Is Gillard hitting her stride?
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.