There’s an old fashioned quality that might be creeping back into Australian federal politics. I say old fashioned because you don’t hear it mentioned much these days. But I think it may well be the deciding factor in next year’s federal election.
I’m referring to respect. You know, that thing we used to hold for teachers, policemen, our parents and politicians. It was a sometimes begrudging acknowledgement that authority figures had our best interests at heart, even if we didn’t much like the way they went about protecting us.
I used to hear a lot about respect when John Howard was Prime Minister. While voters didn’t particularly like him, he was elected four times because they trusted him to do the right thing for the country, and for quite some time he delivered on that trust.
While it’s a truism to say that respect can only be earned, it can also be a fragile thing that is easily shattered. I’d suggest the community’s respect for Howard was his electoral strength and the loss of that respect, brought on by WorkChoices and his government’s treatment of asylum seekers, was the weakness that brought Howard down.
The Prime Ministers immediately before John Howard were more in the charismatic mold. Bob Hawke was the jovial larrikin while Paul Keating was the intellectual aesthete. In their own ways, both leaders had a George Clooney-like magnetism that made their respective supporters want to be like them. Their stock in trade was adoration, not respect. No such fan club existed for the tracksuit-wearing Howard.
Kevin Rudd brought even less charisma than Howard to the Prime Minister’s role. In fact he cast himself as Howard-lite, with bonus features such as the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices. Ultimately, the creation of this expectation was Rudd’s downfall.
Initially, even despite his lack of animal magnetism, Rudd proved to be one of the most popular Australian Prime Ministers ever. However the public’s exuberance faltered when Rudd proved not to be like Howard at all, but an über bureaucrat who reserved all political and policy decisions to himself while setting up ever more labyrinthine committees and token consultation processes. Any respect the community might have had for Rudd arising from the apology to the Stolen Generations was quickly eroded by his seeming incapacity to deliver on anything much else.
Love or respect. Hearts or minds. That seems to be what it boils down to. Having failed to win the public’s respect with Kevin Rudd, Labor power-brokers then lurched in the other direction.
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Here’s my latest piece for the King’s Tribune…
Late in August, the Canberra Press Gallery awoke from a collective slumber and simultaneously concluded that Tony Abbott hadn’t been entirely honest with them. Or with the Australian people.
Well at least that’s one way of interpreting the political news at the time, following on from Leigh Sales’ challenging of Abbott’s relationship with the truth in one of the Opposition Leader’s all too rare appearances on a “serious” current affairs program.
Those of us whose cognitive capacities haven’t been entirely reduced to that of goldfish by the Age of Twitter can vaguely remember that at different times last year the media had similar revelations.
In March there was a searing piece in which Bernard Keane positioned 11 Abbott statements with another 11 that contradicted them. Annabel Crabb noted in July, “Mr Abbott’s one-man battle against demonstrable logic has entered a new and compelling phase”.
The cycle repeated in October, with Laurie Oakes reminding us, “while he lambasts Gillard over her broken “no carbon tax” promise, Abbott has form on the broken promise front himself”. Lenore Taylor questioned the veracity of both leaders, noting that “politicians have always gilded the lily, spun the message — in effect, stretched the truth. But lately they seem to feel free to take things one step further and ignore facts altogether.”
Then, as if an invisible hypnotist had snapped his fingers, the Press Gallery again fell into a snooze and Tony Abbott’s cursory relationship with the truth was almost entirely dropped by the mainstream media.
That is, until last month, when the revelation was experienced all over again.
What was different this time was the media’s collective conscience had been pricked by a non-journalist challenging them to acknowledge that they could no longer simply observe Abbott’s deceptive tactics. Journalists were embarrassed into exposing those lies and reporting what their consequences would be.
It was The King’s Tribune writer, Tim Dunlop, who called the Press Gallery to account. He described the Gallery’s theretofore admiration for Abbott as a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, with senior journalists like Laurie Oakes giving Abbott points for being the most negative Opposition Leader ever, Phil Coorey judging him “wise” for refusing to answer questions on funding, and Lenore Taylor publicly acceding to the Coalition’s tactical avoidance of the media on a “tricky policy issue”.
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“While it’s all very well to say political private lives should stay private, we need to stop glossing over the fact that infidelity involves a great deal of lying and the breaking of a profound commitment.”
Here’s my piece on this touchy subject, published today at The Hoopla.
Shaun Carney’s recount today of former Treasurer Howard sending Treasurer Keating a congratulationary note on becoming the world’s greatest treasurer, caused me to ponder what sort of Opposition Leader Keating would’ve been.While no more than a fantastical imagining, I can’t help think he’d be more in the Abbott mould than the Turnbull one.
Because, when you think back, is there any other modern Australian politician who was more singularly negative in pursuit of their political quarry than Keating was?
My memory is a little dusty but I can’t recall Keating employing the Howard/Rudd tactic of agreeing with the other side’s policies when they had merit. Putting aside that this was a tactic to emphasise the points of difference, I can only remember Keating going for the jugular every time.
While Keating had more rhetorical flair to his parliamentary jibes, he never pulled his punches. Andrew Peacock was the soufflé that wouldn’t rise twice; John Hewson was the feral abacus who’d be done slowly; Alexander Downer was ole darlin’ and the salmon who jumps on the hook for you; and John Howard was a miserable political carcass.
Would Keating have traipsed into misogyny to score a few points? Maybe. The PM who implemented a number of progressive policies for women, was nevertheless known to universally address them as darl’ and sweetheart.
Would he mercilessly court the media to support his policies to the exclusion of all others? Well, yes, because that’s exactly what he did. There was nary a journalist or news organisation that did not support his tilt against Bob Hawke, his destruction of Hewson and the Fightback package, and his ill-fated run against Howard.
Would Keating have abandoned ALP philosophies and overturned public promises to get back the political advantage? Of course! Do the sale of the Commonwealth Bank or “L.A.W. tax cuts” ring a bell?
As astute political observer Malcolm Farnworth said recently on a related topic,
… politics in 2011 may be lively but it barely rates against some of the great upheavals in our history. Those who see the nation beset by crisis really should do some reading.
Perhaps the same observation applies to our perception of Tony Abbott as the most negative politician to have ever walked Australia’s democratic stage.
The Coalition and conservative media might as well stop flogging the dead horse known as JuLIAR. They’re wasting their breath because the public just doesn’t care if a politician is accused of, or even found to be, lying.
These days, lack of truth is what voters expect from all politicians: there’s no political capital to be gained or lost from one MP pointing an outraged finger at another.
Politicians are, however, taking a big political risk if their behaviour suggests they can’t be trusted to do what’s right for the country.
The public’s inoculation against political dishonesty seems to have started in the Howard years.
While voters were considerably unhappy with Keating’s broken L-A-W promise on tax cuts in 1993, and sent him to the lowest ever approval rating for a modern Prime Minister, PJK was still able to drag that rating up enough to dispatch two Opposition Leaders during his term. It’s clear this breach of faith nevertheless contributed to the wave of anti-Keating sentiment that swept him from office in 1996.
During the Howard years, however, it’s as if voters became accustomed to, and then unfazed by, political deceit. John Howard first swore as Opposition Leader in 1995 that he would “never, ever” introduce a GST; then as Prime Minister he successfully took such a tax to the 1998 election. Some would say Howard was not actually “successful”, having only secured 49% of the vote, but I’d argue that his success was measured by the two election wins that followed the GST. Howard also backtracked on numerous commitments made during the 1998 election campaign, dismissing them as “non-core” promises.
Even more memorable are the claims made against the PM in 2004 that he lied about children being thrown overboard by boat-bourn asylum seekers in 2001.
Political observers were puzzled at the time that this revelation did not cause voters to desert the Coalition. Newspoll’s tracking of how voters perceived Howard’s trustworthiness found that his rating had dipped only slightly from 60% in 1995 to 57% at the height of the furore.
Howard’s trustworthiness rating dropped further, to 51% at the time of his election win over Opposition Leader Mark Latham, whose own trustworthiness rating at the time was 61%.
Almost counter-intuitively, Howard fought that election on a platform of trust. He announced the election with a direct call to voter values: “Who do you trust to keep the economy strong and protect family living standards?” “Who do you trust to keep interest rates low? Who do you trust to lead the fight on Australia’s behalf against international terrorism?”
The ALP clearly thought they had an edge over the PM in the trustworthiness stakes. Latham’s response was to claim: “We’ve had too much dishonesty from the Howard Government.” “The election is about trust. The Government has been dishonest for too long.”
Unfortunately for Latham, he and the ALP did not differentiate between a voter’s trust in a politician to tell the truth and their faith in that politician to run the government responsibly.
Politicians as a group haven’t been trusted by voters for a very long time. The Roy Morgan “Image of Professions Survey”, conducted over the past 16 years, ranks state and federal politicians 22nd and 23rd out of 30 professions when it comes to perceived honesty and ethical standards. (Union leaders rank 24th and newspaper journalists 27th.)
An interesting print article on honesty in politics and the children overboard issue in 2004 quotes a pollster explaining the contrast between voters believing politicians and actually trusting them to do their job: “We have total faith in almost nobody, but we put conditional trust in each of our institutions to perform their function. We trust the bank enough to move our money from one account to another; we trust the politicians enough to run the country. It’s only when we think they are not taking any notice of us at all that we rebel and invent something like One Nation to get their attention. We basically trust them just enough.”
This argument applies equally today and goes some way to explaining the popularity of the Greens.
The article concludes by suggesting that “while leaders deliver on our core demands, it seems that we are prepared to live with their dishonesty ….. [yesterday’s poll] found 60% believed Howard had deliberately lied over children overboard, [but] only half that level – 29% – thought he should lose his job over it.”
This is why PM Gillard can privately dismiss current accusations of deception over the carbon tax. As long as she can convince Australian voters that she is running the government responsibly and making the right decisions on behalf of the whole community, as opposed to conceding to the whims of a few (that is, Green voters), she is inoculated against this attack.
This post also appeared at The Drum / Unleashed
I have to confess I noticed the PM’s earlobes long before it was cool to do so, back in the days when she was a mere Deputy PM. Once or twice I mentioned them to non-politicos who responded with quizzical stares, but I soon discovered they had been a long-time topic of conversation amongst Labor staffers.
Before you accuse me of trivialising politics by focusing on a person’s appearance, let me let you in on a little secret – whether you like it or not, looks DO matter in politics.
It’s a real shame that Niki Savva stooped so low in her recent article about Ms Gillard’s appearance because the substance of her comments had merit. Politicians ARE measured by their looks, and not just female MPs as decried by Annabel Crabb.
Recent research by the University College London and Princeton University has found that voters make judgments about politicians’ competence based on their facial appearance, with facial maturity and physical attractiveness being the two main criteria used to make these competence judgments. The researchers found that appearance is most likely to influence less knowledgeable voters who watch a lot of television. This research built on earlier work that found voters rely heavily on appearances when choosing which candidate to elect.
Perhaps the most striking example of the weight given to politicians’ appearance was the perceived outcome of the first debate between Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy during the 1960 US Presidential election. The 70 million television viewers believed the tanned, relaxed Kennedy had beaten the pale, stubbled Nixon, in contrast to the radio listeners who thought the opposite. Nixon’s appearance directly affected public perceptions of his competence.
Moving forward to more recent US elections, opponents of 2004 Democrat presidential candidate, John Kerry, were accused of planting a story that Kerry used Botox to smooth his Lincoln-like brow. While no direct link was drawn between this cosmetic practice and Kerry’s competence, the subtle inference was nonetheless encouraged. The same tactic was employed against Queensland Premier Anna Bligh in 2008, which she quickly defused by admitting to the practice and then moving on.
And so, in politics, do clothes maketh the man?
Yes they do, even as far back as 1892 when the UK’s first Labour MP, Keir Hardie, took up his seat in Parliament wearing a tweed cap and a working man’s suit. His failure to wear a top hat prompted the magazine Vanity Fair to declare: “His headgear has endangered the foundations of parliamentary propriety, and provided innumerable paragraphs for the papers.”
We may move more quickly to judge female MPs, but this may be because their hair and clothes present such an array of style, colour and shape.
One writer mused that:
It is precisely because our interior selves are essentially inscrutable (most of us can’t unscramble the psychological coding of our spouses much less the machinations and motivations of public figures) that we depend so much on surface clues. The whole superficial shebang — from hairstyles (who can forget Hillary’s little-girl headband?) to accessories (remember the fuss about Cherie Blair’s pricey Tanner Krolle handbag?) — provides us with the contextual tools to read the Other, the person who is not us, be it the stranger across the room or the stranger angling for political office.
And so we are superficial by nature – judging books by their covers – and this is exploited by others. Political spin and campaigning techniques encourage us to accept a politician’s appearance as a measure of their competence.
A prime example is our twice-removed former PM. Despite Howard’s eyebrow trimming, teeth capping and spectacle refurbishment, and even the final banishment of the comb-over, we still remember him as Little Johnny. While Howard is in fact as tall as the average man he always looked short next to the towering Fraser. The diminutive term may have first been struck to match his appearance, but was later used to suggest smallness of spirit. It was the reinforcing visual image that made it stick.
Numerous other subtle but similar connections have been made between the appearance of politicians and their competence. Would Beazley or Hockey have been more successful if they had been slim and less disheveled? Would Tony Abbott have won more female votes this year if he had not paraded around in his sluggoes and licked his lips during interviews? Does Bob Katter seem even madder because of his hat? Yes. Probably.
Pollsters of any political persuasion will tell you I speak the truth. They know better than anyone how a punter’s vote can be won or lost based on the appearance of the candidate. War stories abound with focus group quotes including “I won’t vote for him, I don’t like his eyes” or “she’s a smart girl but she just needs a good blow-wave”.
So remember next time a politician is ridiculed for their hair or their personal style. Yes, it is superficial, but there is a deeper intent at play. Don’t be distracted or attracted by this sleight of hand – appearance does not equal competence, but it is up to common punters like you and me to prove it.
This post was also published at The Notion Factory.
I have sympathy for people wanting more substance from the Australian media this federal election. Truly, I do. As I’ve previously explained, some of the political media’s obsession with election frippery is due to them rebelling against being tightly managed during the campaign. However, I’ve noticed an assertion creeping into some commentary that the media should not only be covering more policy announcements but actively analysing the policy content.
This seems to me to be an abrogation of the citizen’s responsibility to make their own mind up.
I’m not a journalist and I’ve never studied media but I’ve worked around journos for 20 years. I used to think the main value that drove journalists was the community’s right to know, but this has changed over time to a more didactic role. I think this is why I don’t read newspapers, watch tv news or current affairs or listen to the radio. (I will confess however to indulging myself with an occasional viewing of the Insiders.)
My self-imposed mainstream media blackout is due as much to source bias as it is to journalistic bias. I’m well aware that pretty much all information transmitted by the MSM has been massaged or spun by someone – a press secretary, a departmental or corporate PR officer, a lobbyist or an activist. This message is further “refined” by the journalist with juxtaposition against related information and arguments. By the time it’s published, the information can often bear little resemblance to the facts. So I just don’t bother wasting my time reading such arrant nonsense.
This distortion is amplified during an election campaign. Everyone is shrilly trying to achieve primacy for their version of the facts, with accuracy (or even truth) becoming the victim in these skirmishes.
Why has it come to this? Why have we regressed to mostly superficial and combative election campaigns? Is it because Australians have surrendered their natural scepticism when it comes to thinking about politics? Have we become accustomed to having our opinions spoonfed to us by the media and commentariat? I suspect not. The number of people who make up their mind in the last days and hours of an election campaign are enough to change the government. Nevertheless, we are a politically disengaged citizenry. I believe this is because we have never had to fight for our freedom or the vote.
This disengagement should not justify the media stepping in to perform what is each voter’s civic duty. While I agree with comments made elsewhere that journalists should not simply produce a hesaidshesaid story without questioning the credibility of the source, journalists should not be making any comment on the merits of an argument or policy. That is for the media’s audience to decide based on the information provided by the media, not the media itself. Being intellectually lazy enough to expect the media to provide “objective” analysis leads to an acceptance that what celebrity journalists say about matters or policies is an unchallengable truth – more often than not, it is nothing more than their (sometimes informed) opinion.
Anyone seeking to know about parties’ policies should do what they would do if they were about to make a huge financial commitment like buying a house – do your homework! Visit the parties’ websites, ring or email their campaign offices with questions. Talk to the candidates on Facebook and Twitter. Why leave it to Peter Hartcher or Michelle Grattan or Malcolm Farr to tell you what is a good or bad policy? How can you be sure they have the same values and needs as you?
The days of the media as a “medium” between the news-maker and the news-consumer are almost gone. We have made the transition through internet search engines, video on mobile phones and social media such as Twitter. So why do we still insist on MSM meeting our information needs during election campaigns? It’s time to refuse the election media spoonfeed and make up your own mind!