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Day 26: The Conventional Wisdom Turns

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong,” wrote H.L. Mencken. He might well have said something similar about interpreting Australian elections.

This week the conventional wisdom has turned. Whereas Julia Gillard was losing this time last week, now she is seen as “back on track”, “playing to Labor’s strengths” and “out-performing Tony Abbott”. Add your own cliché. Take your pick and pontificate.

The wisdom is supported by an assortment of events.

Tony Abbott admitted to Kerry O’Brien on Tuesday night that he’s not a “tech head” and doesn’t really understand the technicalities of broadband.

Who does, I wondered, aside from all those smarties on Twitter?

O’Brien was at his supercilious best when he told Abbott that “peak speed” is “quite an easy concept to understand.” As he explained it to the Opposition Leader, I realised I also understood the concept but I was unfamiliar with the technical term.

Obviously, I had also failed the ready-to-be-prime-minister test. The wisdom had spoken.

Last night at the People’s Forum at the Rooty Hill RSL club in Sydney, Abbott again failed the modernity test when he floundered in response to a question about censorship classification categories for computer games.

“I wasn’t aware there was a problem here,” he informed his questioner.

It did seem to be a failure of general knowledge on the Liberal leader’s part but as someone who needed an explanation of Mark Latham’s depiction of Laurie Oakes as Jabba the Hutt, I’m not one to be too superior about these things.

Until Julia Gillard started mentioning Barry Hall in every speech, I’m not sure I could have identified this apparently iconic figure.

The point is, we all have our own narrow frames of reference for deciding that someone else is out of touch and ignorant.

This week has been all about painting Tony Abbott as the man on the run, as the man who doesn’t understand why broadband is an economic issue of the highest significance.

As it happens, I agree with that view. Broadband availability is crucial to our future economic competitiveness and innovation. Fibre optic cable is the way the rest of the world is going. Wireless broadband doesn’t cut it, except perhaps at peak speed. (It’s an easy concept, remember?)

But what if Abbott is tapping into a much stronger conventional wisdom, the one that says $43 billion is a hell of a lot of money and what if they’re wrong about all this broadband stuff?

What if people still notice those duplicate Telstra and Optus cables in streets all over Australia and remember the policy stuff-up that created that mess? Why would it give you confidence that the National Broadband Network will be a model of economic efficiency?

The conventional wisdom about Julia Gillard has also changed this week. Gone is the woman who prostrated herself before Kevin Rudd on Saturday and whispered sweet nothings over an electoral map of Queensland without ever looking him in the eye.

Now we have the Julia Gillard who stared down Mark Latham and dismissed him with a witty one-liner.

This week she’s the Julia Gillard talking about education and performance pay for teachers. She’s the Prime Minister who’s going to make sure our kids go to school and the unemployed accept their responsibilities. She’s going to link Parramatta and Epping by rail. She’s warning against the Abbott threat to GP Super Clinics. She’s the bread and butter prime minister.

Gillard is on the front foot, the purveyors of conventional wisdom tell us. Look how well she did on QandA. She has Abbott’s measure. His policy-lite campaign is being exposed for the shallow con job we always knew it was.

But what if the voters are actually seeing the patronising Gillard who treated her Rooty Hill audience like a Year 7 classroom, instructing them to raise and lower their hands in a silly exercise designed to establish that few people can pay the mortgage or the rent if they don’t have a job?

What if the new-found analogy of the $100,000 income earner who borrows a measly $6000 doesn’t convince those swinging voters who’ve been absorbing Tony Abbott’s mantra of “paying back the debt”. What if it’s too late to persuade them that the debt to GDP ratio is okay after all?

What if those voters remember that pathetically embarrassing period when no-one in the Rudd government was game to use the “d” word?

Across the various newspapers, television, radio and online commentators there is a plethora of competing wisdoms.

But it’s not just the media commentators.

One of my local shopkeepers is predicting a hung Parliament. She thinks all those people newly enfranchised by the High Court last week are Greens voters. They’re young as well, so they must be greenie supporters. Those leftie justices have found a way to push a few more votes their way.

An old friend thinks Gillard is firing. “Surely” no-one could seriously vote for Abbott, he tells me. I remind him that when he opposed the Vietnam War the voters gave Harold Holt a landslide majority. When he maintained his rage and marched with massive crowds for Gough, they voted for Fraser. When he railed against the small-minded venality of Howard, they made him the second-longest serving Prime Minister after Menzies.

Another friend says Abbott’s big blunder can’t be far away. It WILL happen. It has to happen. Yes, just like it happened with that buffoon Bjelke-Petersen, or that clown Kennett. Eventually.

There is also another competing wisdom, the one that focuses on state differences.

The polls tell us the ALP is doing very well in Victoria. Did you notice Gillard was in La Trobe yesterday? She announced the crackdown on welfare recipients in Pakenham, the heart of aspirational, hard-working, tax-paying, middle Australia.

Perhaps the visit is a sign of confidence that the electoral tide has turned, that the ALP expects to increase its majority by winning La Trobe. If La Trobe is in the bag, can McEwen be far away? Deakin and Corangamite must already be secure.

But no, this conventional wisdom says the ALP is desperately trying to balance losses in Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australia with gains in Victoria and South Australia.

The evidence is compelling. Polling in marginal seats published yesterday shows the ALP struggling to hold on to perhaps 16 seats in NSW and Queensland alone.

Labor’s primary vote support in Queensland is at 35%, according to Newspoll. Queenslanders are angry about the way Kevin Rudd was treated, some say. Gillard’s personal satisfaction ratings are down also.

For some, conventional wisdom is subject to conspiracy theory. The Australian is waging an unsubtle war against the ALP. The stories of Labor losing north of the Murray are being fanned by a hostile force.

And then there are the commercial imperatives of a hungry media keen to fill acres of white space each day. This theory holds that the media needs a dramatic contest in the final two weeks of the election to maintain reader and viewer interest.

Others offer yet more variations on the wisdom.

The poll taken just before the election was called usually gets it right, says Hugh Mackay.

Governments usually win close elections, says Peter Van Onselen.

But, be careful, there’s really no incumbent in this election, says Peter Brent.

It’s a marathon, not a sprint, says Shaun Carney. Keep running because it’s the finish that counts.

But then the real campaign has only just started, says Michael Gordon. Abbott may have peaked and there is a hint of momentum for Gillard.

Conventional wisdom, thy name is media commentary.

Or, as Teddy Roosevelt put it, “nine-tenths of wisdom is being wise in time”.

This article first appeared on The Drum.

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