There may be achievements, but voters still aren't getting Labor's message

Anyone watching the events in Canberra last week could have been forgiven for thinking the wheels were coming off the Gillard government in spectacular style.

On Thursday, as Labor was forced to pull the plug on its long-awaited media reforms before they even got to a vote, there was the tragi-comic farce of a leadership challenge with no challenger.

While the non-spill meant Prime Minister Julia Gillard kept her job, the push was not without casualties. For one thing, the national apology for forced adoptions was all but overshadowed. For another, the partyroom ballot prompted a Coalition no-confidence motion against Gillard.

As of Saturday, four ministers and one parliamentary secretary had quit or been sacked for their allegiance to Kevin Rudd, along with the chief government whip and two deputy whips.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott seized on Labor's performance, telling Parliament: ''I used to think it was the worst government since Whitlam, but that is very unfair to Gough Whitlam … This is a government that has been monumentally incompetent.''

But while the Gillard government had to bat away the ferocious Opposition and deal with outspoken crossbenchers, the most fearsome challenges have come from within.

Not only has Kevin Rudd been a persistent niggle (and sometimes big headache) for Labor since the 2010 coup, the government has struggled to sell its successes. As Nielsen research director John Stirton puts it: ''When this government has had a good story to tell, they have failed to tell it.''

The party remains in the poll doldrums, with a primary vote in the latest Fairfax/Nielsen poll of 31 per cent - low enough to ensure a Labor wipeout on September 14.

But is the Gillard government really as ''incompetent'' as it seems? Despite the drama, the Parliament under Gillard has passed 485 bills since the end of 2010, including big-ticket reforms such as the (controversial) price on carbon last year and the National Disability Insurance Scheme, which passed last week. Over a similar period, the Rudd government had 409 bills passed, while the Howard government passed 520 in its final three years.

''The sheer volume of legislation that has got through a hung parliament is quite substantial,'' says Dr Ian Ward, reader in political science at the University of Queensland.

Minority government - where it is more difficult for a government to get contentious bills through - is very unusual in Australian history. The last hung parliament was in 1940, when Robert Menzies secured government with the help of two crossbenchers, who then swapped their support to John Curtin in 1941.

''Australia hasn't had a minority government to compare [the Gillard government] to in living memory,'' says Professor John Uhr, director of the Centre for the Study of Australian Politics at the Australian National University.

The disaster rhetoric around Labor and Gillard ignores the fact she has created history as the first female prime minister, a milestone, Uhr notes as an ''important moment in Australian politics''.

It isn't just about the title either. Gillard's ''misogyny'' speech last year has turned her into something of a feminist icon. More than 2.2 million people have watched the clip on YouTube, and she was voted most influential female voice of 2012 in a Fairfax Media Daily Life poll.

The symbolism of Gillard's prime ministership extends beyond Australia. As a Myanmar journalist said during a press conference with Gillard and President Thein Sein last Monday: ''I'm very much honoured to interview you like this … Being a lady, I'm very proud of you, for you are the first lady prime minister in Australian history.''

The Gillard years have featured low interest rates, low unemployment and an economy that continues to rate impressively against other developed countries. ''This government's got nothing to be ashamed of,'' Melbourne Labor MP Michael Danby said on Saturday.

Labor has not been shy about trumpeting its economic credentials. Almost every question time features a Dorothy Dixer to Treasurer Wayne Swan, who tells how the government saw Australia through the global financial crisis and is keeping the economy strong.

Yet many of the public do not agree. ''We have a popular perception things are tough … which is really puzzling,'' says Ward.

Stirton agrees the economy is a good news story for Labor. ''The government is ticking a lot of the traditional boxes,'' he says. However, it has struggled to communicate its successes to the voters.

Stirton suggests this may be because the government does not prepare the ground for major policy announcements. The debacle over the canned media reforms was a textbook example. Despite the fact the reforms were two years in the making, they were rushed through cabinet and presented to the public a week before the vote in Parliament. ''The need for the reforms appeared to have come out of the blue,'' Stirton says. It has been a cause of frustration for some in the Labor caucus that the government has had a habit of kicking own goals.

''Fairly regularly [the Prime Minister] makes a bad call,'' says independent MP Andrew Wilkie, pointing to the mining tax, which has so far failed to raise anywhere near the revenue it was supposed to. He also cites the appointment of Peter Slipper as speaker and the failure to cut Craig Thomson loose - both of which created continuing scandals.

Stirton, who tracks public opinion through the Fairfax/Nielsen poll, says the Prime Minister's decision to introduce a carbon tax in 2011 (after pledging before the election that she would not do so) also appears to have affected people's perceptions of Gillard. ''I think the government's never really recovered from that,'' he says, explaining that it reinforced people's pre-existing concerns about the way Gillard won the prime ministership from Rudd.

The frequency of bad judgment calls often serves to bury good news. As the media reforms combusted and the leadership tensions reached spill point, the Parliament passed the bill to set up the NDIS, which is expected to cover 410,000 Australians with disabilities.

While there is still detail to be negotiated, the NDIS promises to be the government's ''great social policy achievement'', says National Disability Services chief executive, Dr Ken Baker.

''The NDIS is a visionary solution to a longstanding big problem,'' Baker said. ''To its credit, the Gillard government has seen the vision and embraced it.''

Labor's deeds of governing have had to fight their way out of an unrelenting attack from the Coalition. Abbott's opposition has not just been to specific policies - such as the carbon tax or the mining tax - but to the existence of the Gillard government. Abbott ''is as energetic an Opposition Leader as I've ever seen,'' says Uhr.

Abbot has framed the government in a negative way from its earliest days, says Ward.

This includes arguments that the Greens controlled Labor and that the government was illegitimate - as well as regular and repeated calls for an early election.

As Abbott told Parliament on Thursday, ahead of the Labor ballot: ''Well, I say the faceless men got rid of the member for Griffith. They are about to get rid of the member for Lalor. I say let's get rid of the faceless men and give Australia a good government, a Prime Minister chosen by the people.''

In doing so, Abbott is tapping into a deep vein of discomfort - both in and outside of Labor - about the way Rudd lost his job in June 2010.

Rudd may have been toppled quickly, but he has been a persistent part of the Labor story ever since, starting with the leaks that interrupted the 2010 election campaign and finishing most recently with last week's spill. Throughout, Labor has appeared as a beleaguered party that was uncertain about its leader, says Uhr. This has not been helped by opinion polling that has consistently placed Rudd as more popular than Gillard, or any other Labor alternative. In turn, it has also made it easy for the Opposition - and other critics - to argue that Labor is more focused on itself than running the country.

Indeed, even as Simon Crean withdrew his support for Gillard in his surprise press conference last week, he said the ''internals'' had to stop, so Labor could get on with its delivering its message.

Stirton notes that governing and party soul-searching are not mutually exclusive: ''You can be working hard at policy and doing well and at the same time, doing way too much navel-gazing.''

But it is difficult for voters to see it that way. The pollster likens the country's fixation on Labor's leadership woes to people looking at a car crash.

''People don't want disasters, but if there's a disaster happening they will watch,'' he says. ''I think they watch in horror.''

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