Political commentators thrive on controversy, upheaval, changing fortunes, changing circumstances. They particularly enjoy a contest between political parties, between opposing leaders and between ministers and their counterparts, and the more bloodshed the better. They are like spectators at a cockfight, so enjoyed in many Asian communities.
Since the election the fight has been somewhat one-sided. Brendan Nelson has not been a match for Kevin Rudd. He started in a weakened state after narrowly pipping Malcolm Turnbull, the then media favourite. A gentle rooster, he began with one leg pulled one way by the Howardites, the other pulled by the Turnbull team. He never had unqualified support from the Coalition cheer squad; there were too many who would have preferred Turnbull in the cockpit, or even Peter Costello. Moreover Nelson’s spurs were never as sharp or as long as Rudd’s, and the moves he made were awkward and easily countered. The media, rather than cheering for Rudd, gave Nelson the thumbs down; they did not see him as a winner against Rudd, and they wanted someone in the cockpit that would draw blood, get some feathers flying, and eventually win, at least some of the battles. They wanted a gory fight with a clear victor as much as they wanted a particular winner.
Political commentators are always looking for defects, deficiencies, inadequacies, weaknesses, vulnerabilities in the contestants. Unlike sports commentators, they are less likely to applaud strengths. Those who have partisan political views barrack, often subtly, but sometimes blatantly for their favourite. They are quick to highlight the opponent’s slip-ups, ‘gaffes’ as they like to call them; they criticize their decisions, demean their behaviour and expose their indiscretions – all with the intent of giving their favourite an advantage. But if despite this their favourite still messes up, still looses most of the time, still fights below their expectations, fails to draw blood, they push hard for a change of rooster. Cockfights are not much fun if your favourite usually gets whipped, and worse still if the crowd that has come along just for the spectacle give your favourite the thumbs down. [more]
So the media set on Nelson soon after his election, much as they did when Simon Crean was Opposition Leader, and never gave up seeking his removal, urging replacement with someone who could put up a better fight, and eventually win. When Nelson made yet another error of judgement in calling a surprise leadership spill and lost, they pounced, gave him faint praise for his doggedness in carrying out ‘the hardest job in politics’, began to forget him, and started to focus on the new fighting cock, whom they always favoured because ‘he could take the fight up to Rudd’. They saw Turnbull as a more aggressive rooster, with sharper and bigger spurs, and more fights already won. The fact that he failed as Shadow Treasurer to take the fight up to Wayne Swan, even when Swan was on his ‘training wheels’, the fact that Swan grew in confidence and competence steadily while Turnbull scarcely made an impression despite his reputation for financial wizardry, did not deter the commentators from promoting Turnbull as the counter to Rudd, to take the fight up to him, and perhaps make him a one-term PM.
The reaction to Turnbull’s appointment as evidenced by the opinion polls has been positive. Not surprisingly, he has immediately scored a higher Preferred PM rating than Nelson. That was to be expected; it could hardly be lower. And because when one rating moves, the other must move reciprocally, Rudd’s rating has come down. What happens over the next few polls will tell us whether the change is permanent and the trend consistent. Today’s ACNielsen poll shows a significant improvement in 2PP for the Coalition, Newspoll showed a more modest improvement, within the MOE, but that did not hold back Dennis Shanahan, who has yearned for this for so long, to start his piece Turnbull puts life into Libs in The Australian of 22 September, with: “Malcolm Turnbull's election as Liberal leader has dramatically cut Kevin Rudd's leadership advantages and restored the Coalition's credentials as economic managers at a time of global financial crisis.” In the same paper, Janet Albrechtsen’s blog intro reads: “It's game on now for Kevin Rudd - Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has met more than his match in Malcolm Turnbull.”
Their delight is obvious at this turn of events. They look forward to a more ferocious fight, more Rudd blood in the ring, more victories for Turnbull, their favourite, whom they’re now boldly backing. We’ll see. But political commentating as a blood sport has just got way more exhilarating. Watch it.