Early on Monday — the Queen’s Birthday in every state except WA — a relaxed and comfortable Australia will slip on its national dressing gown and shuffle, Tony Soprano-style, to the front gate to pick up the morning paper.

Screaming off the front page will almost certainly be the fruits of our best political spinners — possibly a policy announcement, maybe a speech-in-advance or an off-the-record briefing — carefully crafted to capitalise on the desperation of content-starved hacks.

Although the formal election period doesn’t kick off until August 12, this long weekend will mark the start of an unofficial spin war as the major parties’ messengers-in-chief — Julia Gillard’s communications director John McTernan and “consigliere” Eamonn Fitzpatrick on the one side, and veteran Liberal masseur Tony O’Leary and Andrew “Hirsty” Hirst on the other — cross swords over the daily news cycle.

Lachlan Harris, Kevin Rudd’s press secretary until the morning of his boss’ demise in 2010, told The Power Index any spinner worth their salt would be working up a “really aggressive drop” to “hold the cycle” over Monday’s idleness: “I’d be very surprised if there wasn’t one from both parties, to really get some bang for your buck.”

It’s just one tactic in a bulging playbook that will include hundreds of explicit and oblique media leaks before September 14. But the main task, as always, will be shaping images — the wallpaper if you like — for the 6pm commercial news, ideally involving mobs of screaming, sandwich-free schoolchildren.

While The Power Index has shown how tabloid news editors and TV news directors are influential election deciders, both parties’ spin rooms are granted a “free pass” during the 33 days of campaigning, when they know the images sent to the networks will be used. The challenge is making sure those images are compelling.

One senior Gillard staffer agreed the main job between now and election day would be “producing high-quality content for the Teeves where the message comes punching through the screen … people still get most of their information on politics and elections from television, and it’ll be the main area of contest at the election.”

In the background, O’Leary and McTernan will mould the terrain — often via long chats to “influential” gallery elders like Paul Kelly and Laurie Oakes. Inside the Prime Minister’s Office, McTernan arguably sits across “four streams” of advice in the manner of hit 1984 film Ghostbusters: the “hard politics” proton pack of Gillard chief-of-staff Ben Hubbard (Venkman), the “pure media” of Fitzpatrick (Stantz), the policy nous of Ryan Batchelor (Spengler) and the focus group and polling wonkery of Tony Mitchelmore and John Utting (Zeddemore). The Coalition operation is complicated by the dominant presence of his chief-of-staff Peta Credlin, but Hirst, who meets each morning with Abbott and Credlin, remains crucial.

“In the background, O’Leary and McTernan will mould the terrain — often via long chats to ‘influential’ gallery elders like Paul Kelly and Laurie Oakes.”

Harris says amid the maelstrom, the main game is a binary one — shaping the incoming and controlling the outgoing messages. But the outgoing narrative is far more important:

“The job is to influence the questions, not define the answers. If the question of the day is Gonksi, it’s more likely to give the government a win. If the question is about people smuggling it doesn’t matter how good your answer is, it’s a win for the opposition. Even if you’re the best designer of an answer you’re still doing a bad job if you’re on the back foot.”

It’s mostly left to foot-soldiers like former Channel 10 journo-turned-Cleo bachelor of the year nominee James Boyce (Abbott) and Keely O’Brien (Gillard) to deal with pesky journo requests at the coalface. And the media, hungry for scoops, lap up the attention. As many have pointed out, the major takeout from the 18-month Rudd destabilisation campaign was the inability of the press pack to apply even basic scrutiny to strategic leaks that consistently inflated his level of caucus support.

Harris recalled a classic media manoeuvre was the “show-me buy”, where the 6pm commercial bulletins are tricked into reporting a party’s TV ad as “news”. In this wily bait and switch, you take out one spot on Bathurst TV at midnight on a Sunday for $30 and then hawk it around as a major new PR initiative. Suddenly the ad’s before 5 million sets of prime-time eyeballs.

Another other major tool is the internet and social media. The senior Gillard staffer agreed that while the office had to “serve the traditional mainstream media … there is a whole range of places now where people get information. Facebook, Twitter, the mummy bloggers — they’re all important”.

It’s an horrendously tough gig. Former spinner, policy wonk and strategy adviser to the PM, Nicholas Reece, told The Power Index: “Whether you are in government or opposition, these guys have amongst the toughest jobs in Australia. They are typically covering three or four media cycles over a single day – other people clock on and off while they keep going.

“If things are running against you it is harder again. You wake up each day to get kicked in the face by the morning papers and radio. You just put on your battle armour and get into it hoping to turn things around and get back onto your agenda.”

And the Labor source says that the job ratchets up again when the party apparatus piles on closer to D-Day: “The comms director jumps on the PM’s [wifi-enabled] plane, and the day-to-day strategy is taken over by the campaign office”. That’s helmed by national secretary George Wright (Labor) and the Coalition’s federal director Brian Loughnane. “Everything is done for you, and a much larger team works up the announcement … McTernan is on those conference calls, and at that point it becomes much wider than the PMO.”

For the government, the task has become more fiendish in the wake of yesterday’s disastrous Newspoll, which showed the ALP’s primary vote hadn’t moved since the dog days of mid-2011, just after McTernan took over the press operation. The senior Labor source was scathing: “I think it is fair to say that at just over three months out and on 30 primary votes the Scottish experiment has failed … His aggressive style has alienated the entire gallery. He’s tried to placate The Daily Telegraph, with disastrous consequences. There’s a lack of understanding of the Australian climate, and the proof’s in the pudding that the combative tactics are not working.”

A senior Coalition strategist agrees, claiming the PM’s confidante is focused on the wrong issues:

“John’s flaw is he obsesses about the issues in Surry Hills, New Farm and St Kilda. None of that is the story of the day in the seats I call the ‘doughnut seats’ — these are the ones that change governments, like Aston, Casey, La Trobe, Bruce, Chisholm. He should think about the voters walking down the main street of Box Hill, white-collar voters with an average income of maybe 70 or 80 grand, the wife works a couple of days part-time and they are really doing it tough. All of these stories like the misogyny debate and the other insider clap trap are a distraction … There’s a fundamental difference.”

Others object, rating McTernan as “more interesting than the entire Labor senior team put together”. While declining to speak on the record with The Power Index, he comes across as engaging and deep into his brief.  And as Labor MP Joel Fitzgibbon conceded on Sunrise yesterday, reading straight from Labor’s media manual, in the spin game there’s still only one poll that counts.

One hundred days out, McTernan and co will need to dig deep — as the Ghostbusters know, the only way to summon enough power to defeat Gozer the Gozerian, the Sumerian shape-shifting god of destruction, is to riskily “cross the streams” of each proton pack into a super slaying force. Achieve this and it’ll be O’Leary and Hirst who’ll be slimed for life.

It’s time to book your next dose of Crikey.

Through the week, news comes at you fast. Every day there’s a new disaster, depressing numbers or a scandal to doom-scroll to. It’s exhausting, and not good for your health.

Book your next dose of Crikey to get on top of it all. Subscribe now and get your first 12 weeks for $12. And you’ll help us too, because every dollar we get helps us dig even deeper.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.