Kevin Rudd's return to Sunrise is instructive. Parliamentary performances matter, but that's not what they're watching in Sydney's western suburbs, writes Barrie Cassidy.
Black humour has often been the Australian way of coping with adversity. So it is with Labor MPs in Canberra right now.
Here's a recap on the last two weeks in federal politics. The Prime Minister named the election date 227 days ahead of time, and the next day former Labor MP Craig Thomson was charged on multiple counts of fraud. Two days after that two prominent ministers announced they were quitting at the next election.
Then on Monday, Newspoll had the Government's primary vote collapsing by 6 percentage points to 32 per cent, and Julia Gillard losing almost all of her previously comfortable lead over Tony Abbott as preferred prime minister.
Then on the day that Craig Thomson finally fronted a court, federal ministers were named for accepting hospitality from former NSW MP and powerbroker Eddie Obeid.
By midweek, one senior government minister declared to colleagues at a Parliament House function: "We are thrashing them in the battle of tactics. They have no idea what we're going to do next."
Of all the elements that invited constant headlines of crisis, chaos and turmoil, the developments in the Thomson and Obeid cases hurt the most, exacerbating the already chronic problems in NSW.
MPs are now at a loss as to how the dire prospects for Labor in the biggest state can be reversed. On current trends, 10 seats could be lost in that state alone, almost rendering irrelevant what happens elsewhere.
The next most damaging element is that coming from within the Labor caucus itself. Disgruntled backbenchers, mostly but not exclusively supporters of Kevin Rudd, are increasingly backgrounding against the Prime Minister and some of her Cabinet. The analysis is volunteered and often nasty and vindictive.
The Prime Minister responded by castigating the leakers and demanding discipline, but even that is interpreted by some commentators as a sign of weakness on her part.
The media reporting reflects a house divided. The polls are a further reflection on that reality.
Respected blogger Andrew Catsaras hit the spot on Insiders on Sunday when he attempted to put opinion polls in context.
He said that polls, even those aggregated every month, are not predictions: "They are simply reflections, and because they are reflecting likely behaviour in a hypothetical situation, those reflections are not clear images of the future but rather blurred images of the past, and should be understood as such."
Catsaras spoke about the "extraordinary frenzy" that follows the release of each new poll, a ritual, he said, that "regularly weaves the threads of very little into the illusion of very much; one that routinely values opinion over fact; and one that is convinced that random variations in polling results actually mean something."
All that is sound, but all the same, big swings can have a profound impact on the morale of politicians, and so it was this week.
The latest Newspoll seemed to drain the energy from some of the previously heavier lifters within the ministry. They still talk of policy announcements to come; the unpredictability of seven months of politics; the chance of Tony Abbott miscuing along the way. But there is now an air of despondency.
A senior Coalition frontbencher insists his every political instinct tells him that Kevin Rudd will be returned to the leadership by the end of March. More than instinct; he claims to have seen research taken in western Sydney that demonstrates Rudd can recover much of Labor's lost ground where it matters the most. He suspects Labor research is turning up the same thing.
It's all idle speculation, for no other reason than nobody knows where the numbers are right now. Nobody is asking.
A report in the Fairfax media gave much prominence to a claim by one MP that Rudd now has 45 votes, an improvement of 14 votes on the party room ballot a year ago. Such unsubstantiated gossip is useless. In the run-up to the last leadership challenge, the ABC reported a small shift in support towards Rudd and named two MPs who had moved across - Kelvin Thomson and Richard Marles. There is a responsibility on journalists to offer up similar evidence when such high impact political matters are reported.
Yet the Fairfax report, taken up right across the media, including on the ABC, did not name a single MP who had shifted, not one.
However, what the related frenzy did expose was a dangerous level of exhaustion among some MPs who had fought hard a year ago to keep Rudd at bay. There is not quite the same sense of fury, the determined resistance that characterised the fight a year ago.
Rudd's decision to return to Sunrise on Channel Seven is instructive. His weekly bouts with Joe Hockey helped raise his profile and place him in a leadership position.
When he left, the network asked Bill Shorten to take his place. Shorten declined because he judged it might raise leadership tensions in his party. The gig went to Tony Burke.
Now Burke has been replaced and Rudd is back.
The network offered Hockey's role to Malcolm Turnbull, but he too turned it down for much the same reasons as Shorten did.
It's an indictment on modern politics that such a brief weekly media appearance should carry with it such implied political consequences.
But that's the way it is. It seems parliamentary performances matter, but brekkie TV is where the real action is. That's what they are watching in Sydney's western suburbs.
Barrie Cassidy is the presenter of ABC programs Insiders and Offsiders. View his full profile .