Abbott’s image: an everyman for the every day voter

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We don’t have to go any further than the ubiquitous fluro vest for confirmation that image is as important to Tony Abbott’s election prospects as it is to Julia Gillard’s. The Opposition Leader’s man-of-the-people persona is as strategically fabricated as Julia Gillard’s portrayal of the strong, compassionate protector.

On Monday night, in the first instalment of Lateline’s feature on political image, we saw how Labor is crafting an image for the Prime Minister that says: I am strong, I understand your needs and I will fight for you.
The Opposition’s response has been to twist that perceived strength into self-centred ruthlessness and subvert any nascent respect for Julia Gillard with doubts about her competency.

In the second instalment shown last night, Labor strategist John Utting and the Coalition’s Mark Textor put their respective spin on how voters perceive the other prime ministerial contender, Tony Abbott.

A successful opposition leader needs to be what the prime minister is not, and to demonstrate superiority in those points of differentiation. John Howard did so by styling himself as a man of the common people in contrast to PM Keating who was depicted as aloof from the broader community. Kevin Rudd similarly made ratifying the Kyoto Protocol and scrapping WorkChoices his points of divergence from PM Howard.

And so we see the Coalition carefully crafting Tony Abbott’s image to portray him as distinctly different from Julia Gillard’s Commander-in-Chief: he’s being pitched as an everyman, one of us, just another Joe who holds no airs or graces and understands the problems and concerns of the everyday voter.

This is what the endless shopfloor walks, truck drives, fish fillets and assembly-line inspections are all about. This tactic has particular resonance in western Sydney, the “crucible of modern Australia” according to Labor’s John Utting.

As political blogger Preston Towers recently wrote in a post about western Sydney, Abbott’s blokey demeanour is well received in those circles. According to Towers, Abbott is perceived as:

“…part Vladimir Putin, part Bollywood star and part tradie. Indeed, some people might well believe that Abbott used to be a tradie in a former life, he wears headwear and safety vests so much. Tradies play well amongst many in Western Sydney, because they are the lifeblood of the region… The strategy of having [Abbott] doing things, being physical, being an Alpha Male, does have resonance amongst those in the West who do similar things, or look up to people who do those things.”

Mark Textor confirmed as much last night, saying: “You need to demonstrate you are in touch with the community. The community volunteers on Clean Up Australia Day and the community goes out there and volunteers with the Nippers and the Surf Lifesavers. Tony has a history in always participating in those events even before he was Opposition Leader…”

Interestingly, Labor has not attempted to dismantle Abbott’s everyman construct, which could be said to be his strength. Instead, they’ve chosen to exploit Abbott’s weak spots: his perceived ‘woman problem’ and religious conservatism.

I wrote yesterday in the companion to this piece that our voting choice is significantly influenced by the images our political leaders project. We base our judgments about a politician’s suitability, trustworthiness or competency not only on what they say, but how they say it, how they behave, what they’re wearing (or not wearing), where they visit and who they’re with.

As a result, some voters are apprehensive about Tony Abbott and the extent to which his conservative Catholicism influences his decisions. They’re troubled by his swagger and the archaic prism through which he views women and gender issues more broadly. And they’re worried that Abbott’s emulation of Howard will extend to the reintroduction of WorkChoices.

John Utting explains it thus: “lots of women, especially younger women, are quite uncomfortable with what they perceive as [Abbott's] white bread 1950s style social conservatism.”

The Coalition’s tactic to counter these concerns has been to stage media opportunities featuring Tony Abbott’s wife, daughters and gay sister, all of whom have heartily testified to the Opposition Leader’s late but genuine transformation into a new age guy.

While the strategy has been met with scorn from Labor voters, it is not aimed at changing the minds of those already decided against Tony Abbott. It is intended to allay the concerns of those who’ve not yet chosen which way they will vote.

Although Mark Textor was unwilling to confirm it last night, the high-profile presence of Tony Abbott’s traditional nuclear family is also a strong point of differentiation being made with the unmarried, childless Julia Gillard. This tactic is aimed at strengthening the Coalition’s base vote.

Perhaps the most telling attempt to influence voter perceptions of Tony Abbott is the recent entreaty that he “has changed”. Mark Textor says this is not necessarily a strategy to shape Tony Abbott’s image, but is more self-evident: “I think it’s the truth. We all grow.”

But on several recent occasions, Tony Abbott has effectively sought permission from voters to be able to “grow into” the prime ministership, as he did when he became health minister and, as Mark Textor mentioned last night, John Howard did when he became prime minister. This is an interesting new dimension to the construct that is Tony Abbott’s political image. It suggests there may be voter concerns the Opposition Leader is not ready, or equipped to sit in the big chair. Or it simply may be a tactic to assist the Opposition Leader’s transition from Dr No to the alternative prime minister.

Over the past two nights Labor’s John Utting and the Coalition’s Mark Textor have lifted the lid on the myriad perceptions, assumptions and biases that shape our voting decisions. They also set the scene for the real federal election battle that is yet to come.

According to the images being crafted for our political leaders, we are being given the choice between a strong, compassionate protector and an evolving man-of-the-people. Alternatively, we must choose between a ruthless incompetent and an anachronistic misogynist. Despite knowing that we are being manipulated by image-crafters like Textor and Utting into making this decision, the choice on polling day will not be any easier.

You can watch Suzanne Smith’s report - Opposition Leader’s Image – on the Lateline website.

This post first appeared at ABC’s The Drum.

A picture is worth a thousand votes: images of a leader

Gillard

Image: it’s politics’ dirty little secret. Despite protestations that our voting decisions are driven by parties’ policies, the truth is our choice is significantly influenced by the image our political leaders project.

We don’t like to admit we’re that superficial, that we could choose a government on the colour of a man’s tie or the timbre of a woman’s voice, but this is the political reality being managed, if not manipulated, by political strategists.

We got an insight into the importance of political image last night on ABC’s Lateline. In the first of a two-part feature, Coalition political strategist Mark Textor and Labor’s John Utting showed how voters’ responses to politicians are shaped by instinct rather than policy analysis.

Looking first at Julia Gillard, the feature explored how Labor is attempting to craft an image that sends three messages about the Prime Minister: she’s strong and will fight for you; she understands your needs; and while you might not like her, she is worthy of your respect.

It appears Labor has only lately come to the realisation that potential Labor voters respond positively to the idea of Julia Gillard as a strong leader. The epiphany most likely came when the Prime Minister gave her ‘misogyny’ speech, which wasn’t so much a rallying cry for women but for all the people who had been waiting for a sign that Julia Gillard was capable of standing up and fighting for a genuinely heartfelt principle.

Yes, there was the inconvenient (and, to some, inherently hypocritical) matter of sole-parent payments being reduced on the same day, but the speech signposted the point at which Labor voters felt Julia Gillard finally became the leader she claimed to be at the time of the Rudd coup.

Since then, purposeful presidential images on television accompanied by assertive general statements on signature issues such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme, Gonski education reforms, Royal Commission into child abuse and Australia’s relationship with China, have all helped to create a perception that the Prime Minister is a strong leader.

As Labor’s John Utting says, “all reinforce an underlying perception that many voters have, irrespective of what they think of [Julia Gillard] on a more personal level or on a policy orientation, but voters almost to a man and more importantly to a woman do acknowledge her as a very strong, effective leader.”

In contrast, the Coalition’s Mark Textor says it’s not enough for the Prime Minister to be seen as tough, that the toughness needs “to have a personal consequence” for voters or a positive outcome for Australia, such as John Howard’s potentially rural-vote-losing decision on gun control. Textor dismisses any prospect of Julia Gillard replicating Howard’s ability to attract the ‘respect’ vote.

Another image-crafting strategy being deployed by Labor is to create a sense that Julia Gillard is in touch with voters. In the case of connecting the Prime Minister with women bloggers and their vast digital audiences, this strategy worked particularly well. Other online activities such as live blogs and an appearance at a Google+ hangout has also helped the Prime Minister to appear in tune with, and talk directly to, younger voters. But much less effective was the trip to western Sydney, the “crucible of modern Australia” according to Utting, which was so highly orchestrated that the Prime Minister barely shared the same room with a genuine ‘average’ voter the entire week she was there.

Despite Mark Textor dismissing their capacity to do so, it seems clear Labor ARE trying to play the respect card. Julia Gillard is being portrayed as a Prime Minister who might not be loved like Hawke or admired by Keating, but who can be grudgingly respected like Howard. John Utting says as much last night:

“It is amazing what she has done: some of the biggest reforms in Australia’s history. Some are still warming to her but there is no doubt what she has achieved and the increasing respect the PM is held in.”

Mark Textor deflects this by playing the ‘competence’ card, saying there can be no respect if nothing has been delivered and suggesting that uncertainty will continue to overshadow any future Labor Government.

While it’s easy to dismiss what these two strategists say as mere spin, pumping up their leaders’ tyres while deflating the others’, their commentary last night nevertheless provides us with a couple of informative insights. Firstly, both men confirmed the importance of image in the campaign for and against Julia Gillard.

Secondly, they gave us a preview of the main themes being developed for the election campaign. Labor is crafting an image for the Prime Minister that says: I am strong, I understand your needs and I will fight for you as I have fought for Gonski and NDIS. Meanwhile, the Coalition is trying to subvert any perception of the Prime Minister’s strength by suggesting she is only tough when aggressively taking on Tony Abbott or defending her Prime Ministership against Kevin Rudd.

The 2013 election campaign then, it seems, will centre on the choice between a strong, caring leader versus a ruthless, incompetent politician. It will be interesting to see which one the Australian voters decide is which.

You can watch Suzanne Smith’s report - PM’s Image – on the Lateline website.

This post first appeared at ABC’s The Drum.

Not Leigh Sales’ job to save Labor

I’ve written before that Twitter has become an unexpected school of politics, providing a unique forum for people with less knowledge of our civic processes to learn from those with more. When those discussions are taking place, Twitter is vibrant and all-embracing democracy at its best.

Well, Wednesday night was NOT one of those times.

Over a particular 24 hour period Twitter demonstrated just how aggressively puerile it can be. And in spitting their dummies in ever-lengthening arcs, partisan tweeps missed the point altogether.

The event in question was the long-awaited interview by 730’s Leigh Sales of the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott.

Screen Shot 2013-04-26 at 12.02.27 AMThe interview was long-awaited for two reasons: it had literally been quite some time since Sales had last interviewed Abbott. The Leader of the Opposition’s team had clearly been keeping him away from “hard” political interviews, choosing instead to conduct photo-opportunities with limited questions from the media, stand up press conferences from which he could stride away when the questions become unwanted and set-piece speeches and events like the recent community forum with its hand-picked audience.

The other reason the interview was long-anticipated was that on the previous occasion Abbott had been interviewed by Sales, he’d been ill-prepared and she’d made the most of it. Abbott’s poor performance that night was the main reason he’d been kept away from hard interviews ever since.

But Wednesday afternoon, Sales tweeted as she often does at that time of day to announce her interview guest would be Tony Abbott. Twitter went aflutter. The Press Gallery must have too, with Age columnist Tony Wright writing this breathless preview.

From then until the program went to air, Sales was bombarded with tweets giving gratuitous advice on what questions she should ask.

Screen Shot 2013-04-26 at 12.40.25 AMThe mob was just getting warmed up. I made a fairly obvious comment about the invidiousness of Sales’ position and was called an MSM apologist.

Others opined that Sales should just “do her job” which was variously interpreted as being everything from not saying anything to interrupting or … not interrupting.

When the time came, I chose to watch Twitter instead of the interview (mostly because I don’t watch tv news and current affairs, but also because I knew I could time-shift it later).

Screen Shot 2013-04-25 at 10.51.17 PMAbbott had minutes before tweeted about the interview, making it clear it was pre-recorded.

Conspiracies began to fly, principally that Abbott’s mistakes would be edited out by the ABC and/or that Sales’ questions would have been provided to Abbott before the interview. (No similar criticism was made when Sales’ recent interview with the Prime Minister was also pre-recorded.)

The Twitter meltdown was spectacular and lasted well into the evening, as well as the next day.

Having already pruned my tweetstream of most offensive tweeps I did not see the worst of it. Sales gave us a glimpse the next day.

Screen Shot 2013-04-25 at 11.51.35 PM

An interesting contribution was made by Peter Clarke over at Australians for Honest Politics. As a former broadcaster and an educator, Clarke provided a critique of Sales and suggested what she should have done during the interview. He produced a similar critique for Sales’ interview of the PM. (I look forward to future analyses of Tony Jones, Emma Alberici and Barrie Cassidy’s interviewing prowess or lack thereof.)

The critique of Sales’ Abbott interview was diminished considerably by the conspiratorial allusions that followed:

Has Sales personally or the 730 program generally lost their knack to scrutinize the man (and woman) competing for the prime ministership? If so, what veiled process has brought us to this? What has happened to Sales’ previous admirable abilities to forge and ask, in context, sharp, forensic, confronting questions on our behalf? And to deploy the right tone and weight of personality and to be flexible with those choices on the run?

Where was the clear evidence of a pre-planned strategy for this interview from Sales and her team? If they had one, it went to water early on.

In short, what is actually happening behind the scenes at 730 to leech this program of its effectiveness just when we need it most to do its fourth estate job effectively without fear or favour?

While it’s fair to ponder the extent to which the ABC might pull its punches to stay onside with an incoming government, there was little evidence of this occurring in the Abbott interview (yes I have watched it). Sales was well-prepared and took Abbott up on most of his rebuttals, even though she has toned down the interviewus interruptus style that so annoyed viewers during the previous interview with the Prime Minister.

Peter Clarke criticises Sales for not pressing Abbott on several occasions when opportunities presented themselves. But with this being a pre-recorded interview and likely edited down to 13 minutes from a longer version, it’s quite possible Sales did pursue several lines of questioning. If Abbott was ultimately able to evade these questions there would have been no point leaving his manoeuvring in the final cut, particularly with so many topics vying for air time.

Even though there was no gotcha moment similar to that which brought on Abbott’s gaffe last year, Sales did elicit some interesting and newsworthy pieces of information:

  • Abbott refused to put firm timing on business tax cuts and the paid parental leave scheme
  • He continued to move away from promising a surplus and spoke instead about a “pathway to returning to surplus”
  • He claimed the Coalition had to find much less than $70 billion in savings
  • He attempted to portray commitments being made by Gillard, which dont have to be fulfilled until after the election, as ‘booby-traps’.

Most interesting was Abbott’s concession about needing to “grow into” the role of PM, as he once grew into the role of health minister. This suggests Coalition market research is finding voters think Abbott might not be PM material.

Screen Shot 2013-04-25 at 11.52.52 PMOf course, this fascinating point was lost amongst the wailing and rending of clothes on Twitter by Labor supporters.

Meanwhile a heretofore unknown blogger [to me], Anthony Bieniack, made this illuminating observation in his post “Repeat after me: Leigh Sales is not the problem”:

There’s a lot of theories as to why to Tony Abbott is doing so well –  with varying degrees of merit – the one I personally believe is that the ALP have a particularly bad communications team, good policies are not being heard and bad news is reverberating, but I think it goes deeper than that. I think it’s us.

It’s Twitter, its Facebook, it’s slacktivism – and it’s killing us, because while us Twitter-loving commies are sitting around patting each other on the back and pretending we’re valiantly fighting a tory threat – our opponents are recruiting and growing. While we’re writing obscure blog posts about percentages of GDP and preference-sharing and telling each other how clever we are – our opponents are telling a plumber that Julia lied to us and Abbott is our saviour.

We aren’t fighting anything – we’re preaching to the choir and wasting time doing it.

We’ve become lazy, we’ve got faith in the failed logic that policy is all that matters and that Leigh Sales will eventually be our hero – she’s not our hero, she’s not our saviour and that isn’t her job – it’s ours.

Stop Tweeting, stop blogging, stop retelling the same anti-Abbott stories to people who have already made up there mind. Simplify your message and tell it to the people who don’t care much for politics. Tell your hairdresser, tell the guy next to you on the tram. Listen to people and find out why they’re not on your side and have a succinct response. Join a political party, get some flyers, spread the word and stop blaming the media.

After all, if your friends have more faith in the Herald Sun then they have in you – you have the credibility problem.

If Abbott wins it won’t be because the ABC didn’t harass him about his education policy – it will be because when people were deciding who to vote for, we were telling each other how funny we were on Twitter.

Boston news coverage – first is not best

Photo: Gawker.com

Photo: Gawker.com

Here’s my latest at AusVotes 2013…

Modern journalism is impoverished by the anachronistic need to be first.

Once upon a time, in the pre-internet days of the mechanical printing press and morning edition newspapers, there was real value in getting a story first. A scoop, leak or exclusive wasn’t just about journalistic cachet, it was about cold hard cash. Being first meant selling more newspapers than your competitors, by having a story they didn’t have until their next editions rolled off the presses.

As a result journalistic merit was, and often still is, measured by being first instead of best. Walkley awards have been handed out for scoops that resulted not from investigative journalism but journalists being strategically chosen by political players to be the recipient of leaked information.

This journalistic mind-set has not adapted to the digital age of instantaneity. While someone can still get a buzz from being the first to tweet an important piece of information, there is no monetary value that can be extracted from this primacy. [An increased Klout score resulting from 20,000 retweets doesn’t qualify.]

The redundant need to be first is mistakenly still equated with ‘winning’ and it sits at the heart of what is wrong with modern journalism. It drives journalists to publish half-baked stories and poorly-verifiedinformation. It encourages the substitution of analysis with opinion. In short it rewards shoddy journalism.

Click here to keep reading…

Patsys, players and the future of Australia’s political media

Here’s my latest post for the AusVotes 2013 federal election blog…

The most significant thing that emerged from the mea culpas and post mortems that littered the coup-that-wasn’t battlefield was the notion that journalists are willing to be made patsys.

What other explanation can there be for the role the media played in the Rudd camp’s most recent premature leadership tourney?

Seasoned journalists proved yet again their willingness to publicly be made to look fools in return for being able to participate in private leadership maneuverings.

Click here to read more…

Find Ashby and find some facts – the D&M Newshound Challenge

You might recall I said in my rant about the #AshbyInquiryNow campaign that:

“there is much that is just plain wrong in the Slipper/Ashby saga: the Coalition turned a blind eye for many years to Slipper’s suspected abuse of entitlements; the Government chose him as Speaker despite similar knowledge; Ashby deceived and manipulated, giving little mind to the potential personal cost on others; and Brough has not yet been called to account for his involvement in Ashby’s scheme.”

Many comments followed the post, here and on Twitter, and there has been a genuine attempt to identify ways to address the latter points.

While we might disagree on some things, Margo Kingston and I do agree that the Federal Court’s judgement raises matters for which Ashby and Brough must provide explanations. While the procurement and provision of Slipper’s diary might attract legal charges, it seems unlikely that any will arise from the abuse of court processes that was identified by Justice Rares.

Margo has already challenged the Sunshine Coast Daily to tackle Brough on his involvement with Ashby’s complaint.

But where is Ashby? Is his announced appeal against Rares’ findings actually a strategy to deflect media attention until some other political drama arises? Or is the media avoiding him anyway, in the same fashion they avoided anything other than scant coverage of the Federal Court judgement?

I’ve said I’d support actions that have substance and deal with known rather than suspected protagonists. In response Margo suggested I join her in challenging journalists to find the elusive Mr Ashby and get some answers.

And so I have. Consider it the inaugural D&M Newshound Challenge.

There’s plenty that we need to know, and only one person who can tell us. Why did Ashby accept a job in December 2011 with Slipper when he was already uncomfortable with texts he’d received from the then Deputy Speaker as early as October? Why did he not use other avenues of complaint/redress rather than going straight to courts? Why turn to Brough after describing him in considerably negative terms to Slipper? Who’s paying his legal bills? And was he encouraged to turn against Slipper in January 2012 and for what incentive?

So that’s the challenge. Find Ashby and find some facts. We’d love to read, hear or watch reports from fourth and fifth estate journalists on their strategies and progress in meeting this challenge. Surely there’s someone among Australia’s many talented investigative journalists, professional and amateur, who can succeed.

One more time (with feeling)

I’ve written before about the Canberra Press Gallery’s changes of heart when it comes to Tony Abbott.

Back in October last year, I pondered whether the tide was beginning to turn when a slew of serious journalists simultaneously started to question the ongoing viability of the Opposition Leader’s negativity and policy free zone.

While Abbott’s relentless campaign continued, the level of scrutiny and gallery scepticism demonstrated in the October articles did not. By February this year, the only political writer to objectively scrutinise Abbott’s headland speech to the National Press Club was GrogsGamut.

Then in August, it was deja vu all over again, this time prompted by an excoriating Tim Dunlop piece arguing that if Tony Abbott didn’t exist the press gallery would have had to invent him. While Leigh Sales got much of the kudos for belling the Abbott cat a few days later, pretty much every serious political journalist took the Opposition Leader to task following the Dunlop piece.

That was in August. At the time, I wondered whether the press gallery would again lose interest in holding Abbott to account. Many journalists did indeed become distracted with other matters during September including the first 50/50 Newspoll, Lindsay Tanner’s book tour and Kevin Rudd’s various “look at moi” moments. But there was also “the punch” revelations in David Marr’s Quarterly Essay and the government’s attempts to leverage them against Abbott. October then brought us the event now known universally as the Prime Minister’s “misogyny speech”.

But it has not been until this week’s sitting of federal parliament, in the face of Abbott’s resolute determination to stick to his “stop the tax, stop the boats” mantra, that gallery journalists have begun to question the Opposition Leader’s political judgement.

Initially, the AFR’s Geoff Kitney gave a clear-eyed explanation of Abbott’s tactics, noting that the Opposition Leader is an instinctive populist:

On the day when a new Newspoll showed the Coalition and Labor tied on 50 per cent each of the two-party preferred vote, boosting the government’s confidence that Gillard is gaining the upper hand over Abbott, the opposition’s tactics seemed to Labor MPs (and no doubt to a lot of Coalition MPs) to be strange.

Labor MPs (and the same doubting Coalition MPs) are beginning to think that Abbott has failed to notice that some of the horses he has been flogging are dead.

That Abbott so blatantly ignored the government’s [Asian Century white paper] agenda suggests that his own private polling is telling him that the issues that dominate the tabloid and talk-back media are still political winners for the Coalition.

But his judgment is now facing its biggest test since the last election.

Since then, though, less and less confidence has been reflected by writers usually considered more supportive of the Coalition. Former Liberal staffer Peter van Onselen and conservative journalist Jennifer Hewett both drew parallels between Abbott and his former boss John Hewson, who lost the unloseable election to Paul Keating. Meantime, the Daily Telegraph’s Simon Benson compared Abbott with another ill-fated, budgie smuggler-wearing opposition leader, Peter Debnam. Even Coalition flag-bearer Dennis Shanahan expressed his doubts.

Abbott’s easiest days as Opposition Leader are behind him as he moves into a period where the polls tighten, the frustration about an “early” election among voters will ease as an election nears and he will be more closely assessed as an alternative prime minister.

… Of course, Abbott won’t and can’t stop his carbon tax campaign because it would be suicidal for his credibility and a shift from a genuine area of public concern. There is clear evidence that Abbott’s aggressive campaign against the carbon tax has cost him personal support. His daily media appearance in a fluoro vest or hard hat is losing its appeal and appropriateness as the Opposition Leader needs to become more authoritative and considered.

Does the gallery really mean it this time? Have they finally set their forensic scopes on the Opposition Leader? Will we see sustained pressure on Abbott over the coming months to relinquish his mantra and deliver policies that are not only costed but funded?

I doubt it. The Christmas holidays are too close and the 2013 election is too far away (in relative terms). Aside from a few more demands for “less door stops and more policy”, I suspect most of the political media will close up shop and take an early vacation as soon as parliament rises at the end of November.

Yet again, Tony Abbott will win a reprieve. Whether this is enough to win him the 2013 election is another matter altogether.

This time, the MSM got it right

Photo by Alex Ellinghausen

Before I get to the substance of this post, I’d like to provide some context. I’m a former Liberal staffer. The last time I was employed as a political staffer was in 1993, and I’ve never worked for the Liberal Party since, nor am I member of any party. I do not vote, and have not done so for the past two ACT and federal elections. I will not be party to any vote that results in Tony Abbott becoming Prime Minister.

I like Julia Gillard. She is a gutsy, intelligent and compassionate woman who I consider to be a formidable role model for all Australian girls and women. But I will not vote for her party either.

I provide this background in the hope that readers will accept that I have no political axe to grind when I say that the MSM’s coverage of yesterday’s political events is more perceptive than they are being given credit for, and that there seems to be a number of people using social media who are deluding themselves as to what actually happened.

Let’s revisit the event. After asking the Prime Minister in Question Time whether she continued to have full confidence in the Speaker and, if not, what steps she would take to remove him from the position, Tony Abbott then moved a motion to remove the Speaker due to him not being fit for office.

Abbott specifically used only the content of Slipper’s texts, which are in the public domain and uncontested, to craft his accusation against Slipper. Building upon the growing sentiment in the community against misogynist views and language demonstrated by the #destroythejoint movement, Abbott painted Slipper as a man who spoke of women generally, and one female Liberal MP specifically, in derogatory terms. He argued that a person with such objectionable views about women and who clearly had a bias against at least one MP was not fit for the non-partisan office of Speaker.

Abbott accused Slipper of being unfit for office based on the texts, not Ashby’s allegations which are still before the courts. In avoiding use of the Ashby allegations, Abbott denied the Government any grounds upon which to avoid the question of Slipper’s fitness for office, particularly that of needing to follow due process.

Nevertheless, due process was the Government’s chosen shield.

In fact, the Government had little else with which to defend itself. Having invested considerable political capital, in the form of senior female ministers, to raise and maintain concerns over Tony Abbott’s problems with female voters, the Prime Minister became wedged by Abbott’s motion. Abbott’s speech drew a clear connection between the Prime Minister’s fitness for office and Slipper’s, thereby making the motion about her judgement in recruiting him to bolster the Government’s numbers.

The PM was faced with a stark choice: oppose the motion and be seen to be defending the Speaker, or support it in the knowledge that this would be seen as a concession of ill-judgement on her part. Any such concession would also cast a shadow over the PM’s judgement in related decisions such as the formation of minority government with the independents and the Greens.

So the stakes were high when Abbott moved his motion. I initially misunderstood his reason for doing so, thinking that its purpose was to remove the Speaker. In fact, the purpose of the motion was to wedge the Prime Minister into having to oppose it, defend her own judgement, and by association, that of Slipper’s too. It does not matter that Julia Gillard said not one word in defence of Slipper during her speech: Abbott expected that her opposition to the motion would be damning enough.

What Abbott did not expect was the damning words that the PM levelled at him during her speech; a speech which appears to have divided Labor supporters due to its visceral content and emotive delivery. Some voiced concern that the speech was not befitting of a Prime Minister and that it might be seen by casual political observers as an intemperate outburst.

Conversely, the PM’s speech was embraced by the people who have recently formed a front line against misogyny, chauvinism and disrespect against women in public discourse. The coincidental timeliness of the PM’s rousing words raised the spirits of those now experiencing and witnessing a withering backlash against the #destroythejoint movement.

And what of those not involved in or supportive of the DTJ campaign? It is important to look outside that bubble to really understand how yesterday’s events are being interpreted.

For those much less engaged in politics than us – and let’s accept that there are many of them – the event played out thus: Slipper sent texts that were derogatory of women and Abbott claimed a person that held such views was not fit to be Speaker. In opposing Abbott’s motion to remove the Speaker (read: defending the Speaker), the Prime Minister unleashed a tirade against Abbott recounting the many sexist views leveled against her personally, or women generally, which he had never withdrawn or denounced.

In base political terms, Abbott won the day: he wedged the Prime Minister into supporting the Speaker, and was unintentionally rewarded with Slipper’s scalp later that evening. Abbott has however set a dangerous precedent for judging an MP’s character based on their private text messages.

Perhaps the Prime Minister’s impassioned speech compelled some concerned female voters away from Tony Abbott and towards her. Maybe, if they are prepared to overlook her refusal to see Slipper’s texts as evidence that he was unfit to be Speaker. And maybe, if they are also comfortable with the PM delivering highly emotive attacks in Parliament.

Looking at it this way, it is understandable why the media may interpret yesterday’s events as being a potential setback for the Government. Sometimes we need to take a step back to see the whole picture.

At what cost do we defend free speech?

On two recent occasions I’ve actively supported the limitation of someone’s freedom of speech. I joined the campaign to shame advertisers on Alan Jones’ radio program to withdraw their support. And I rallied people on Twitter to lodge complaints against a pro-ana Facebook page.

Initially, neither action sat particularly comfortably with me. While I’m not libertarian, I’m not a fan of censorship either. I value my right to say pretty much whatever I want about whatever I choose. And I exercise that right on a regular basis.

But I’ve begun to wonder why most debate about freedom of expression pivots on an all-or-nothing basis? Why does the proscription of certain verbal behaviours always elicit cries of censorship rather than endorsement of protection? And why is it assumed that if we as a society insist that certain types of speech are unacceptable, we will revert overnight to a totalitarian state in which nobody has the freedom to say anything?

Surely there’s a balance between free and societally-acceptable speech? Shouldn’t this be the goal in a free and democratic nation: the right to speak, to be heard and to be protected from harm?

Why should the right to speak include the right to ridicule, humiliate, or offend? Or in the case of the pro-ana page, the right to promote self-harm?

Why is the libertarian ideal of unfettered free speech always proffered as defense against harmful language? Australians don’t actually have the same constitutional right to freedom of speech that Americans have. It is not spelt out in our constitution, although legal rulings have interpreted it to mean that Australians have a right to free political speech.

Even so, most public discourse in Australia operates as if we have, or should have, unfettered free speech.

We have defamation, racial vilification and cyber-bullying laws to protect people from the most harmful types of expression. These laws are legal manifestations of the boundaries considered particularly important by society; acceptability thresholds built on qualities that we value such as common decency, tolerance, respect and compassion.

There are regular instances of society’s willingness to patrol those boundaries, with recent notable examples including the community backlash against those who said they hoped a child would get laid at the Logies; that an alleged murder victim should have known better than to walk home drunk in the middle of the night; and that the Prime Minister’s father died in shame of her.

Clearly, the community sees a role for itself in policing free speech.

And why shouldn’t it? Isn’t it something that we do every day? Do we allow our teenage son the freedom to call his grandfather an old cunt? Do we respect the right of a team-mate to ridicule another’s mental health by calling them psycho? Do we celebrate democracy when our sister is called a slut for what she wears or our friend is told to hang himself because he’s gay?

No, we demand that free speech be exercised in a responsible manner.

Perhaps the notion of free speech is similar to that of a free market. It’s hardly a coincidence that both are celebrated libertarian ideals. While great in theory, a free market is Darwinian in nature – only the fittest, in terms of competitiveness, will survive. Those exercising their right to be competitive in an unfettered free market can be harmful to others – either through reduced wages and conditions, cutting corners on safety and quality considerations, or through price gouging or collusion when fierce competition produces monopolies or duopolies.

Because of this, governments put protections in place to prevent harm to the community from overzealous free market operations. Not only do we as society accept it, we demand such protection.

Perhaps we should look at unfettered free speech the same way: a potentially harmful ideal that needs protective mechanisms built in.

I’m not advocating more laws to provide this protection: more a broad public acceptance that free speech is not an unassailable right that must be defended at all costs. Political free speech is another matter altogether, and I agree it is one of democracy’s foundation stones.

However, despite what the libertarians say, Australia will not slip into a totalitarian regime if you tell your son to be polite to his grandfather, your team-mate that it’s cruel to mock mental health issues, or assertively explain that slut-shaming and bigotry are unacceptable.

Freedom of speech must go hand in hand with freedom from harm caused by speech.

I know this isn’t a clear-cut issue and I honestly don’t know where the boundaries are. There are times when I find profane language to be quite beautiful. There are other times when polite language can be utterly offensive.

Then again, it’s not really what is offensive or shocking that is the problem, in my view, but what is harmful. It would be a challenge nevertheless to draw a distinction between language that mocks or ridicules with that which denigrates or abuses.

For me, the measuring stick is nevertheless composed of the qualities that society values: common decency, tolerance, respect and compassion. Or perhaps more succinctly: by treating others as you would have your loved ones treated by them.

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