While the press gallery this morning wrapped itself tightly into a navel-gazing knot about whether the Prime Minister had “gone too far” in his current hairshirt act, it made the same mistake it often makes, of confusing itself and average voters.

The sackcloth-and-ashes tour started on Thursday night on The 7.30 Report and continued in the Saturday News Ltd tabloids, where Laurie Oakes had an account of his interview with an abashed and apologetic Rudd at Kirribilli, which lacked only a photo of a pensive Prime Minister gazing at the harbour below.  And then onto Insiders on Sunday, where Rudd declared that not merely would he get a whacking in the polls — a favoured line whenever the Howard Government conjured some new smear of him in 2007 — but that it was deserved.

But in between times, Rudd also did talkback with Neil Mitchell, featuring some confected outrage about quivering pensioners too scared to turn their lights on, and spoke at the South Australian Labor election launch.  No mea culpas during either.

Instead, they were carefully targeted: O’Brien, Oakes, Cassidy.  The sackcloth-and-ashes tour is as much about the press gallery as it is about average voters, particularly Insiders, which no one outside political tragics, journalists and politicians actually watches.  The message will filter through to voters, of course — Rudd’s regrets were conveyed via the evening news bulletins last night, for example — but the other key message is to the gallery, to the effect that Rudd and his team get the message and now want to move on with the aim of lifting their performance.  It’s a message they hope will colour media coverage henceforth. That’s why Rudd has also been at pains to emphasise he’s aware of his communication problems, an issue otherwise of interest only to the professional political class rather than voters, who don’t bother to analyse what they’re hearing and how they’re hearing it.

It was Phil Coorey who spotted the real source of mea culpa strategy — not Peter Beattie but John Howard in 2001.  In early 2001, Howard was in serious trouble, well behind in the polls, facing a backlash over the GST.  Howard should have been riding high — he had introduced the GST and consolidated the Budget, two major policy achievements — but he was under the hammer on two issues — the GST impact on pensioners and fuel excise.  Both issues were entirely confected, particularly the fuel excise issue, which was the result of a beat-up of an ANAO report that had blown a trivial issue about the use of fuel excise entirely out of proportion. Nevertheless, Howard’s issues management had been off-key and the media eagerly turned them into a political firestorm for him.

His response was unsubtle but effective: he apologised, and “fixed” the problems by giving a handout to pensioners and halting excise increases.  Both were bad policy precedents but they worked, and turned things around for Howard, who had been staring at a massive defeat later in the year.  The Tampa and September 11 only came later, when a more confident Government could exploit them.

Sometimes even a Prime Minister just has to cop it sweet, regardless of the merits of an issue.

The analogy holds well, except that Rudd is streets ahead of where Howard, who spent most of his inter-election periods behind or deadlocked in the polls, was in 2001. The insulation story is entirely confected, seized on by a media eager to give the Prime Minister a serve, and Rudd has decided to cop it sweet, apologising and going for an unsubtle fix that throws money and Greg Combet at the job of cleaning up a program that shouldn’t have been closed. And it was important that Rudd himself been seen to be doing all this, which is why footage of him marching out to meet installers last week was just as crucial as his apologies, and probably more than what he said on an obscure Sunday morning talk show.

One more thing on Rudd’s communication. On Insiders he said this about taking action on climate change.

“If we don’t, 20 years time, those who succeed us on your program and in my position Barrie, will say ‘what the hell did they do?’ And there’ll be a trillion dollars, a real trillion, not a Barnaby Joyce trillion, thrown out there to get a scientist to come up with a quick fix in 24 hours, because by then it may be too late.”

It was pretty much the clearest and most succinct thing he’s said about the need for climate change action for two years. If only he’d been that clear before now.