Telling it like it is

Who knows, perhaps deposing your leader, saying your government had lost its way, then rushing to an election, wasn’t the great idea it seemed at the time?

All the criticism of the campaign and the media during the campaign – justified and unjustified – has its origin in this bizarre plan.

So don’t blame the press. Blame the ALP soap-opera they are covering.

This weekend saw an intensification of the criticism of the media that has been a constant feature of this campaign. A Julia Gillard press conference on Saturday, where she offered $4,000 training entitlements for older workers – to compete with Tony Abbott’s employment subsidies offered earlier in the week – and new regulation on reverse mortgages.

None of the press’s questions after were about the policy. Only one was about any policy at all.

But could the Prime Minister really have expected anything less?

Gillard had just returned from a meeting with the man she deposed a few short weeks ago. All that was provided to the media was brief footage of the two awkwardly pointing at a map. It would be a fair guess that more things were discussed between the two than the topographical features of the Australian coastline.

And, to add to the carnival atmosphere, Mark Latham was skulking around in the back of the press conference, exclusively for 60 Minutes.

The Labor Party seems determined to eat itself. It’s sucked all the air out of its campaign from the first day.

Latham has clearly imagined himself to be a journalist for some time, regularly divulging conversations which he had with the current Labor team in his pieces – obviously without their consent. Mark Latham’s columns in The Australian Financial Review are witty and entertaining, but are rarely little more than bomb-throwing.

The campaign opened with a spat between Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. Blanche D’Alpuget couldn’t have timed her new book better.

The contrast with former Liberal leaders couldn’t be stronger.

John Hewson pops up on Gruen Nation comfortable in his role as the kindly old uncle with an amusing backstory for the rest of the panel to tell jokes about. Apart from a few sly and embarrassed jokes at Tony Abbott’s expense, it’s hard to see how Hewson could ever be portrayed as undermining the opposition leader’s cause.

Malcolm Fraser has that weird, peculiarly Tory sense of honour – try your best not to talk about religion, politics, or the fact that you no longer vote for the party which you led to victory three times.

It took nearly six months for Fraser to reveal he had left the Liberal Party late last year. When asked on ABC radio last week why he believed that the Coalition was not ready to govern, instead of explaining, Fraser told the interviewer to read his book. Gruff, sure, but not damaging.

And Malcolm Turnbull has managed an extraordinary balancing act during this campaign. He’s simultaneously not a threat to Tony Abbott and supportive of his election, while being open and comfortable with the fact that he a) opposes one of Abbott’s major policy planks and b) has all the intentions in the world to be the future leader of the Liberal Party.

Turnbull is even campaigning with candidates around the country – he’s a full blown leader in exile – but hasn’t yet impacted Abbott’s election strategy one bit.

It would be quite funny if 60 Minutes sponsored Brendan Nelson or Peter Costello to follow Tony Abbott around the campaign trail hurling abuse. But that isn’t going to happen.

Doing so is a peculiarly Labor thing, evidentially.

Here’s a further clue that the vacuousness of the campaign isn’t the fault of the press: not even the standard campaign gotchas are getting much traction. There’s no laughing about how some candidate doesn’t know the price of milk. Or that a senior candidate can’t explain the “Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment” in a concise sentence. Or that some policy hasn’t been costed perfectly.

In less dysfunctional times, these are the sorts of flufferies that distract from the bigger picture.

It’s not that this campaign lacks the material: there’s much silly policy error this year. The government’s cash for clunkers program assumed, for some unfathomable reason, that the program would be undersubscribed. Of the 200,000 maximum buy-outs the program was to allow, the government assumed that only 180,000 would actually occur. This assumption seems to have been premised on the belief that Australians don’t like free money.

And it leaves cash for clunkers badly undercosted.

Similarly, there are serious questions about Abbott’s spending and savings commitments.

But the destructive personal relationships between Labor’s celebrities won’t even give enough space for either party to seriously pursue these sorts of failures.

Labor’s factional kings seem to think that eliminating a piece from the political chessboard means eliminating them from the political arena. Clearly, they’re wrong about that.

A rule of thumb in Australian politics is that every former leader, Labor or Liberal, eventually gets a weekly column, or a regular commenting gig.

But Labor’s internal culture means that when they do, they are so bitter and angry they are a major liability.