Day 10: Rituals, Women And A Moment To Behold

Election campaigns bring with them many absurd rituals.

One is the knowing commentator who asserts that Abbott or Gillard is doing something or other because the party’s “internal polling” is telling them such-and-such. Of course, I always put this person down as uniquely privy to information from the most confidential of sources inside one or other of the parties.

Another is the ritual incantation that the campaign is an insult to our intelligence because the political parties dare to use slogans and catchphrases. Before long, this election becomes the most hollow in our history – again.

I was reminded of another ritual yesterday when I saw a couple of body language “experts” on morning television offering profound thoughts on Julia Gillard’s waving hands in Sunday night’s debate. These political authorities pop up every election.

However, the appearance of male and female worms, apparently called Wilbur and Wilhemina, and their attendant interpreters, was a new one this year. It was hard to credit sometimes sensible people on radio and television discussing the behaviour of electronic invertebrates as if they revealed great psephological insights.

To take seriously “data” from a roomful of people – no matter how expertly chosen by the polling companies – twirling knobs on hand-held devices in response to every utterance by Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott seems to me to be the height of absurdity.

There used to be a ritual debate about the effect of female candidates on the electorate but it had almost disappeared in recent times as female candidates and female members of parliament became commonplace, albeit still a minority. With the arrival of Julia Gillard as the first female leader of either of the two main parties, the ritual has been resurrected in a new and virulent form.

The revived sexism is not much different from that of decades past.

Men once guffawed that the imposing Margaret Whitlam could kick-start a jumbo jet. Back in 1974, the blonde-haired Liberal Kathy Sullivan was nicknamed “the kissable Senator”. I’m old enough to remember a newspaper headline referring to “petticoat politics”. From Junie Morosi and Elizabeth Reid to Joan Kirner, Cheryl Kernot, Natasha Stott-Despoja, and the Bishops Bronwyn and Julie, a preoccupation with the appearance and hormonal state of females in politics has been maintained.

I once had the dubious, if memorable, experience of being berated by an old-school ALP councillor who felt he was under attack from “the Amazons” from a local branch he called the “lesbian love nest”.

It sometimes seems as if nothing much has changed.

With Gillard, the ritual attacks began long before she became leader. Senator Bill Heffernan, the man who so disgracefully smeared the name of Justice Michael Kirby under parliamentary privilege, branded her unfit for leadership because she was “deliberately barren”.

The picture of Gillard’s tidy kitchen and its bereft fruit bowl is now famous for its apparent proof of her lack of suitability for national leadership.

Ever since she became deputy to Kevin Rudd, Gillard has endured constant speculation about the advantages of having a partner who used to be a hairdresser. Myriad witless television hosts, many also female, have engaged her in discussion about her clothes, make-up and accessories. She has been quizzed at length about her culinary expertise.

Gillard’s voice and accent have been endlessly analysed. The colour of her hair has been deemed as important as its styling. A major national debate broke out about the place of “rangas” in Australian society. Her ear-lobes have been discussed on supposedly serious political talk shows.

Like so many women down the ages, Gillard’s calm and poise is often portrayed as cold and ruthless. Ambition is seen as treachery.

And so yesterday was one of those days when the absurd rituals and prejudices of political life were played out in the aftermath of the Leaders’ Debate.

The nation’s commentators appeared in print and on the airwaves to pronounce on worms and what they told us about the effect Gillard and Abbott were having on male and female voters.

A rule of thumb for guessing what the campaigns are thinking is to look at where the leaders go and with whom they appear. Yesterday, Gillard travelled to the marginal Tasmanian seat of Bass, where the incumbent Labor member has retired, thus increasing the risk of the seat falling to the Liberals.

But the vote-pulling power of a prime ministerial appearance with Kevin Rudd seems not to hold any appeal to Gillard.

In contrast, Tony Abbott cannot appear anywhere now without his loyal deputy, Julie Bishop, extolling his virtues as a man for all women.

Yesterday, Abbott appeared with his wife, Margie, in Brisbane, to announce a childcare funding promise. His wife’s appearance could be justified because she works in the field but everyone knew the real reason was to attempt to broaden his appeal to women voters.

The question Abbott and Gillard want answered is: why do people vote the way they do? What influences them? When do they decide? Do they think the way we do? How do we get their votes?

One of the most interesting poll questions I saw yesterday was in the latest Essential Report. Asked whether they planned to watch the debate, 26% said they definitely wouldn’t watch. A further 21% said they probably wouldn’t watch. Only 44% said they probably or definitely would watch.

This data, hopefully not derived using worms, put the frenzied analysis of the debate in perspective. The reported viewing figures of between four and five million, depending on the time, for *that* show about cooking also suggested the influence of the debate may not be all that significant.

The same poll asked people when they thought they would make their decision about which party to vote for. 51% said they had already decided. The older the person, the more likely they were to have already decided. Only 38% of people aged 18-34 said they had decided.

These are figures that make you wonder whether the campaign messages are mis-directed.

Intriguingly, Greg Turnbull, former media adviser to Paul Keating and Kim Beazley, told ABC listeners that the ALP was worried it might be winning the campaign but losing the election.

On another program, a voter in Eden-Monaro, in NSW, said he’d be voting for the sitting Labor member, Mike Kelly, because Kelly had helped him get his tax return back after six months with those tardy officials at the Australian Taxation Office. Of such things are elections decided.

Last night, Tony Abbott paid delayed homage to another ritual with his appearance before the high priest of political interviews, Kerry O’Brien, on The 7.30 Report. It was a genial encounter on both sides, although by night’s end Abbott was coming under attack over his grasp of immigration data.

The day’s electronic electioneering ended with the joint appearance of Penny Wong, Malcolm Turnbull, Christine Milne, Graham Richardson and Tom Switzer on QandA. A dismal day of ritualistic campaigning and commentating ended on an elevated note.

Much of the program saw a sustained and serious discussion of the issue of climate change. The interplay between Wong, Turnbull and Milne was debating magic. The audience was intelligent, well-informed and inquiring. Leadership and vision were sought by the audience and provided by the participants in their own particular ways.

The studio hushed when Wong was asked why she did not do more with her position in government to promote gay marriage. The Asian-born, female, gay, senator and Minister for Climate Change spoke with a clarity rarely heard in politics these days. She began thus: “By virtue of who I am, prejudice and discrimination are things I have some firsthand knowledge of.”

Wong spoke of her loyalty and commitment to her party and its collective discipline. She listed action the government has taken against homosexual discrimination. Not all agreed with her reasons for not pushing harder on gay marriage but it was an especially partisan heart that would not be moved by her quiet dignity and strength.

As the Greens Senator Christine Milne took issue with Wong, effectively accusing her of copping out, the old rogue Richardson sprung to Wong’s defence, delivering an impassioned and eloquent lesson in real world politics. It was a moment to behold.

Beyond the rituals, the silliness and the cynicism of so much of our politics, here was a glimpse of what it can also be.

And there wasn’t a worm in sight.

This article first appeared in The Drum.

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