remember that for the first few days of the tax’s announcement, the media was still wedded to the ‘Rudd is a do-nothing’ meme: the ‘story’ was that he and Swan were ignoring 99% of the Henry Report; the government was timorous, not bold.

  11. The Piping Shrike on 17th June 2010 6:52 pm

    I think it’s happened to opposition leaders, but less so with PMs, I would say because usually they come to power on something happening in society that takes time to unwind e.g. Hawke’s popularity was a slow grind down as the Accord unravelled. Rudd’s problem is that he didn’t come into power on much more than a (anti-)political strategy and an international agenda that soon faded.

    I think it’s the international angle that is the critcial thing here, not the back flips as such. If Rudd had persisted in the same way on the ETS after Copenhagen, he would have still had a problem looking isolated.

    Having said that, I don’t think he is necessarily terminal. The fall in popularity is mainly centred around a perception of spin and appearing to be out of control. As I argue above, ironically the media’s overstating of the opposition to the mining tax has given him a brief opportunity to again appear principled.

  12. John Farrell on 18th June 2010 11:56 am

    Great article. I couldn’t care less about the mining tax. I voted for Rudd, and other than not actually being John Howard, he has failed to work for me in every possible way. In addition, he’s taking the nanny state to new depths. Whatever his agenda really is, it’s not one I’m voting for again.

  13. James on 18th June 2010 1:16 pm

    But John think of the alternative – a Prime Minister Abbott would inflict a papal, moral conservatism on the nation. Surely that’s worse than the Rudd nanny state you mentioned.

  14. Michael on 18th June 2010 3:39 pm

    How credible is the dissatisfaction with Rudd this far out from an election? Once things get serious I believe the public will shy away from Abbott who doesn’t look like a stable pair of hands. They may dislike Rudd and even find him mildly incompetent, but he hasn’t done anything dangerous or risky whereas Abbott is a self confessed unknown quantity.

  15. john Willoughby on 20th June 2010 7:47 pm

    You need look no further than the last election in W.A
    to see a newspaper install itself as the de facto opposition and manage to unseat the incumbent party and install a rabble coalition. The paper seemed to be acting in concert with Woodside Petroleum who ran a massive print campaign against a government who had the temerity to suggest that some of the gas in the northwest should be set aside for domestic consumption. (ring any bells)
    On the other side of the media equation federal labour has “refunded” a poultice to the free to air networks .
    Gee the dollar fifty eight looks good.

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