Readers with long memories will recall that the 2010 election was marked not merely by two insipid, visionless and profoundly depressing campaigns from the major parties but an equally lacklustre performance from much of the media, which obsessed over personalities and political frippery rather than make an effort to analyse what policy detail we were getting. The obsession with Kevin Rudd this week, story after story after story, nearly 2o of them in the print media alone, was more of the same.
The odd thing was, Rudd said nothing new on Q&A. Lenore Taylor patiently pointed that out, even providing links (usually a Fairfax no-no) to where she had described, in far more detail than Rudd did on Monday night, the circumstances around that fateful decision. This was, after all, her yarn. Indeed, several journalists admitted there was nothing new in his remarks, but went on to carefully analyse them anyway on the basis of whether Rudd was clearing the way for a tilt at the leadership sooner or — more likely, they admitted — later. One, The Age’s Shaun Carney, seemed to have Rudd on the verge of counting numbers.
Back in the Howard years, Treasury officials would complain about Peter Costello that he considered every issue “through the leadership prism”, always ensuring that nothing would ever cause a problem for his eventual ascension to the top job. There are similar mutterings in the private sector about Bill Shorten now. But for really considered, exhaustive and comprehensive parsing of every issue for its leadership implications, you can’t go past the press gallery, which is now giving itself permission to get excited all over again about Kevin Rudd’s leadership ambitions.
How very 2006.
Apart from how easy it is to write personality stories, the real benefit is that, once there’s a critical mass, the dominance of the story then becomes the story itself. That’s why Chris Uhlmann could, with a straight face, ask the Prime Minister about how Rudd had “sucked the oxygen out of the campaign that you had for this week on the carbon tax”. It was an exact copy of how the gallery obsessed over Rudd’s campaign in his own seat during the election — complete with Sky News sending camera crews to follow his campaign stop at a local school — and then lament that Rudd was “sucking oxygen” out of Labor’s campaign.
Just when actual news and real policy issues appeared likely to push Rudd out of the coverage, two cracking pieces appeared in the past 24 hours. At Fairfax, in one of the most laboured political analogies of recent years (and I should know, I’ve laboured a few) Rudd was compared to Napoleon plotting his return from Elba. Better yet, the comparison was made by John Ruddick and Ross Cameron. Cameron is the former (and very bright) Liberal federal MP for Parramatta. John Ruddick is his former adviser, who shares a byline with Cameron on the occasional op-ed.
Fairfax plainly thought it not relevant to run a disclaimer noting their partisan background.
The other was from Barrie Cassidy, scolding Rudd for breaching cabinet confidentiality — see Lenore Taylor as above — and suggesting the Prime Minister’s leadership has been somehow weakened. Like others, Cassidy started by saying there was nothing “extraordinary” about what Rudd had said, but the 700 words he then devoted to the subject seemed to rather contradict that. And he ended by noting “there is exceptional volatility in the polls right now; there has been since the election.”
Eh? What volatility? What Essential Research and Newspoll polls have shown is a long post-election period of both sides locked together, with neither side shifting more than two points from 50-50 on 2PP, until the Coalition began to build a small lead this year, a lead that strengthened following the carbon tax announcement. The polls have been anything but volatile since the election.
Then again polling, like personality politics, is easy to write about — even easier, in fact, because while personality politics needs some basis in reality, polls regularly produce anomalies that can be explained as the result of political developments, when they’re simply rogue polls.
Maybe Cassidy meant this week’s Newspoll and, in the Perpetual Present of Gallery journalism, extrapolated that back six months. I suggested two weeks ago that the Newspoll showing a surge in Labor’s vote was a dud. Sure enough, this week’s Newspoll reversed the previous one, putting things back where they were. But that didn’t stop the same politicians and commentators who said the previous Newspoll was because Gillard successfully attacked the Greens, or because of Kevin Rudd and the no-fly zone, or was a consequence of “the advantages of incumbency”, from attributing this week’s Newspoll to various anti-Labor factors.
And on Wednesday, two weeks after Dennis Shanahan put Labor’s Newspoll rise down to the Prime Minister’s criticism of the Greens, Paul Kelly devoted an entire, and as always scintillating, column to explaining how Gillard had actually stuffed up her criticism of the Greens.
This is not to single out Newspoll. The Nielsen poll, in particular, because it’s much less frequent than Newspoll (the fault of Fairfax, not Nielsen), is inclined to apparently dramatic shifts in support between individual polls, and plenty of Fairfax’s finest political journalists can be had up for Grand Theft Credibility as they try to explain big shifts in primary votes that they must know perfectly well defy reality.
And, yes, I hear what you’re saying: poll interpreter, heal thyself. On most Mondays, I can be found explaining small movements in the tea leaves Essential Research give me. I confess that I, too, frequently lapse into post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning. So, take my criticism of others with a rather large grain of salt. But I’ve also got the benefit of a weekly poll, rather than a fortnightly or monthly one, and Essential builds into it a two-week rolling average, which tends to mute any sudden lurches — in fact at one stage last year Essential seemed permanently jammed on 50:50.
That removes the need to conjure up a rationale for dramatic shifts in primary votes. And, ostensibly two-and-a-half years out from an election, we’re currently much more interested in what Essential finds on other issues than the voting intention. That’s why at the moment you have to read all the way to the end of our Essential pieces to find out the 2PP position.
Individual gallery journalists, of course, don’t only write leadership tension stories or about opinion polls and defiantly refuse to cover stories of substance, and they get annoyed by criticism that they do, justifiably. But their individual efforts form part of a whole, each article forming a piece of a broader picture, snapshot of the Gallery hive mind. And this week the picture was no different to what it looked like at the recent nadir of Australian politics, in July and August 2010.