The Gallery is probably too hungover this morning after the Midwinter Ball to be shovelling any more dirt over Kim Beazley’s coffin, but government spinners were busy working the corridors yesterday brandishing copies of Wayne Swan’s and Stephen Smith’s latest comments claiming they were proof a challenge is on.

The shadow treasurer claimed Labor is highlighting the differences his party has with the government’s policies on tax, industrial relations and Telstra. He also had a go at the “sneaky and smug” Peter Costello and his claims Labor lacks ideas. “Who has any idea what Peter Costello stands for, apart from a record tax take heavily redistributed towards very high income earners?” he said in a statement. “While he surfs the gains of Labor’s economic reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, what big new ideas has he contributed to the economic or political debate in this country?”

“The first 12 months after an election defeat are always difficult,” Smith said. “This is a long-haul race. This election will be in the second half of 2007 and the fundamental living standards of the Australian community will be a central issue in that.”

Labor’s copped a shellacking of late. How much of this is lazy attempts at a self-fulfilling prophecy from the Gallery? Virtually all the opposition leaders around the country are seen as inept. Much of this has to do with media reporting. Focus on performance rather than policy, and leadership rather than legislation, favours incumbents. Oppositions can only be seen as failures in these terms.

Oppositions aren’t in government. They can’t do much. If they have big ideas, the entire resources of government get deployed against them. Amid all the hand wringing over the looming government control of both Houses, too much reporting and commentary from the Gallery looks like the scripture of a personality cult of the Dear Leader.

Peter Brent from Mumble Politics had a few things on this subject to get off his chest after Tuesday’s Newspoll. The main published political opinion polls regularly report three things: voting intention, preferred PM and approval rating. This is their order of importance:

Approval rating no doubt reveals something, but it’s not electability. Mark Latham, for example, recorded the highest approval ratings in polling history but took Labor to its second worst result in at least 25 years…

On Preferred PM, consider this: John Hewson achieved higher scores than Paul Keating as Preferred PM throughout the 1993 campaign, while John Howard scored below Keating (by a couple of points) during the 1996 one… Generally the incumbent wins preferred PM, even if they’re heading for a landslide loss and the voting intention polls point to that loss. Recall 1996 again…

Voting intention is, obviously, the most important, because votes are the darned things that determine elections, but this too needs to be treated with caution. Phoning people up (or visiting them), telling them to imagine there’s an election on today – and who would they vote for? – is a highly artificial exercise. The mind isn’t focused, there hasn’t been a campaign.

Indeed. And just because Stephen Smith rightly says the next election is a long time away, it doesn’t mean there are roosters circling Kim Beazley. He hasn’t corpsed yet.