It’s a truism in politics that while one opinion poll might evoke an interesting point, it’s the trend in poll findings that reveals much more.

The same could be said for opinion pieces written by journalists who report federal politics. Each piece has its own merit (or not), but when there’s a trend in the opinion being advanced, then this is something worth noticing.

Why? Because the appearance of a theme in a string of opinion pieces suggests, not that several journalists autonomously and simultaneously came to the same conclusion, but that an external action or actor initiated that thought.

The external factor could range from something as innocent as journalists musing aloud to colleagues over coffee, to something more Machiavellian like a political operative briefing against opponents. Either way, it’s worth taking note when a trend appears in political opinion pieces.

Such a trend appeared this weekend. At a time when there is seemingly unending mainstream media criticism of the PM and her government, not one but five senior political reporters appeared to significantly escalate their scrutiny of Tony Abbott’s tactics and policies.

In his weekend column, SMH Political Editor Peter Hartcher ran the rule over the Coalition’s known policy positions and found “the Coalition is changing from the free-market, pro-business, economically sound party of Howard and Costello to a populist party under the influence of Abbott and Barnaby Joyce.

“Abbott’s opposition shuts down debate about workplace reform, shows signs of being tempted away from a wholehearted commitment to free trade, proposes a new tax on big business to fund an expensive parental leave scheme, and, while it certainly monitors government spending closely, has yet to explain its own fiscal policy.”

Hartcher’s stablemate, Lenore Taylor, pointed in her weekend column to the new heights in spin being employed by Abbott, “ignor[ing] facts altogether” to score political points.

Yet another Fairfax journalist, the Age’s Associate Editor Shaun Carney, sharpened the policy scrutiny focus even more in his weekend piece:

“Abbott’s assault on Labor has been almost entirely policy-free… He attracts support largely because of what he says he will not do and by his relentless critique of the government. His vision for Australia is defined by his negative appraisal of Labor. Even with the Coalition’s massive opinion poll lead, the time is coming when Abbott will have to do more than that. Perhaps it has arrived.”

Similarly, the West Australian’s Federal Political Editor Andrew Probyn, blogged that “Tony Abbott has sown the seeds of his own destruction. It’s not that he won’t win the next election. He most probably will. But unless he sets about seriously reconfiguring various policies, when he becomes prime minister he will either have to break promises, commit humiliating backdowns or attempt to wheedle his way out of controversy.”

And over in the News Ltd camp, somehow foreseeing this trend, The Weekend Australian’s National Chief Reporter Tom Dusevic contributed a feature on Abbott that examines his policy credentials.

What does this mean? It’s not that these pieces are the first to canvass the need for Abbott to show policy depth and integrity. Incoming Liberal Senator, Arthur Sinodinos, advanced it in his weekly Australian column back in early September. Canberra Press Gallery doyen, Laurie Oakes, covered it in his opinion piece last week on politicians lying.

But other columnists did not pick up the point until now. And all at the same time.

What does this mean? Do the reporters in question regularly chat, and decided last week that it was time to turn the heat up on Abbott’s policy credentials? Is this an indication that the tide is turning for Abbott in the Canberra Press Gallery? Perhaps.

Or has the Prime Minister’s newly-appointed Communications Director turned the heat up on journalists and demand parity in policy scrutiny? Maybe, but he has not yet officially started in that post.

We’ll never know how this alignment of political opinion pieces came about. Whether through independent thought, osmosis or suggestion, they do suggest a turning point; the beginning of a new phase for the Opposition Leader in which he is expected to do more than just oppose.

Time will soon tell whether a new trend has emerged. Stay tuned for more: it will be fascinating to watch.

Postscript: One week later – this from the Financial Review’s political editor, Laura Tingle. And then this from Laurie Oakes. Other notable pieces since then include this from The Australian’s Paul Kelly (paywalled), and this from Michael Gordon.

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Join the conversation! 11 Comments

  1. I think that this whole post is an example of wishful thinking and wilful blindness to the fact that Labor are going to be definitively thrashed at the next election…
    Abbott does not need to have an extensive policy portfolio, all he needs is to tell the electorate that he will put competent governance at the top of his agenda, oh yeah and to tell the voters that he is not from the ALP or the toxic Greens…

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  2. Well, Tony certainly agress with the above poster. He don’t need no policies…

    By the way, I think you’re being kind to Tom Dusevic in describing his puff piece as an examination of Abbott’s policy credentials.

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  3. Mr Rabbit and friends policy detail drought probably won`t end any time soon. The 2013 poll is still quite a way off. Will it be a re-run of the 2010 poll? I can`t see Mr Rabbit changing his advanced policy of NO for at least another year, but it is good to see some media heat applied. I suspect sometime in 2012, under much fanfare, Mr Rabbit will launch his advanced policy of NO-WAY.

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  4. politicians with no grandiose plans for us plebs are a blessed relief

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  5. Yes Katarina the older I get the less enthused I become by yet another activist wanting to change everything for the sake of change, Lets just have a period where the bills get paid, the necessary institutions are run well and that we can be “relaxed and comfortable once again…

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  6. Isn’t there a third option? That an ambitious Liberal has started backgrounding on Abbott, because they want to start building to challenge in late 2012?

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  7. MrTiedt excellent idea. Outstanding! *not-snark*

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  8. Troubled by a vague feeling that all is not well, rather than examine the issues, Australians have begun to whinge about perceived threats to their stellar standard of living. Abbott has unerring judgement of what resonates with this self-absorbed, determinedly uninformed electorate and has scored hit after hit on the Gillard government. Guided by spinmeister Mark Textor’s maxim that in political messaging ‘fear trumps hope every time’ he will continue to spout whatever he thinks will get him the keys to the Lodge until this occurs. So far it is working a treat.

    Commentators predicting that he will be found out when he is forced to unfurl a few policies assume that this will have to occur if he is to be elected. I don’t see that this will automatically happen. He will only change tack if the polls begin to sag and Australians are so hooked on the “she lied and they are hopelessly incompetent” mantra that Abbott might just cruise into power without needing to find any new slogans.

    Whatever. Should he win power all bets will be off. All previous pronouncements will be up for review. No pre-election ‘oath in blood’, whether ‘spoken in the heat of the moment or written down’ will constrain what an Abbott government will eventually do. There are many ways for new Prime Ministers to unmake pre-election commitments. The only reason it didn’t work for Gillard is because the Labor meat heads behind Gillard’s ascension so thoroughly shocked the dozy electorate with their inept removal of Rudd.

    Anyone looking for pointers to the likely trajectory of an Abbott government need only look to the most frequently sighted talking heads from the current opposition, Abbott himself, Abetz, Bernardi, Joyce, Brandis, Pyne and the resonances between their sloganeering and the ratbaggery of the US Tea Party movement.

    @Iain Hall may hope for a return to a quiet life but unless he is white, wealthy, conservative and uninterested in the quality of life for anyone else this won’t occur under Abbott.

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  9. Duggy 47

    I would love to know how my personal circumstances will make any difference to the prospects of the nation under an Abbott government, because frankly I did not think that I was that powerful or important 😉

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  10. […] in October last year, I pondered whether the tide was beginning to turn when a slew of serious journalists simultaneously started to […]

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  11. […] Drag0nista, 23 October 2011: Is the tide turning for Tony Abbott? […]

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About Drag0nista

Political blogger and columnist on the interwebs. Former Liberal staffer and industry lobbyist. Studying the entrails of federal politics since 1989. Otherwise known as Paula Matthewson.

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