A party in search of a story: why so few are listening to Labor

Julia Gillard needs a ‘circuit breaker’ to turn the polls around. AAP/Andrew Taylor

The Gillard Government just can’t sell its message. That was the view of independent MP Andrew Wilkie speaking on ABC Radio National this week. Recent opinion polls confirm the government has communication problems as it continues to slip in popularity.

On one hand, it would be unfair to simply brand the government as being incompetent. It would be unrealistic to think that a minority government, that has to satisfy the needs of rural MPs as well as the more metropolitan-based Greens in order to keep power, would be able to provide a strong and cohesive policy program.

On the other hand, however, the government has been on the back foot too often. It’s hard to believe that it was just three and a half years ago that Kevin Rudd led Labor to victory with the mantra of “new leadership”.

Since then the government has grappled with policy failures (such as the home insulation scheme) and has had to deal with questionable strategic decisions, especially in removing Mr Rudd in favour of Ms Gillard.

The looming Carbon Tax has also raised more questions than answers. By providing an outline without detail, Labor has sowed seeds of uncertainty in voters’ minds whose jobs and livelihoods may be affected by a new tax. These have taken a toll on Labor’s support with the government now looking tired.

Losing touch with the public

More concerning for Ms Gillard is a sense that people are no longer listening to her or her government. Some of this apathy can be linked to the government’s actions. It seems to have knack for muddying its own waters.

It’s often seen to be standard practice that the Prime Minister, Treasurer and ministers focus on “selling” the Budget during budget week.

But rather than put all policy debates on the back burner, the government announced its arrangement with Malaysia to “swap” asylum seekers for refugees as well as releasing its broader immigration policy.

This not only stirred legitimate debate, but took attention away from the government’s Budget which it hoped would act as a springboard to greater political success.

Even more bizarrely, budget week ended with the “revelation” that Ms Gillard may marry her partner (since played down by the couple). While this attracted some interest, it smacked of a government trying to find a circuit breaker to arrest the slide in opinion polls.

Perhaps this is also a sign of Labor’s problems in that it appears to be too focussed on promoting Ms Gillard. In comparison, for example, John Howard was a master of fronting up to the media to present “good news” items while he often sent his relevant ministers to front the media to explain “bad news” or policy failures.

Aside from the Treasurer and leadership aspirants such as Bill Shorten, Labor Ministers have been absent in recent policy debates. There’s also a sense that the government leapfrogs from one policy debate to another and has yet to build a grand narrative of where it wants to take Australia.

Turning the polls around

But it’s not all bad news for Labor. It continues to enjoy the support of the independent and Green MPs in parliament and it is still two years away from an election. It also has the resources of government which, if used effectively, are a huge advantage.

Another element that may play into Labor’s hands is the Opposition. With current opinion polls showing the Coalition is almost certain to win the next election, aspirants such as Joe Hockey and Malcolm Turnbull may seek to get the Liberal leadership in order to become prime minister. Such actions would destabilise the Opposition and could swing support back to Labor. But such leadership turmoil is unlikely at this stage as Mr Abbott’s approval ratings continue to grow.

The government is not dead and it has plenty of time on its side. But the next few months will be crucial as to whether voters dive in to save Labor or continue to support the Coalition and sink the Gillard government.

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