Gillard's ghost of chaos past

When John Howard plumbed new depths for the Coalition’s primary vote in June 1998 – the June 26 Newspoll gave him just 34 per cent – The Age ran with the headline ‘Is Labor ready to govern?’ and The Australian ran with ‘Push for Pauline boosts Labor’.

They were dark days for the Coalition. After promising a GST would "never, ever” be his party’s policy, Howard changed his mind and made the 1998 election virtually a referendum on the controversial tax.

Contrast that with the hoopla in the national media yesterday over the latest Newspoll figures for Labor, which showed the Gillard government on a miserable 32 per cent primary vote.

Reading the post-poll news, it was easy to form the impression that yesterday’s Caucus meeting had erupted into all-out brawling, with marginal MPs rushing out, clumps of their colleagues’ hair in hand, to background the nation’s top journalists on just how desperate and chaotic Labor has become.

News articles have been full of unnamed Labor sources, including ‘senior’ sources disgorging hyperbolic nonsense such as ‘Rome is burning’. Now which senior Labor figure might have said that? Possibly one who, until recently, was flying off to Rome and just about every other city in the world as foreign minister?

The Australian wrote on Sunday: "With caucus set to meet today for the first time this year, MPs said a series of opinion polls due to be published this week and next would deliver a verdict on Ms Gillard's decisions.”

Err, no. The real verdict is scheduled for September 14 – shrewder political minds, like those backing Howard in 1998, know that a lot can happen in the polls in a few months. (Howard’s primary vote rose to 39.5 per cent, and though out-polled by Labor was able to claim victory on One Nation preferences.)

Moreover, Labor’s awful Newspoll result almost certainly contains a couple of points of statistical noise. Essential Media, which took the gong for most accurate primary vote estimate at the 2010 election, last week had Labor on 35 per cent – it will be interesting to see its latest figure, released later today.

And besides, the ‘decisions’ on which voters cast their meaningless, interim ‘verdict’ were simply not as radical as so many are suggesting.

Gillard announced the election date early, though everyone in Canberra knew it pretty much had to be on one of two weekends.

And she announced the resignation of two long-serving ministers, Nicola Roxon and Chris Evans – quite unexceptional events. When, exactly, is an MP required to declare they no longer wish to seek re-election — on the eve of the election or two years before? Because according to just about everyone, it sure as hell ain’t 7.5 months before an election.

But when major news writers snapped into group-think mode to declare Labor in ‘chaos’, everyone followed – including, it seemed, members of Caucus who the PM had to warn against backgrounding the media.

This is absurd stuff, immediately reminiscent of the Rudd challenge coverage of February 2012. Then, the logic seemed to run: 1) My source is very high up in the Labor Party. 2) They say they’re going to win. 3) They’re telling me this information exclusively. 4) They’re going to win!

Even if that kind of fractured reasoning made sense, the context for that challenge was all wrong. Backbenchers, frontbenchers, coalition sources, public servants, taxi drivers, strippers and gardeners, all said Rudd’s unpopularity was such that he couldn’t win (just kidding – I didn’t really ask any gardeners).

It was wishful thinking from a hand-picked mini-cordon of top journalists.

This ‘Labor in chaos’ theme will persist for a while, but not likely for long. Then, perhaps, we’ll get the kinds of useful headlines we saw in 1998: ‘Is the Coalition ready to govern?’ or ‘Push for Katter boosts Labor’.

May it arrive soon.

Connect with Rob Burgess on Google+