The brilliant and remarkable Peter Brent of Mumble is, quite rightly, scathing about the concept of 'momentum'. Nevertheless, he's far too polite to rubbish me in print.
And thats why I've taken advantage of his reticence to attempt to defend the indefensible - attempting to justify something that doesn't exist.
Perhaps trusting in momentum is like believing in fairies - if you close your eyes and trust they're alive, they will come true after all.
This piece appeared in the Canberra Times yesterday . . .
Although not normally known for either an instinctive understanding of scientific concepts or a specific grasp of quantum mechanics, political strategists are obsessed with the idea of "momentum". They talk about generating velocity. They believe if their candidate can engender enough thrust (that is, trust and enthusiasm) doing this will be enough to carry them over the line to victory. As any political scientist will tell you, however, the concept is highly problematic.
For example, how do you measure momentum? After all, academics know that if something can't be measured it doesn't exist, which renders this column highly problematic. Because I do reckon there is such a thing as “oomph” (or momentum); it is real; and it does shift from one side to another. And, for the moment at any rate, it's abandoned Kevin Rudd.
Let's try for a working definition. A good way to assess where momentum might reside is by examining media stories about the respective party campaigns. These are a hoary staple of election coverage. It's where a journalist breaks away from the approved script they’re being carefully fed by the party apparatchiks and propagandists. Instead they write a story about what's happening "behind the scenes", letting the audience watch the puppet-masters at work. This happened twice last week. Both examples were very revealing.
Now the parties don't really want stories written about what's going on in the kitchen. They want you to focus on the pap that's being served up by the leaders. But not every journalist is lazy or stupid. The best correspondents, like the Financial Review’s Phillip Coorey, are always searching for more. They’re in their jobs because of a capacity value-add. They do it thoughtfully and, more importantly, accurately.
And that's what Coorey did last week. Rudd was in the Northern Territory and some strange combination of heat and humidity must have gripped him. Only a brain snap can properly explain the idiocy of Rudd’s announcement that the top end would, at some remote point two elections off in the future, enjoy a tax-rate to rival that of the Cayman Islands. Quite naturally, the travelling pack of journalists focused on the story.
Some did the parties bidding. They simply regurgitated the idea, without comment or analysis, before returning to wait patiently for the campaign team to deliver them another bright gee-jaw to report on. Those with a bit more intelligence began exploring Rudd’s idea. If this was such a good one, why hadn't it been done before? What are the legal obstacles? Was this, in actual fact, anything other than complete stupidity?
Coorey went a step further. He didn't simply examine the absurdity of the proposal, but instead turned it around to examine why it had occurred. He tried to understand what could be provoking such ridiculous gambits. By posing the question in this way his focus was inevitably drawn to the interplay between the mechanical unfolding of the campaign. This led to the grease – or friction – individuals were contributing. This is Labor’s problem. Instead of a smooth, well-oiled machine, the relationship between the party on the road (with the Prime Minister) and the party at home (in campaign headquarters) is showing evidence of enough grit and friction to derail the locomotive from the tracks.
The story is a perennial of election campaigns. A leader under pressure believes only they, personally, understand what’s going on. Only they have the ability to “cut through". After all, they reason, this why they are Prime Minister. Each insists that they are the only people who possess this remarkable, no, brilliant, no, almost mystical capacity to relate to the Australian people. Add a dollop of hubris and Rudd’s highly-developed egomania, and it doesn't take long before all the preconditions are in place for an explosion.
Coorey instinctively understood this. He read the interactions behind the events and knew what he was searching for. He went hunting and found it. And, as soon as his story broke, all the other reporters slapped their foreheads and said, “of course!" And suddenly, instead of reflecting intuitive reasoning, Rudd's frenetic activity was revealed for nothing more than the anarchic chaos it is. The next step might be forensic examination of his personality. This might reveal the empty darkness that lies at the heart of his campaign, but you'd need to speak to Julia Gillard to get that story right.
The other campaign story ran in The Australian. There was the usual rubbish about how the reporter (who is a well-known partisan political player) had secretly managed to be escorted “inside" the headquarters. Otherwise the piece was smooth propaganda. It even had the money-shot, highlighted in a little box. This is the percentage by which the Liberal party has improved its primary vote in each of the past elections.
The story made a simple point. There is a lot of hype surrounding Labor’s “machine". Most of it doesn't stack up when it’s placed under scrutiny. If allowed people to get back to focusing on the main game. This is not an election like that of 1993, when Paul Keating came from behind and out-campaigned John Hewson by characterising him as a “feral abacus". Tony Abbott may be unpopular but he's not dysfunctional. Rudd is.
Gradually the electorate is beginning to focus on the choice. Voters don't “want" either of the two men that the respective parties are offering up as leader. But stories like Coorey’s help them decide whom they like least.