The government’s intervention in the Northern Territory has dominated much of the media for a close to a fortnight, but appears to have passed voters by.

Political observers have been divided over its significance. To some, it is a sign that the final bout of the contest between John Howard and Kevin Rudd has begun. To others it is just what the PM has said it is — a response to a national emergency which must be tackled right now. Others claim it is a wedge of a distraction.

Whatever the case, it is a strategy that involves running risks. It comes 11 years into the life of the government. It feeds into criticism that major decisions — like the water announcement earlier this year — are being made on the run, without proper consultation and without proper consideration of how the processes will be managed and the long term commitment that will be involved.

Ever since the announcement, political observers have been waiting to see if the intervention would gain traction with voters, if electors would see it as a real attempt to tackle disadvantage in Aboriginal communities or a distraction.

The only poll released in the period, yesterday’s Galaxy Poll, taken on the weekend of 29 June-1 July, wasn’t good news for the government.

Fifty eight per cent of respondents agreed with the suggestion John Howard was “addressing problems in Aboriginal communities because of the upcoming federal election”. Only 25% agreed it was “because he really cares about the issue”.

Perhaps we should look at the coverage it has received.

This is The Australian’s issue. Its editor, Chris Mitchell, has been pursuing the matter since his days at the helm of the Brisbane Courier Mail. The Australian has also provided Noel Pearson with a platform for his calls for action that seems to have struck such a chord with the Prime Minister.

Between the PM’s presser on 21 June and the beginning of this month, the story rated 193 mentions in The Australian, according to Media Monitors.

The Fairfax broadsheets have made much of the story, too — although their reporting and opinion pieces have been more critical. The indigenous intervention scored 110 mentions in The Sydney Morning Herald and 103 in The Age over the same period, Media Monitors found.

But it doesn’t seem to have been half as big a story – literally – in those towns’ tabloids.

Media Monitors figures show the Daily Telegraph has only run 46 stories, while its Melbourne sister, the Herald Sun, has given it just one more.

It’s been said that the Prime Minister will be forced to fall back on a union power scare campaign if the indigenous intervention fails to register with voters.

Galaxy had bad news on that front, too.

Sixty seven per cent of respondents said “the recent actions of some trade union officials” would not influence their vote. Which leaves the government with the issue of Kevin Rudd’s inexperience and the old favourite of national security.

And that won’t bite the same way with a former diplomat and member of the Australian-American Leadership Dialogue as it did with Mark Latham. Particularly if the PM is really looking at bringing the troops home by Christmas.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey