What a difference five years makes. For the first half of 2007 the federal government was well behind in the opinion polls — much further than the Gillard government is now. Yet none of the media commentary took its defeat as a foregone conclusion. It was treated as very much a going concern, albeit one that was facing a difficult task.
As late as July 8 that year I was able to tell readers that “I don’t know any commentator who says ‘it’s all over’ at this point. Some might think that, but it’s certainly not a widely expressed opinion.”
This year, however, large sections of the media seem to have written the government off — despite the fact that it is up to a year and a half out from the election. There are certainly exceptions (Alan Kohler yesterday was one), but they seem conscious of presenting a heretical view.
SBS’ political reporter last night, commenting on the government’s quite favorable Newspoll results, remarked that “maybe this is the start of a new trend” — but in fact the trend back towards Labor, while not large, has been clear for several months. Andrew Catsaras explained it carefully on the ABC’s Insiders on Sunday: the government’s woes, he said, “continued right up until the middle of the year when in July the government actually made its carbon price policy announcement. And then since that time, the gap between the two parties has narrowed from the 16 points that it was in the middle of the year to the eight points it currently is now.”
We know that governments can come back from worse positions than this.
So why the difference? Why do the media not display the same openness to that possibility that they did in 2007?
The cynical answer goes something like this: the different thing about 2007 is that it was a Coalition government, and Labor governments are held to a different standard. The media is run by big corporations, so it’s natural that the party committed to the interests of the rich and powerful is looked on more favourably. News Ltd in particular has actively crusaded against Labor and the rest have largely followed its lead.
I have a natural resistance to conspiracy theories, so I regard the cynical answer as very much a last resort. But it’s not easy to come up with an alternative explanation.
Before people rush to comment, I’m not just looking for theories as to why Gillard’s prospects may in fact be worse than Howard’s were: I’m looking for a theory that’s so obvious and uncontroversial that the media would adopt it without even feeling the need to elaborate.
One can point to lower standards of journalism and editing generally (whether caused by increased workloads, financial pressures, poor education or broader cultural changes), which leads to a sort of pack mentality where everyone follows the lead of whoever happens to get out in front. But can things have really deteriorated so much in just five years?
It would be different if the polls had been unusually consistent (as indeed they were by the middle of 2007), or if their momentum was running against Labor. But that’s not the case; the movement, such as it is, has been towards the government. Nor have polls somehow shown themselves over the intervening period to be unreliable — last year’s New South Wales election, for example, produced quite unbelievable poll numbers that were nonetheless borne out almost exactly.
Mention of New South Wales raises another possibility, that Labor’s poor performance at state level has created a sense of inevitable decline that’s infecting federal coverage. But it could hardly be worse than the Coalition’s performance at state elections before 2007.
Another possible difference is the hung parliament, which perhaps makes the government seem unusually fragile (in contrast to John Howard’s comfortable majority at the 2004 election). But it’s worth remembering that recent hung parliaments at state level have delivered landslide victories to the incumbents at the following election (Queensland 2001, Victoria 2002, South Australia 2006). Do journalists really have such short memories?
Another difference — and here I suspect we are on firmer ground — is the peculiarly histrionic nature of the opposition to the Gillard government, out of all proportion to its real or imagined sins and a complete contrast to anything the Rudd opposition said in 2007. In effect, Tony Abbott’s tone may have bullied the media into playing along with his narrative: forget the evidence, just follow the shouting.
But that just pushes the question back, to why this government rather than its predecessors has attracted such animus. One may say that it’s just because the opposition happens to have elected a peculiarly histrionic leader, but a glance at the United States, where the opposition to Barack Obama seems to have a similar quality, suggests that there is a deeper pattern at work.
And that brings us back to conspiracy theories: that a woman from a left-wing background, like an articulate progressive black man, sets off especially powerful alarm bells among the owners of capital and their lackeys in the press. I don’t like it, but I’m having trouble finding anything better.