By Sarah Capper, Sheilas Editor
VOTER support for Labor has jumped to its strongest levels since the last election to put the federal government within striking distance of the Coalition …
This story appeared not two years ago, not six months ago, but less than six weeks ago, on 15 January, 2013 (in The Australian newspaper, ‘Labor starts poll year with bounce: Newspoll’ by David Crowe).
Fast forward six weeks and it’s an entirely different story, with the mainstream media’s coverage on the federal Government’s opinion poll fortunes as being incredibly dire, with doom and gloom scenarios abounding – the resurrecting of has-been Kevin Rudd leadership challenge possibilities, with commentators once again (gleefully) issuing death toll bells for Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
The Murdoch press has never been a great fan of the Gillard Government, with a history of editorials and columnists aplenty going on the attack throughout the course of this minority government’s duration. Following last week’s Nielsen poll, which has the gap widening between the Government and Opposition, calls for Gillard’s head were not just limited to reports by News Limited journalists.
ABC Drum columnist Barrie Cassidy noted the switch in collective commentary, writing that:
Troubling for the Government, Fairfax at varying levels has joined News Ltd in baying for Julia Gillard’s blood.
Cue Mark Baker, Alan Stokes and Waleed Aly (and a raft of others) who wrote scathing opinion pieces last week which could cause even the most ardent of social democrats to choke on their Weeties and feel that all hope was lost.
Baker: It’s time, Labor. Time to end the delusion that Julia Gillard and her battle-scarred camp followers have any chance of political resurrection. Kevin Rudd might well be a very naughty boy, but Labor has no choice but to test whether he still has the makings of a messiah. It is the only card this discredited, demoralized and dysfunctional government has left to play.
Stokes: Julia Gillard, it is time for you to make your graceful, dignified, humble, selfless exit from the prime-ministership.
Aly: Labor’s problems are not nearly so managerial and technocratic. They are much, much bigger than that. Labor’s problem is ideological. It doesn’t really mean anything any more, and probably hasn’t since Paul Keating lost power in 1996.
Yes, even Waleed Aly joined the chorus of doom and gloom naysayers dominating the media at the moment. But amongst the largely negative commentary in Fairfax, there were some lone voices registering an alternative view. As if spurred on by Mark Baker’s piece, political author and editor Nick Dyrenfurth got a run in the opinion pages, arguing:
Gillard must remain as PM in the name of what this paper’s Mark Baker terms the ”greater good”. First, the demise of our first female PM would be a devastating blow to our political culture. It would reward the bilious campaign waged by misogynist nut-jobs, Tea Party-style activists and the policy-free zone that is Tony Abbott’s Liberal Party.
Removing a second-straight PM without reference to electors, based upon poor but not irreversible polling numbers, would seriously damage the public’s trust in our democracy. The now-exuberant Liberals would not be immune. Celebrity politicians who think Sunrise is more important than Parliament would be here to stay.
Second, this is not a ”dysfunctional” government. It has produced a raft of nation-building reforms: a carbon price, the national broadband network, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, paid parental leave, and the first serious attempt to formulate an industry policy in decades. The mining tax is a work in progress. This is a welcome departure from Howard-era style ”reform”: workplace laws which treated human beings as mere commodities.
In the News Limited opinion pages, a particularly special response came from Graham ‘Whatever it Takes’ (the appropriately named title of his book) Richardson, the old Labor power broker who, through his regular piece in The Australian newspaper, loves to take a swipe at Gillard. His response to last week’s polls was to write that should Gillard stay on in the leadership position, “the legacy [she] leaves behind would be the near destruction of the modern Labor Party”.
Ah, no Richo, many believe that legacy is actually yours. (And as Health Minister Tanya Plibersek directed towards Richardson in 2011 on the ABC’s QnA program, “I hope when I retire I never make a buck trashing the Labor Party.”).
Let’s look at the source of this kneejerk media response with a bit of perspective. The favourable January Newspoll (published by Murdoch papers) quoted at the start of this piece (worth mentioning again that it was published last month, just six weeks ago) put the Gillard Government “in striking distance” of an election win come September.
The figures had the two-party preferred count (the figure which most closely reflects our preferential voting system) at 51 per cent for the Liberal and National parties, compared to 49 per cent for the Government. Striking distance indeed.
By looking at the same figure in last week’s Nielsen poll (published by Fairfax), the Opposition recorded a 56 per cent two party preferred figure, to the Government’s 44 per cent rating.
These figures were similarly reflected in this week’s Newspoll (with a 55 – 45 two party preferred breakdown). Both polls put the Government within 3-5 percentage points of being “within striking distance” of a win (and there is some argument to suggest that if a government can achieve figures of 48-49%, incumbency can often carry them across the line). But don’t let that get in the way of the bizarre narrative adopted by large parts of the mainstream media. (Note: this is the same media that presented the Margie and Tony ‘family man’ Abbott non-story over not one, but across five pages in one of the tabloids late last year).
Incidentally, for a breakdown of the polling figures, check out Crikey’s ‘Poll Bludger’ column, which regularly dissects the opinion polls.
So why are many media commentators going ape%^&* over these poll results? Yes, Gillard’s personal approval rating has fallen, and yes, perhaps more significantly, Tony Abbott has overtaken her as preferred Prime Minister.
And certainly the news doesn’t seem as glamorous or ‘sexy’ (for want of a better word when discussing politicians) if commentators focused on the two-party preferred figure, by simply reporting that Labor’s position has fallen by 3-5 percentage points, within ‘striking distance’ of winning the actual poll that counts in September.
Certainly selling newspapers must be a contributing factor to the hysterical poll reaction.
Fairfax columnist Paul Sheehan addressed the calls to resurrect KRUDD ala Mark Baker’s plea to the would-be ‘Messiah’, arguing that:
Driving all this public speculation are the opinion polls. Who creates the opinion polls? The media. Who drafts the questions? The media. Who promotes the results? The media. Who acts as if opinion surveys are surrogate elections? The media. Who profits from the publicity and the speculation? The media.
The only group that takes these polls as seriously as the media is the political class, the group of politicians, courtiers, aides, ideologues, lobbyists and power groupies to whom politics is a career and a living.
And ABC Drum contributor Jonathan Green took it a step further (we’re hoping tongue in cheek), by suggesting:
A journalistic consensus does not add up to a successful leadership vote, but maybe it’s time we changed all that. We’ve had years of trial by media and that practice is now well and truly established, and quite often cruelly effective. Perhaps it’s time for political leaders to be hired and fired in the same kangaroo court of mirror-image columns drawn from nervously reflective groupthink.
That would save a lot of mucking about. We could dispense with the now time-honoured practice of anonymous internal whisperings reported as self-fulfilling certainties. After all, if anyone can construct a narrative – and every right-thinking political party should have a narrative – then surely it’s the country’s journalists. Let’s leave it to the experts.
Cough, cough, cough. Shiver indeed.
At a Melbourne ‘Switch in Time’ event late last year, Mary Crooks, the Executive Director of the Victorian Women’s Trust (publisher of Sheilas), talked about ways to combat negative media and vitriolic public discourse dished out against the first female Prime Minister and her Government. Crooks noted:
When we disengage, because it is just too awful, we give in to despair and possibly even to the destructiveness that comes with being cynical.
So what do we do? Mary Crooks argues that the first action is to encourage “courageous conversations”.
It’s an important message, particularly because doubt, and indeed an all-pervading collective doubt as demonstrated by the mainstream media, can be a contagious catchy concept. It’s easy to lose hope, but that’s all the more reason to continue to challenge what’s being fed to the masses.
Lawyer and commentator Greg Barns provides one of those courageous dissenting voices, as demonstrated in a piece run in the Hobart Mercury recently. Barns by no means provides a glowing assessment of the Gillard Government, but rather, a more fair and balanced account. And he takes a good swipe at the media along the way.
If the Gillard government were corrupt, venal or responsible for plunging Australia into a morass of debt then one could understand that the media was fairly uniform in its condemnation. But that is not the case …
The media campaign against Ms Gillard and her government can have only two foundations – a dislike of a woman as prime minister or a nasty conservatism that seeks to protect privilege. Either one is unacceptable. We should call on our mainstream media to play fair or not play at all. It is far from healthy for the media in a liberal democratic society to become so unbalanced on matters pertaining to politics.
Check out the whole piece here. And hang in there. Keep the focus on policy and the real issues, speak out against the baying media pack and continue to encourage “courageous conversations”.
Sarah Capper is the Editor of Sheilas and the Policy, Advocacy and Communications Officer at the Victorian Women’s Trust.
Youtube clips of the speeches from the Melbourne ‘A Switch in Time’ event are now available. Speakers include VWT Executive Director Mary Crooks, federal Independent Tony Windsor and Professor David Karoly. Click here to view.