One more time (with feeling)

I’ve written before about the Canberra Press Gallery’s changes of heart when it comes to Tony Abbott.

Back in October last year, I pondered whether the tide was beginning to turn when a slew of serious journalists simultaneously started to question the ongoing viability of the Opposition Leader’s negativity and policy free zone.

While Abbott’s relentless campaign continued, the level of scrutiny and gallery scepticism demonstrated in the October articles did not. By February this year, the only political writer to objectively scrutinise Abbott’s headland speech to the National Press Club was GrogsGamut.

Then in August, it was deja vu all over again, this time prompted by an excoriating Tim Dunlop piece arguing that if Tony Abbott didn’t exist the press gallery would have had to invent him. While Leigh Sales got much of the kudos for belling the Abbott cat a few days later, pretty much every serious political journalist took the Opposition Leader to task following the Dunlop piece.

That was in August. At the time, I wondered whether the press gallery would again lose interest in holding Abbott to account. Many journalists did indeed become distracted with other matters during September including the first 50/50 Newspoll, Lindsay Tanner’s book tour and Kevin Rudd’s various “look at moi” moments. But there was also “the punch” revelations in David Marr’s Quarterly Essay and the government’s attempts to leverage them against Abbott. October then brought us the event now known universally as the Prime Minister’s “misogyny speech”.

But it has not been until this week’s sitting of federal parliament, in the face of Abbott’s resolute determination to stick to his “stop the tax, stop the boats” mantra, that gallery journalists have begun to question the Opposition Leader’s political judgement.

Initially, the AFR’s Geoff Kitney gave a clear-eyed explanation of Abbott’s tactics, noting that the Opposition Leader is an instinctive populist:

On the day when a new Newspoll showed the Coalition and Labor tied on 50 per cent each of the two-party preferred vote, boosting the government’s confidence that Gillard is gaining the upper hand over Abbott, the opposition’s tactics seemed to Labor MPs (and no doubt to a lot of Coalition MPs) to be strange.

Labor MPs (and the same doubting Coalition MPs) are beginning to think that Abbott has failed to notice that some of the horses he has been flogging are dead.

That Abbott so blatantly ignored the government’s [Asian Century white paper] agenda suggests that his own private polling is telling him that the issues that dominate the tabloid and talk-back media are still political winners for the Coalition.

But his judgment is now facing its biggest test since the last election.

Since then, though, less and less confidence has been reflected by writers usually considered more supportive of the Coalition. Former Liberal staffer Peter van Onselen and conservative journalist Jennifer Hewett both drew parallels between Abbott and his former boss John Hewson, who lost the unloseable election to Paul Keating. Meantime, the Daily Telegraph’s Simon Benson compared Abbott with another ill-fated, budgie smuggler-wearing opposition leader, Peter Debnam. Even Coalition flag-bearer Dennis Shanahan expressed his doubts.

Abbott’s easiest days as Opposition Leader are behind him as he moves into a period where the polls tighten, the frustration about an “early” election among voters will ease as an election nears and he will be more closely assessed as an alternative prime minister.

… Of course, Abbott won’t and can’t stop his carbon tax campaign because it would be suicidal for his credibility and a shift from a genuine area of public concern. There is clear evidence that Abbott’s aggressive campaign against the carbon tax has cost him personal support. His daily media appearance in a fluoro vest or hard hat is losing its appeal and appropriateness as the Opposition Leader needs to become more authoritative and considered.

Does the gallery really mean it this time? Have they finally set their forensic scopes on the Opposition Leader? Will we see sustained pressure on Abbott over the coming months to relinquish his mantra and deliver policies that are not only costed but funded?

I doubt it. The Christmas holidays are too close and the 2013 election is too far away (in relative terms). Aside from a few more demands for “less door stops and more policy”, I suspect most of the political media will close up shop and take an early vacation as soon as parliament rises at the end of November.

Yet again, Tony Abbott will win a reprieve. Whether this is enough to win him the 2013 election is another matter altogether.

Is the tide turning for Tony Abbott?

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.