Let’s try a thought experiment: imagine the Rudd government had, within a few short months of being elected, fallen significantly behind Brendan Nelson’s opposition in the polls; imagine that it had produced a budget universally panned as unfair, one that it struggled to get through the Senate, that Cabinet was leaking like a sieve without any wire mesh, that treasurer Wayne Swan had made repeated gaffes and been forced to apologise and was widely regarded as a growing liability, that corruption in the NSW Labor Party had forced a Labor minister to stand aside within months of being sworn in, that Kevin Rudd had consistently negative personal ratings and at times fell behind Nelson as preferred PM, that Rudd was so unpopular, state Labor leaders preferred he kept away from them during their election campaigns, that Labor had announced it was doubling the budget deficit, and if it was reliant on a political freak show of independent and minor party senators to secure passage of its bills.

And imagine if the Rudd government had resorted to national security in an effort to take the focus off its domestic woes, and it had failed to restore its fortunes, leaving it still trailing the Coalition?

Now imagine how all that would have been reported — and not just by the Coalition cheerleaders at News Corp, but by the entire media? You wouldn’t have been able to click on a news website without seeing “debacle”, “crisis”, “fiasco” and “Whitlamesque” in every political story.

It’s true that in some areas, Labor gets the benefit of the doubt from the media — for example, journalists are hyper-sensitive to any statement from Tony Abbott regarding gender issues, in a way that they aren’t for Labor or other figures — witness the relatively mild criticism Clive Palmer drew for his personal smear of Peta Credlin, versus the likely reaction if Abbott had said something similar about an opponent’s childlessness. But it’s impossible to imagine that, if Labor were in a similar position a little over a year into its first term to what the Coalition is in now, the media atmosphere would not be far more febrile.

And it would be more febrile still if a minor party and key swing-vote senator had gone rogue and declared she wouldn’t pass any government legislation unless her demands were met, as Tasmanian PUP Senator Jacqui Lambie threatened today (imagine if she’d been a Greens senator!). “Labor hostage to rogue senator,” the headlines would have screamed. Lambie has, right from her election, looked the most likely PUP candidate to go off the reservation — indeed, the PUP is now marked more by people leaving its ranks than joining them, as Clive Palmer’s electoral popularity begins to slide. Now she threatens the government’s legislative agenda just when it has worked out a way to deal with Palmer himself.

This week continued the run of bad news for the government. Someone in cabinet leaked not once but twice — first on Monday to Phil Coorey on how Joe Hockey and Andrew Robb had (correctly) argued in favour of joining the Chinese-led development bank, only to be headed off by Abbott and Bishop — and then to Dennis Shanahan on Abbott telling his ministers to get their act together and stop jockeying (geddit?) for position. Despite the government going full kitchen sink on national security, Newspoll showed a worsening in its position — indeed the result was so bad it was consigned to page 2 of The Australian. Hockey produced another trademark howler, on tertiary education. The issue of jailing journalists over revealing Special Intelligence Operations continues to dog the government.

As has been the usual case this year, international matters will be a welcome distraction for the government, with APEC in Beijing next week, followed by the G20 meetings in Fortress Brisbane, allowing Abbott to mingle with world leaders and keep the focus off his government’s domestic woes — although hopefully without discussions straying onto climate change. Even then, however, Abbott has made life unnecessarily difficult for himself with his “shirt-front” rhetoric about Vladimir Putin, which voters thoroughly enjoyed but which requires some form of follow-through beyond a post-meeting “we had a robust exchange of views”. What are the odds Abbott seeks to manufacture a Lathamesque handshake with the Russian kleptocrat in front of the cameras?

Then again, Kevin Rudd’s and Julia Gillard’s international performances were subjected to similar microscopic examination by the media, with every stumble, literal or otherwise, endlessly analysed. Let’s see if Abbott’s performance over the next 10 days gets similar scrutiny.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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