The main thing that holds back a chorus of relentless criticism of a government by its opponents in the media from spiraling completely out of control, is the willingness of neutral and friendly players to call public attention to the discrepancies between the hyperbole and reality.

Take the Home Insulation Program:

Ultimately, the HIP – as we’ve stated from the beginning, regularly, using publicly available data at the time – was much safer in terms of fire rates than what preceded it. Now, however, we know that it was safer over both the short term (the fire rates over the 12 month period from installation) as well as the longer term (the residual long term fire rates that occur from 12 months after the insulation was installed).

Hardly “Peter Garrett is burning your house down”, but that’s the impression you’d have been left with if you believed what you read in News Ltd, or its completely neutered acolyte the ABC. And even now, you’re unlikely to read from either anything approaching a correction.

Same goes for the Building the Education Revolution Policy. And the carbon price. And many others.

Professional polemicists from the conservative side (particularly in the Opposition Organ, The Australian) have, of course, taken full advantage of these misunderstandings and whipped each other into a frenzy of “this Government is finished! FINISHED!” pronouncements. Feeding each other – the more they say they Government is finished, the more they can use each other’s media articles as evidence that the Government is finished, and so on ad infinitum. The power from such a line comes from the repeating of it, particularly when those who know better decline to contradict it.

And now Laurie Oakes has caught the fever.

I wonder how much of this is Labor’s fault – not just for utterly failing to effectively argue its case, but also for completely burning its potential allies and supporters. The circuit-breaker needed to to defuse the self-fulfilling “Government is Finished” line is opposing polemicists calling bullsh*t on it equally forcefully.

And they haven’t been. I have my own theories as to why – Gillard’s regular expressions of utter contempt for anyone to the left of the Labor Right, for example – but the effect is clear. The impression – regardless of how little it is based on actual fact, let alone actual policy failures – is devastating for the Government.

Obviously Gillard reasoned that she could burn her base without consequence – what were they going to do, vote for the Liberals? But what she forgot, and what the Labor party had better remember very soon, is that modern politics is a lot about impressions. And the impression right now in the national media, because it’s the right-wingers who are making all the noise, while the left-wingers can’t get enthusiastic about a Government that apparently despises them, is that the Liberals are pushing ahead of the ALP, and the Government is beginning to unravel. An impression that even its friends have abandoned it; that it is an unsalvageable loser.

That’s only an impression right now. But impressions, if not countered, have a disturbing habit of becoming political reality.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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