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Is Gillard hitting her stride?

Date

Things seem to be getting harder for Tony Abbott - but it's still too soon to be betting on an early election.

Illustration: Jim Pavlidis.

Illustration: Jim Pavlidis.

THE wonderful New York Times media columnist David Carr wrote recently of storyline bias - the great undeclared bias afflicting most working journalists, for whom the whiff of a story is better than smelling salts. Carr wrote his piece when the narrative turned in the US presidential race after Barack Obama's listless performance in the first televised debate.

The polls tightened - at least some pundits believed they did - and Mitt Romney looked credible. As Carr put it, ''keyboards clacked and adjectives flew because the poll numbers signalled that the last month of the campaign, which had been looking a bit dreary, was going to be a horse race, and reporters headed to the rail with renewed enthusiasm''.

Possibly there's a bit of this storyline bias in Canberra at the present time - a sensation of transition. A clear improving trend for Labor, culminating in a major opinion poll finding that the major parties are neck-and-neck. The Prime Minister with an obvious spring in her step. The Opposition Leader looking uncharacteristically subdued in Parliament. The government cracking leadership gags about the opposition in the chamber, and people laughing because it's funny, not absurd. Imagine that happening a month or two ago?

The dynamic in national politics feels different, looks different, smells different; like the build of summer rain.

But is it different?

Truth is, no one knows. It's too soon to tell if we're experiencing an interesting blip or a genuine inflection point. Storyline bias has a habit of creating its own momentum, making its prophecies a bit self-fulfilling. But it's also fickle. A change in circumstances can alter the calculation - new information, an unexpected event, a very poor judgment on the fly. Politics is always hostage to events.

I don't want to be too meta here. Interesting transitions are afoot with our politicians, with or without a bunch of journalists clacking portentously at their keyboards and leaning over the rail to ponder the current odds of the galloping nags.

The Gillard government has sprung full force into future mode - on the very simple premise that if you can define the political future you might have one.

The opposition is resisting the transition with equal and opposite force, weighting the government with the sum of its past missteps and associations.

The Coalition knows it cannot afford to let the government rehabilitate and reinvent itself: if it succeeds there's a contest. The government must remain ''fatally flawed''.

Tony Abbott has a delicate reinvention task too. He's making a transition out of the carbon tax frame, gradually, to economic management. He's seeking out ''another broken Labor promise'' in a surplus for 2012-13 that the government is going to struggle to deliver, given it's an accounting construction almost entirely contingent on a bunch of things outside its control.

The government is nudging Abbott back to the carbon tax, wanting him to account for his claims before its introduction on July 1; wanting to ensure he is not able to just skip on past without being accountable.

In the past few weeks Labor has also turned the character test back on Abbott. If the Prime Minister must be a liar, then Abbott must be a sexist - and not only a sexist, a negative, reckless sexist without a new idea to bless himself with. To try and avoid the trap, Abbott is carrying less of the negative attacks against Gillard, handing this task to others in the Coalition.

So we have each side trying a bout of reinvention for different reasons, and resisting each other's efforts at reinvention for related but different reasons.

Palpable transition indeed.

There's only one more parliamentary sitting week this year. Then the parties will be able to buy some thinking time over the Christmas break, without the stress of the sitting dynamic.

I've long thought Abbott's strategy was predicated on forcing an early election. Go hard, go often; destroy the joint, as a prominent radio broadcaster might say. But the government has hung on. Now Abbott must rethink a bit, and prioritise his own brand as well as the Coalition's. Tricky for Abbott, this. To be Mr Nicer and Mr Knock-Out Blow simultaneously.

There's lots of speculation around the traps about the government going to the polls early. Perhaps it will. There are some rational tactical arguments for it. But there are arguments against as well, in my view.

Political recovery, if it's real, takes time. The government's main weakness is a lack of legitimacy. Sprinting off to the polls at the first break in the political weather, before the budget in May next year so you don't have to make your numbers add up, looks sneaky, doesn't it? It should look sneaky, because it is sneaky.

If Labor genuinely believes that what Gillard calls the ''lived experience'' of the carbon tax nullifies Abbott's scare campaign, then the government needs the courage of that belief. If Labor senses Abbott has left himself not enough room to do the repositioning he needs to do to get his groove back, then the government should make him sweat.

Having nearly hung itself on tricks and been too clever by half in 2010, maybe Labor's approach in 2013 could be different. Work hard, lay out an honest policy agenda and let the voters decide.

Now there's a break in the weather.

Katharine Murphy is national affairs correspondent.

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231 comments

  • On the mark - good analysis

    Commenter
    Western Sydney
    Date and time
    November 05, 2012, 8:24AM
    • But !

      The claims of Abbott being sexist "In the past few weeks" are not at all accurate because Anne Summers, for one, made the claim on September 6 2012 and Dennis Atkins of "The Courier Mail" (Murdochs rag) wrote about it around the same time.

      Abbotts now decided to be a good Catholic and stay in position until the resurrection.

      Commenter
      J. Fraser
      Location
      Queensland
      Date and time
      November 05, 2012, 10:17AM
    • not quite what all the polls say with the expection of news poll who have had a 15 point variation in 6 weeks5 up up 5 down 5 up and anybody who reads a resurgance in gillard and labor i have a friend who would tell them they are dreaming!!! its Qld mark 2 coming up.

      Commenter
      kaths dreaming as usual
      Date and time
      November 05, 2012, 10:18AM
    • I don't trust Gillard or Labor, and I trust journalists even less. The constant attacks on Abbott tells me that he is doing something right & I can't wait till the election so that I can vote for his party. We need to get our country back on track. Under Labor we have well and truly come off the rails. It's only a shame that Abbott will inherit the current mess that Labor created in their 4 short years. Our borders, our economy, our finances, our trust.....are all in a shambles. It's time that some order was restored to Australia and I believe Abbott can do this.

      Commenter
      john
      Date and time
      November 05, 2012, 11:07AM
    • Hitting her stride? Only if she stops wearing her high heels.....otherwise, we know where she winds up. Personally attacking Tony Abbott at every turn is not hitting ones stride. It's demaning & totally unbecoming of Ms. Gillard. But it is the union way.

      Commenter
      lily
      Date and time
      November 05, 2012, 11:10AM
    • @Western Sydney I agree that this is an excellent, objective analysis that sums up the current political climate perfectly.

      Commenter
      Bennopia
      Location
      West Footscray
      Date and time
      November 05, 2012, 11:20AM
    • Which ever way you want to dress this up - Labor are gone. Early election or no early election. Laborites - stop kidding yourselves - any amount of denigration of the opposition leader will not turn the tide of public opinion sufficiently enough to deliver you a victory. Gillard and Labor gave it their best shot and at times did look effective, but they have way too much lead in their saddle bags to get them across the line. Labor are on track to lose around 20 seats at the next election, perhaps more if Malcolm Turnbull is Coalition leader.

      Commenter
      Tim of Altona
      Date and time
      November 05, 2012, 12:05PM
    • Tim of Altona, I'll let you in on a little secret. Most Liberals that I know think Turnbull is a traitor to the Liberal party & want nothing to do with him. This constant "talking him up" by the Laborites will not change their mind. Tony Abbott is the best person to lead the Libs and the majority of Libs know this and give him their full support. In fact, I've heard many Libs say that Turnbull should join the Labor party as he's already half-way there.

      Commenter
      len
      Date and time
      November 05, 2012, 12:33PM
    • Len, funny how all the polls for the past 18 months have consistently painted a very different picture to the one you are describing in fact the latest Galaxy poll released today has 51% of Liberal voters wanting Turnbull as leader. Must be that the Liberal voters you know all fall into the 45% supporting Abbott. I'll let you in a little secret - 60% support for Turnbull across Liberal and Labor voters spells a landslide Coalition victory of QLD proportions. 29% support for Abbott across Liberal and Labor voters means Labor retain more seats. Simple equation.

      Commenter
      Tim of Altona
      Date and time
      November 05, 2012, 1:01PM
    • @len

      Fascinating comments, when you consider that Turnbull probably epitomises the LNP of the past better than anyone. A bit like the doco on ABC News 24 last night where they said Reagan (like him or hate him he's probably the most succesful republican of the last 50 years) would be too liberal for the modern republican party to embrace.

      The LNP really do need to change their name to the Conservative Party of Australia (CPA?) if their supporters think Turbull is "half way there" with the Labor Party, what a joke.

      Commenter
      Kilkenny
      Date and time
      November 05, 2012, 1:10PM

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