The left may have a host of number crunchers, graph bloggers and fact checkers, but as the conservative political machine knows best, you don't need the truth on your side to win an argument, writes Jonathan Green.

The conventional wisdom has it (a wisdom somewhat sensitive to the aspirations of Labor, it must be said) that the ALP's great electoral deficiency lies in its inability to sell a compelling message.

If only, the argument goes, the Australian voting public could glimpse the abundant good works of this Government. If it could but feel the width of the legislation, the solidity of the economic management, the vaulting agenda of constructive social reform ... if voters could truly see these things, how could they contemplate any vote other than a Julia Gillard vote?

There may be a grain of truth in it. But probably a greater truth is that this Government is not much better or worse at spruiking its achievements than any other. The greater truth is that in assuming that the mere facts of its record should be enough to carry the political argument, this Government fundamentally misunderstands the question.

The slightly uncomfortable fact is that success in modern politics has precious little to do with the truth.

This should be obvious enough by now. The politics of the past several years is littered with misrepresentation taken as fact; with those same misrepresentations converted to potent political talismans.

The government is high debt. (Well, no ... ) We are staggering under cost of living pressures. (The facts suggest otherwise.) The Parliament is paralysed by the lack of an effective majority. (Nope.)

You get the drift.

By way of further example, two words: 'pink batts'. The government's roof insulation program remains an oft-repeated byword in the popular imagination for waste and deadly incompetence.

What's the truth of it? The program actually introduced a new level of regulation and supervision to a previously unruly business, while also having the desired principal policy effect of increasing the level of roofing insulation and thus reducing power consumption directed to domestic heating and cooling.

Far from unleashing rampant and deadly profligacy, the government scheme actually had the effect of reducing the rate of house fires caused by the faulty installation of insulation. At his blog, economist Scott Steel , numbers provided by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, a usually reliable source:

What we found was that under every possible scenario, the government insulation program - far from increasing the rates of fire occurring from installing insulation - actually reduced the rate of fires and likely reduced the rate in a quite substantial manner.

You wouldn't read about it ... and wouldn't have, as it happens. For the other side of this fractured political equation is the media preference for accusation over accuracy, for sensation over sense.

But it's here that the sense of peeved disconnection begins to grow, a sense that leads to the series of wonderings in recent times that have set the Gillard Government's polling fortunes against its performance and then retired to express wonder that a Government so good should rate so poorly.

On Monday, Tim Soutphommasane thoughtfully for Fairfax, making the apparently reasonable case that on the basis of the evidence the Government ought to be performing better.

If this is what a crisis of government looks like, we're not faring too badly as a result. Australia, after all, is in a prolonged patch of prosperity. There is a paradox at the heart of Labor's current woes. It may be politically weak, but Labor in fact has a solid case for re-election. On any objective measure, the Rudd-Gillard governments have been good governments. They have been competent economic managers. They have achieved significant legislative reforms. And while they have had their missteps, no government is immune from error or miscalculation.

The problem is that cases for re-election are not - certainly not now - based on objective calculation. Cases for re-election are based on the creation of political impression, and the impression of this Government, successfully created and willingly propagated by its opponents, is that Australia is economically underperforming as a result of federal mismanagement, and that we are suffering through a long and debilitating period of rolling political crisis.

Is any of that true? It hardly matters. It's here that many on the left, many in the informed political class wrestle maddeningly with smoke. The modern pattern of politics has settled on a paradigm that sees truth as an angrily held preserve of a leftish group convinced that the facts are and should be an argument entire of themselves. On the counter side is a conservative political machine happy to deal with well-calculated and skilfully deployed impressions.

The blogosphere is filled with number crunchers, graph bloggers and fact checkers. The picture they provide is lucid, accurate, and challenging to many of the familiar political tropes.

But it is the tropes that leave the lasting public impression. The frustration for the left is the lingering impression that facts ought, in the best of all possible worlds, to get in the way of the story. Trouble is, the story is increasingly the story.

What works politically is in fact a compelling, ahem, narrative - whether it be manufactured from fact or fiction is not really to the point.

Which is what the left and Labor doesn't get. Fact checks, the record-correcting fleets of the blogosphere ... these things have right on their side but they are not making the winning argument.

Jonathan Green presents Sunday Extra on Radio National and is a former editor of The Drum. View his full profileĀ .

 

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