Breathless in Canberra

We’re at that dangerous point in the political cycle when journalists think they determine the outcome of elections. However one ex-journalist does seems to be turning the tide.

Mainstream journalists smell the blood of the Howard government. So there is a feeding frenzy inCanberra. But the truth is that mainstream newspapers and journalists are most often a curse or a distraction in politics. The public readily spurn or are bemused by the arcane world of 'media think'.

The current controversy over what Treasurer Peter Costello said two years ago at the height of a potential leadership challenge against John Howard is a case in point.

Almost every mainstream newspaper had a front page story yesterday illustrating some aspect of this old, tired and irrelevant story. It ate up countless words from political commentators with too much time on their hands.

The Canberra Press Gallery is way too large. It mirrors our national bureaucracy. Given the chance,Canberra commentators will ruminate on the extent of the morning frosts and what it means for the chances of the government or opposition.

They like our politicians live in a boarding school environment. They eat together, compete against each other, theorise against each other and rarely leave the enclosed compound of the big house on the hill. The day to day discussions over cappuccinos within parliament house reach a peak in the lead up to elections. It’s at this time that the life of a journalist gains its full luminosity. Politicians are eager for positive commentary and duchess them, fuelling the problem. Journalists egos rise to such an extent that they can never get enough words to write or report. Like junkies after a fix they turn up with their parliamentary passes wandering the Canberra corridors of power self importantly absorbed in some secret business of one kind or another. For all the world you would think they ran the country and made the greatest contribution of all to gross domestic product.

Lest we forget. It is the ordinary people of Australia who will determine the fate of John Howard and Kevin Rudd. Most do not read the newspapers or watch the news bulletins in which the Canberra press mob report from their competitive fish bowl.

One of John Howard’s great strengths has been his ability to ignore the Canberra press mob in the nicest possible way. He corrals them in to daily press briefings and is always available for commentary on issues he decides matter, but it is more important to him to be out in contact with people who do not read newspapers and watch political TV. In this he has been the best political campaigner of his generation.

The reason Kevin Rudd is doing so well is that the old hard heads in his office like David Epstein remember mistakes made in previous campaigns and particularly the capacity of Howard to campaign in what were regarded as die hard Labor electorates. They know that Howard’s ability too look through theCanberra mob and campaign amongst the people has to be matched and surpassed. It is simply no use worrying about what a self important Canberra press representative thinks. It is certainly no use duchessing or abusing them. They are an inconvenience more than anything else. The important thing is to be about with, communicating to, and thinking about, the people who never read political columns.

Howard has never been beaten on this front until now.

Of all people it is a journalist who is beating Howard at his own game. Maxine McKew is turning, what I once regarded as a Don Quixote like charge against Howard in his own electorate, into potentially the greatest historical victory of a candidate against a sitting PM. McKew is out there in the electorate walking the streets, door knocking, taking on the PM at his own game, every single day. The polls say she will go close to knocking Howard off.

With his own seat in doubt, Howard’s ability to campaign across the nation and to get amongst the ordinary voters is far more limited. For this reason, win or lose, McKew is Rudd’s secret weapon and she is proving devastatingly effective.

The real story, which the Canberra press mob and their newspaper editors will never write, is that Kevin is on track to winning in 07 regardless of whatever they write. Old fashioned campaigning and door knocking will yet decide this election. What a blessed day it would be if Australia ever found itself with a Canberrapress gallery that would be modest enough to admit that fact. Of course the problem of the Canberra fish bowl is that whatever prediction or commentary you make there is always another newspaper or tv report tomorrow in which history can be re-written.