Were we trolled by Bernardi today?

There’s an episode of the politico-drama television series Boss where Chicago Mayor Tom Kane must deal with evidence of his involvement years before in the cover-up of a chemical spill. Kane’s political enemies have leaked the documents to link him with the cancer-riddled cluster of children living unknowingly near the spill site.

Kelsey Grammer, previously the master of grown-up tv sitcoms, deftly plays the deadly-serious, saurian Kane. He wields his political might like a grandmaster: strategically placing, threatening and if necessary sacrificing and removing his opponents, allies and even family members to maintain his dominant position.

Tim Dunlop aptly described Boss the other day on Twitter as being “unSorkin”, lacking as it does Sorkin’s “optimistic, uplifting approach to politics”.

Uplifting it’s not, but Boss is certainly mesmerising. And while it’s merely a dramatisation of the grubby political world, its depiction of that world is still close enough to make me uncomfortable, in the same way that The Hollow Men or The West Wing makes me cringe or laugh or sigh.

I was reminded of Kane today when I witnessed my corner of Twitter having a meltdown over Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi suggesting last night that marriage equality could lead to bestiality. Being the type who tends to suspect conspiracy over stuff-up, I wondered why Bernardi would say that at this particular point in time.

Sure, it was straightforward on the face of it: parliament would vote today on proposed same sex marriage laws, but Bernardi’s intervention would make no difference to the bills’ passage. There was little chance the bills would pass with the Coalition voting in a bloc against them and the Government’s vote being split through a conscience vote.

It was then I recalled the episode where Mayor Tom Kane managed to transform himself from a villain to a hero by playing sleight of hand with the media. Now, I know, television is not real but what occurred in that plotline was reasonably plausible.

The main objective of the Mayor’s team was to reframe media coverage of the chemical spill cover-up so that it no longer focussed on Kane but on the crisis being faced by the affected community. They provided individual journalists with various off-the-record leads that diverted attention from the Mayor to the local community’s (orchestrated) bottled water drought and (confected) housing value slump. The journos rushed to publish the stories, giving the details minimal scrutiny in the name of the all-important exclusive. Other media outlets were forced to play catch up and cover the same story. One by one, as each media organisation’s news cycle clicked over, Mayor Tom Kane’s role disappeared from the day’s headlines and lead stories.

Before long, the community and media had whipped themselves into a frenzy of outrage fed by powerlessness and fear. Mayor Tom Kane re-entered the fray as their leader and protector, offering clean water and a speedy restoration to the spill site. He went from villain to hero purely by exploiting the speed and ravenous nature of the media cycle.

Which brings me back to Cory Bernardi… well actually it brings me to Tony Abbott. Today was going to be the Leader of the Opposition’s first real public appearance (other than attending military funerals) since last week when Treasurer Wayne Swan accused him of “going the biff” and being a thug, on the back of David Marr’s wall-punch expose. Abbott has mostly avoided the media since then, minimising his safety-vest photo opportunities and sticking to interviews on soft news programs.

No doubt Swan’s jibes were an attempt to tap into the unease that voters felt about another pugilistic Opposition Leader, Mark Latham, almost a decade ago. It would seem Labor strategists are confident that if enough people say enough times that Abbott has a problem with women, this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A possible return to the “Abbott is a thug” theme at Question Time today could well have been on the minds of the Opposition’s leadership team last night. While Abbott was given a period of grace during his funeral attendances, the Government could have generated considerable momentum between this morning’s early doorstops and Question Time – with the willing complicity of the drama hungry media – thereby preventing Abbott from regaining the political advantage he so desperately needs right now.

So I’m sure Abbott must have secretly been relieved when Cory Bernardi unleashed his inner Tea Party Animal in the Senate last night. The combined disgust and rage of free speech-loving tweeps, equality-loving MPs and scandal-seeking journalists created a torrent of condemnation that swept all mention of Abbott’s thuggery from our tweetstreams, RSS feeds and tv screens.

At the crescendo (and not coincidentally at exactly the same time Penny Wong was speaking on marriage equality in the Senate), Abbott re-entered the fray as the Liberal Party’s voice of reason and moderation. Abbott ameliorated our sensibilities by extracting Bernardi’s resignation from the Shadow Ministry as penance. While by most measures Abbott had been a villain for the past few weeks, at this moment he was the upholder of principles and morality. Like Kane, Abbott turned his own fortune around within a few short media cycles.  Whether Bernardi’s role in that turnaround was deliberate, we’ll never know.

Bernardi is nothing if not a loyal Liberal foot-soldier with one eye steadfastly locked on the main game: that is, the election of an Abbott Government in 2013. He’s lost nothing more than a fancy title in resigning as Shadow Parliamentary Secretary due to there being no additional staff or remuneration attached to the position. And now that he’s a backbencher, Bernardi is arguably less constrained to speak out than he was before today. Perhaps he’ll become Abbott’s equivalent of Howard-era henchman, Senator Bill Heffernan, whose controversial behaviour was privately considered to have more benefit than it had drawbacks.

For mine, I’m sure Bernardi deliberately trolled us last night to upset any momentum the Government hoped to gain with its “Abbott goes the biff” campaign. Today ended with Bernardi enjoying the pointy end of an international airplane, Abbott getting positive media coverage, and the marriage equality bill being soundly defeated in the Parliament.

All in all, not a bad day’s work if you’re a Tea Party Animal.

Postscript: This article notes that Bernardi has since been quietly appointed by the Coalition as a temporary Chairman of Committees, a role which attracts a 3% salary loading.

Author: Drag0nista

Political columnist at The New Daily | Editor of Despatches & AusVotes 2019 | Author of On Merit, a book on the Liberals' *women problem*. Former Liberal staffer and industry lobbyist. Studying the entrails of federal politics since 1989.

23 thoughts on “Were we trolled by Bernardi today?”

  1. I don’t feel so wrong about being just tad cynical about this whole event now. There was something self-conscious in Bernadi’s act, that left me questioning his motives… and you have pretty much answered my suspicions with your own. Then to hear Abbott’s announcement of the sacking to me sounded very staged and rehearsed. I hate that I have become so suspicious of the games pollies play but I can’t help it!

  2. Although I’m not sure it was deliberate, it has provided a significant distraction. I would think most of the damage to Abbott from the alleged incident has already been done – if you had prior concerns about Abbott being too aggressive they were confirmed last week. The Government didn’t need to do anything.
    I was surprised that Bernardi’s comments were reported beyond Twitter – and judging from my day – discussed by people who aren’t normally interested in politics. For the most part though, they criticised Bernardi, not Abbott. Personally I thought Abbott didn’t go far enough in repudiating Bernardi’s comments (particularly compared with Turnbull’s statements), but I doubt that would gain much traction beyond Twitter.
    I tend to agree – it could have been a lot worse for Abbott.

  3. This possibility hadn’t occurred to me, but it would not at all surprise me. Good question, Dragonista.

  4. Pretty doubtful. You divert attention from the fact that you’ve peed all over your shoes by crapping in your pants? Or to put it more nicely, you divert attention from the leader having a history of political thuggery by showing the party is currently of bigots? Interesting theory but if it’s stuff up or conspiracy, conspiracy loses every time.

    1. Of course in my previous comment ‘wins’ should have been ‘loses’, ‘of bigots’ should have been ‘full of bigots’ and ‘you shoes’ should have been ‘your shoes’.


  5. Bernardi also has quite a history of being a cunt.

    I do like how the media haven’t noticed Grabitt didn’t actually say he didn’t approve of Bernadi’s words, merely that people wouldn’t like it. Birds of a feather…

  6. I’m not sure why you consider the rage of ‘free speech-loving tweeps’ to be worth your condescension…no one was calling for him to be silenced. People, by and large, were exercising their right (yes I know it’s not a right) to speak freely by basically calling him an idiot. It’s not counter to enjoying free speech to want him sacked – it’s the essence of it.

    As for the argument that Abbott played the hero…if he wanted to do that, he would have attacked Bernardi’s comments themselves, rather than simply calling them ‘ill-disciplined’. By doing so, it looked like he was caving to popular opinion, not taking a moral stand.

    1. That’s hitting the nail on the head. Abbott is good at that. But you know, watching Bernardi deliver that statement, I just felt he wasn’t smart enough to be that spectacularly Machiavellian, nor a good enough actor to put it over as a ploy.

      I felt he said a dumb thing which, as you say, couldn’t have worked out better [almost] all round.

      Could Abbott be that Machiavellian? You bet. But I don’t think it happened quite that way. It would be great to know. Maybe I’m just that naive.

  7. Thanks for the article, I have been saying it ever since the shorter than usual, short press conference given by Abbott as he pretended anger and disappointment at his buddy’s ‘ lack of judgement’ and regretfully accepted Bernardi’s resignation.
    Did Abbott ask for it? No it was offered. Was Abbott revolted, as most of the country was? No, well at least he didn’t say he was. Why did he wait until Bernardi repeated his descriptive piece on radio next morning, before asking his buddy to call into his office for a chat?
    Surely after the first time in the Senate was a major blunder that demanded an explanation and the Leader demand his buddy resign as Abbotts close aide? No
    Perhaps it was to allow the story to gain momentum, then Abbotts indignation, show of strength and leadership at his press conference would be given the maximum emphasis. Just when I wonder was the inclusion of the offensive words in Bernardi’s speech decided.?
    Pity about the speedy retreat Tone as soon as the questions didn’t go to script, your dash for cover was not a good look.
    DragOnista I would say yes to your header. Not only trolled but a weak stunt by Abbott and Bernardi plus whoever else were the clever dicks who came up with the it, to try and make Abbott look a person who cares, is strong, no nonsense action man, a leader.
    Sorry Mr Abbott you couldn’t lead a horse to water, it would probably bite you on the arse before getting there.
    Incidentally Bernardi’s presence in England is doing you no favours, the Tories there, who dont think much of you at the best of times, are disgusted.
    Whats plan Z?

  8. Well he got the new senator where Mr. Howard wanted him. In Abbott’s eyes, this would be a good day’s work. No deliberate change to front bench. Bernardi free to concentrate on the Internet outlets. Sindenos in Abbott’s office and another SA taken care of.

    No need to condemn what was said.

  9. Completely agree with you that it’s a stunt to protect Punchface from media scrutiny, but it must ultimately fail. Every time he fronts the media, he must still evade questions over the Ramjan incident. This means he must have a stunt prepared each time it gets too hot for him in the media, and it’s just not possible to arrange this. Punchface is living on borrowed time.

  10. I think that to constitute trolling , there is a sense of deception needed. Trolling I think is the intentional act of stirring up reactions, exaggerating one’s belief ( or even manufacturing them ) to get a reaction from the ones being trolled (which apparently is the Australian public) .

    In my opinion , Bernardi was only revealing this own deep seeded belief, it was unfortunate , his genuine feelings towards gay marriage. I think if he was indeed trolling , more colourful language would have been used.

    Just on the side , as a obvious political enthusiast , I was wondering what you thought we can do to stop trolling as a nation ? Is it enough to have awareness days or is serious legislation needed?

    – J.Y .

    1. Interesting perspective. Just because Bernardi believes what he says, this belief does not preclude him from being a troll. For me, the trolling element was in the distracting nature of his comments, away from the issue at hand.

      On the broader question of trolling, I think we’ve probably got the balance right in Australia so far with laws to protect from the worst of it. Now we need a cultural shift – for colleagues to say to each other that such behaviour is not acceptable.

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