With new governments come new oppositions which generally struggle to cope with the large decrease in relevance associated with the opposition benches. But after 18 weeks, most federal oppositions have at least developed some veneer of political strategy, some understanding of the job required in opposition which the polling starts to reflect. The day-to-day demand of having a five second grab on the great suite of topics that make up the news cycle starts getting complimented with more strategic approaches to the long term business of opposition.

What seems to separate the current Opposition from their forebears is that the political strategy in its entirety appears to have been outsourced by the column inch to a set of News Limited journo’s that give Hawker Britton a run for their money in terms of pure spin. We’ve had the carers payment “crisis” which was little more than journalistic speculation gone feral, we’ve had the Aurukun/Macklin nonsense, we’ve currently got the Australia/Japan relationship “crisis”, and the list goes on and on and on.

The problem is that these stories sit somewhere between manufactured outrage and mocumentraries on the quality spectrum, allowing the government to easily adapt to whatever “crisis” they’re apparently facing this week by throwing some small bone to kill the story – an early budget clarification on the one hand, organise a quick Japan meet and greet on the other.

While it’s to be expected that oppositions follow the news cycle, and it’s to be expected that this type of sensationalist tabloid journalism that drives eyeballs to advertisers will make up a large part of that news cycle, regardless of the size of the paper the stories are printed on, the problem for the Opposition is that it’s mostly vacuous fluff that that the public either sees through, doesn’t care about, or worse, they do believe it was an issue. Then they watch as that nice man Mr Rudd, far from caving in to pressure, simply does what’s right and shows that he’s in touch with the electorate’s views.

If we create a rolling two pollster average using Newspoll and Morgan and compare the first eighteen weeks of the Rudd and Howard governments, something stands out:

By this time in the term of the Howard government, the Beazley opposition had started to move on from the easy pickings of the news cycle and began to compliment that by applying greater strategic pressure about the new government’s policy program, which resulted in Howard’s polling honeymoon being slowly eroded. Yet the current opposition, with its scatter gun style and lazy strategic approach, is, if anything, falling further behind the ALP as time goes on.

If we want to place it in an even starker context, we can compare the vote gap that existed between the government and opposition of the day in 1996 and 2008 – again using this rolling two pollster average.

Whether this is the result of Rudd being a better political manager than Howard, Beazley being a better opposition leader than Nelson, the nature of political circumstance at the time or some mix of any and all of these things, what is inescapable is that Nelson is failing and that’s not good for the quality of governance.

What might be worth a shot is for the opposition to spend a little more time focusing on real policy issues that the public actually gives a hoot about and a little less time following the droning choir of News Ltd spruikers that are taking tabloid politics to whole new shallows of gravitas.

Unless of course the Libs really like turning the previously unheard of 20 point vote gap into a regular theme of federal politics. They should look north and see how that’s played out in Qld to disabuse themselves of any notion that such a thing would be impossible.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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