“Stretching back over the past 30 years, there is almost no precedent for Australia’s present situation, with politics polarised between insider and outsider perspectives,” Paul Kelly, the venerable editor-at-large of The Australian, said on Saturday.
Kelly claims there are two competing realities at work — and inside and outside the beltway view of politics. Sylvester the cat might reply “you ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie, brother!”
Kelly writes: “It is the sheer magnitude of this contrast that alarms and confuses the Government.”
But it’s just as confusing for the commentariat. The day after the Budget, one of the big names of the press gallery pulled me aside for a chat. “Y’know,” he said, “we’re all scared sh-tless about saying it after getting it so wrong with Latham, but something’s happening.”
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Make that doubly confusing. Their job is to transmit the micro-detail of Canberra to their target audiences in the rest of the country. To do that, they need to be able to put it in context. They need to interpret events and give them meaning — and be free to make forecasts.
Mark Latham’s implosion, let alone the ongoing collateral from of the ‘culture wars’, has left genuinely neutral commentators scarred. Just what do they say? The truth goes something like this.
The electorate is not listening, but John Howard may still be returned because there is really no compelling reason to boot him out. He has time up his sleeve, a bucket of money for big-ticket projects, and you can almost hear a Tampa steaming up over the horizon.
Kevin Rudd, however, is attractive and his message is disarmingly simple — given what a sophist he can be.
Howard’s warning about the threat to our way of life posed by Labor is just not ringing true. A growing number of the electorate have no understanding that there was ever a time when unemployment, interest rates and foreign debt were high. They assume this is the status quo. They think housing prices have always gone up, and everyone’s kid had a job. They don’t feel any gratitude to the PM for his stewardship of the economy, or fear that another government could possibly mess it all up.
They simply don’t remember of what Howard is trying to remind us. It’s like being told about the war by your grandfather — all very interesting, but hard to relate to — which is why we are fated to repeat the mistakes of history when it comes to war — and politics.
Sure, the voters will feel the instant sugar hit of a lick of cash in their pay-packet or pension or whatever when the Budget goodies come through, but they won’t credit the Government for it. They’ll see it as their due. Fewer than one in 20 people, going by the ratings, watched the Budget. Most probably didn’t even know it was on (though they can tell you that week’s footy fixtures).
The ridiculous pontifications by the Canberra hands of a sudden and seismic shift in the electorate that would see Rudd stopped in his tracks thanks to IR blunders didn’t happen. These same experts cast the Budget as brilliant and a major fightback by Howard. So far, that hasn’t happened.
The awful truth is that most voters can barely name the Treasurer. Or know if you’re talking about the treasurer in Canberra on their local state treasurer. Let alone name their local federal MP. The only people who really read and pay attention to the columnists are the other columnists. It is a fascinating study in human behaviour. The way they come out with a consensus line is extraordinary.
Many in the electorate — including many more intelligent and educated people who, perhaps, should know better — actually have no idea how a budget works, and what it all means. It’s all like the 15-second finance reports on the TV news. Arrow points up: good. Arrow pints down: bad.
Even fewer understand the whole WorkChoices/AWA thing. It’s simply a good-worker, bad-big business pantomime where Labor and the unions have managed to successfully steal the storyline — so far.
They may well get away with it. Business has to work with government, no matter who that government might be. The thought of the top end of town mounting some sort of campaign to explain their stance with pie charts and words like productivity and real wage growth and global competitiveness would be a sheer waste of money.
Life is more about hearts than minds, and emotion more than logic. The likes of Heather Ridout and Peter Hendy can’t match union hands and true believers who were virtually weaned on overstatement and class-war cries.
And at the same time — even though it’s contradictory — voters can see through cynical vote-buying exercises. They can see that the line that there’s something in it for everyone not so much a key message about the Budget’s benefits but as an advertising slogan — a slogan that is as transparent as McDonald’s going low-fat and Shell going green.
If the commentators say this, though, and the Government is returned, they will be victimised. But here’s some news to cheer them up. If Kevin Rudd becomes prime minister, if they tell the truth they’ll be victimised, too. That’s life — and that’s politics, in particular.