View from The Hill

Poll piles more pressure on Gillard

Gillard and Conroy’s media reform’s have been met with anger by some in the press. AAP/Alan Porritt

Predicting federal politics this week is like trying to guess the end of a dense and tortured thriller. One of the clues is today’s Nielsen poll, in which Labor trails 44-56% on the two party vote, unchanged from last month. But how much impact will it have on the plot – and the plotting?

The poll, which has Labor’s primary vote on 31 per cent (30 per cent last month), Julia Gillard’s ratings down and Rudd hugely more popular than she is as preferred ALP leader, is another devastating blow for the government and Gillard, whose prime ministership now clearly hangs in the balance.

It plays into the hands of the Rudd camp, whose campaign in essentially poll driven. It can argue that last week’s Newspoll, showing a 48-52% result, was a rogue. The Ruddites can also point to the reminder by Nielsen pollster John Stirton, writing in today’s Australian Financial Review, who points out that the Coalition has been in front on a two-party basis in every Nielsen poll since the 2010 election.

Data courtesy of Nielsen

The current parliamentary fortnight - the last before the May budget - has been a target period for the Rudd forces but, with the numbers still wanting or at least unclear and his “no challenge” undertaking, making change happen is another matter. The Gillard supporters claim the walls are fortified; so far, her key ministerial backers have held firm. But attacks can come suddenly out of nowhere and, given how a false rumour about a leadership move took off last Thursday, Labor is bracing for a wild week, with its end uncertain.

Meanwhile on the parliamentary front, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy’s highly controversial media reforms are foundering. If the crossbench numbers can’t be mustered by a herculean effort, the package, or those parts facing defeat, would be pulled to avoid humiliation on the floor of the House.

The media package is further destabilising Gillard, as her caucus critics question the poor handling of the initiatives and say that if they are lost they must be disowned and not carried to the election as Labor policy, because of the damage the media companies would inflict.

The government needs five of the seven crossbenchers to pass the bills in the House of Representatives.

Craig Thomson, the suspended Labor MP who is now a crossbencher, surprised colleagues last week by declaring his opposition. The Coalition says if Thomson is on its side, it will take one of its own out of the count to avoid his “tainted” vote, but that doesn’t help the government. (It is not “pairing” Thomson, which would mean having a Coalition MP vote with the government.)

With an opposition member outside the chamber, 148 of the 150 MPs would be eligible to vote (Speaker Anna Burke does not get a deliberative vote). Labor, on 70, still needs five for a majority; if the vote were tied 74-74, convention dictates Burke’s casting vote would be against.

In a fascinating coincidence of timing, media policy is this week causing great anguishin British politics.

The dramatic exposure of the Murdoch media’s hacking scandal sparked a huge public backlash, and promises by Prime Minister David Cameron – who was deeply embarrassed, like many other politicians, by revelations of his closeness to News International - to bring in measures to ensure greater media accountability.

But late last week Cameron cut off cross party talks on a new regulatory regime for the press, He is now proposing a “royal charter”, issued by the Queen, providing for the imposition of exemplary damages on papers that declined to be part of it. But it would not be embedded in legislation.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats – whose leader Nick Clegg is deputy Prime Minister - are teaming up to push an alternative, which would be legislated and would give the regulator sharper teeth.

The Observer reported that “on Saturday night it appeared that Labour with the Liberal Democrats would be able to build a cross-party majority to push through their regulatory regime”. The vote is due Monday (British time). Cameron has said he will accept parliament’s will on the question of the regulator being enshrined in law.

Though the Gillard government’s reforms, including a public interest test for transactions that threaten to further concentrate the media, and the removal of the exemption from the privacy provisions for organisations that do not sign up to a tougher press self-regulation regime - have merit, the government has done an appalling job of trying to sell them.

The rushed timetable – Conroy says they must be dealt with this week – and the government’s high-handed approach on detail have given crossbenchers an easy out if they want one.

Yesterday the government started to canvass some of the comments previously made by Press Council figures about the problems in the present system. But it has not been able to any headway against the heavily one-sided coverage in the Murdoch press (reaching beyond ludicrous in The Daily Telegraph) and the apparent reluctance by some other publications to encourage much extensive debate.

With Conroy scrambling to get any footing, Tasmanian independent Andrew Wilkie yesterday said he had not made up his mind but put forward criticisms of the measures, while the Greens said they wouldn’t be rushed and raised problems of substance. The magic number of five appeared to require a minor miracle.

Today executives from the major media companies will be in Canberra to be grilled by the politicians at committee hearings. Whether their performances will affect crossbench views one way or the other remains to be seen, but they are sure to provide some lively viewing.