On the thinnest of thin ice

If four astute observers of the nation’s political climate are correct, an extreme – possibly catastrophic – weather event will hit Canberra in mid-September this year.

In a session at the Perth Writers Festival last Friday, Laura Tingle, Chris Uhlmann and David Uren focused on the big low-pressure alarmospheric trough forming over the national capital with Phillip Adams.

The word “catastrophe” came up right at the kick-off. It has been on quite a few lips since The Australian Financial Review ran political editor Tingle’s article – “In a word, catastrophic” – on February 18.

“Catastrophic is the first and almost only word that comes to mind in describing today’s Nielsen poll for Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the federal government.”

The poll of 1400 voters indicated a swing of six per cent against the government, giving the Coalition a two-party preferred lead over Labor of 56% to 44%, with Labor losing up to 26 seats. Worse still, Julia Gillard lost her lead over Tony Abbott as preferred prime minister.

A Newspoll a week later confirmed the trend. Labor’s primary vote has dropped to 31% during the past three weeks, with the Coalition now on 47%. After preferences it leads Labor, 55% to 45%. The public commentary, too, has changed from “maybe” to “she’s gone!”

“Labor looks like a rabble, not a government,” wrote Tingle. “And it is not clear that who leads it actually matters. Regaining some sense of self-preservation, if nothing else, will be vital to its future, whatever path it takes.”

So when Adams asked his first question –“Can Labor possibly survive catastrophe in the forthcoming Federal election?” — Tingle’s response was no surprise when she reminded the audience (about 300) of an event in Salt Lake City, Utah, over a decade ago. “What was that ice-skating race a few years ago, when an Australian won because everybody else fell over?” she asked Adams. Labor would need a similar stroke of luck – or Divine intervention – to win on (or before) September 14.

“In the last week, even the most ardent Labor supporters have said: ‘I don’t think that is going to happen.’ The sense of catastrophe looming is exceptional.”

The event was the 2002 Winter Olympics. On the February 17, short-track speed skater Steven Bradbury, a 28-year-old from Brisbane, survived a late wipe-out to win the men’s 1,000m and Australia’s first Winter Olympics gold medal. It was the first win by any southern hemisphere country.

Bradbury won because a Chinese skater, Li Jiajun, triggered a mass tumble on the last turn. Ironically, he only qualified for the final event after similar incidents and disqualifications in the quarter- and semi-finals.

Chris Uhlmann, co-anchor and political editor for 7.30, lamented that Labor was a “severely broken – and desperately sad party”, not helped by its “idiot sons” in NSW.

Uhlmann reported recently asking an “extremely senior minister”, a government supporter, what happens next. His informant replied: “I have no idea. But if you have any bright ideas, let me know.”

 Was there anything – some external event – that could drive a Gillard government victory?

There was a chance, he replied. “Look, if the Martians invade — and she does a particularly good job of defending us — that might just get us over the line” (laughter).

The folk doing Kevin Rudd’s work, according to Uhlmann, “might as well be wearing T-shirts. They are chasing journalists down the corridors to tell them how badly they think the Gillard Government is going.” So a lot of the recent negative commentary is coming from the Labor party itself.

David Uren, economic editor of The Australian and author of Shitstorm: Inside Labor’s Darkest Days, had similar views.

“It does look desperate,” he said. But then, it looked desperate in 2001, when John Howard was trailing in the polls.

“I’m going to conduct the Adams poll,” said Adams, “which is universally respected for its remarkable accuracy.”

“How many sitting here in the University of Western Australia’s Octagon Theatre think that Julia can win the next election?” (Result: approx. 40 per cent) (at 39.36)

“How many think she can’t win it? (Result: approx. 60 per cent) OK. I won’t publish the findings of that poll!” (laughter).

"It’s good, but it doesn’t feel right," the skater Bradley said after his historic win. "I wasn’t as strong as the other guys out there, but I am going to take it (the gold medal).”

“I consider myself the luckiest man. God smiles on you some days and this is my day.”

Gillard will be hoping for similar help from Heaven – and a change in the intensifying alarmospheric weather – during the next few months.

Michael Kile,   January 2013

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