Day 17 – Amusing Ourselves To Defeat

Day 17 of the election campaign centred on the desperate attempt to resuscitate the campaign of Prime Minister Gillard.

But it began with a televised confrontation between Fiona Patten of the Sex Party and Wendy Francis from Family First. Since the “debate” was on Channel 7’s Sunrise program, it necessarily lacked gravitas but contained many loud buzzers to signal the thirty-second time limits.

Patten was out-talked by a more confident Francis and it reminded me of my conversation with Martin Leahy, the Sex Party candidate for the Victorian seat of La Trobe.

I met Leahy at the ballot draw, an arcane ritual complete with tattslotto style cages, numbered balls and blindfolded Electoral Commission staff. A two-stage selection of the numbered balls takes place, the first to allocate numbers to candidates, the second to designate the order of candidates on the ballot paper.

With six candidates having nominated for the seat, Leahy drew ball number six in the initial draw and then ball number six was drawn first to give him the top position on the ballot paper. Later, the pun-obsessed users of Twitter tittered about the appropriateness of a man called Leahy representing the Sex Party and being on top, whilst the Liberal member, Wood, is underneath him.

But Leahy shrugged off the tendency for people to snigger at the mention of the Sex Party. An articulate and thoughtful man, traditionally Labor in his voting habits, he left the ALP, via the Democrats, before attending the 2008 Sexpo where he became committed to the party’s political stance.

Leahy spoke with some passion about the Sex Party’s policies on censorship. Amongst other things, they want an “X” and “R” rating for computer games. He railed against the internet filter, the introduction of which has just been delayed by the government.

He argued the case for removing the tax exempt status of religious organisations which lack charitable arms. He argued the case for equality of all people, regardless of sexual orientation. He was especially animated about the need for a Royal Commission into child sex abuse in the Catholic Church. He rebutted my suggestion that the party may be nothing more than a front for the pornography industry.

In his political views, I saw a man who once would have found his home in a party of the Left or Centre. His was a philosophy based on liberal views of equality and civil liberties. By occupation a storeman, he sees himself as a family man, a man with a mortgage and an understanding of how people in the suburbs live.

As one of only three Sex Party candidates contesting lower house seats in Victoria – the others are Melbourne and Melbourne Ports – Leahy sought and was granted five weeks leave without pay from his employer for the duration of the campaign. He was gratified by the consideration they showed him.

He won’t win and will in all likelihood lose his deposit unless he can garner four per cent of the primary vote. But you couldn’t help but have a sneaking admiration for the willingness of a man to devote himself to such a quixotic campaign. In conversations with Labor and Liberal officials over the past week, amazement was expressed at the number of minor party and independent candidates who offer themselves to the electorate. Perhaps that amazement is emblematic of the emptiness at the heart of the two main parties.

The issues of concern to Leahy barely rate in the election campaign currently underway. There is bipartisan agreement on the internet filter and on gay marriage. Instead, we are witness to a vicious and disgraceful campaign by some sections of the media and the coalition parties to impugn Julia Gillard’s fitness for the prime ministership for no other reason than she is in a childless de facto relationship.

That issue was raised yet again last night on the ABC’s QandA. The question of relationships also elicited sniggers and wolf whistles from the audience when the Minister for Small Business, Craig Emerson, referred to having known Gillard since 1998.

However, there was a greater significance to that moment than the innuendo. The significance lay in the laughter directed at Emerson. It happened on several occasions during the program.

Laughter is a powerful weapon when wielded against a politician or a political party. In NSW these days, an alternately rueful, angry, despairing or dismissive laughter is directed at the state Labor government. It presages a savage electoral blood-letting next March.

Similarly, Prime Minister William McMahon was ridiculed in those final months of 1972 before the electorate declared it was time.

Bill Snedden was laughed from the Liberal Party leadership in 1975 after he cried “woof, woof” to Whitlam in the House one day and then told the media that his colleagues would walk over hot coals through the valley of death in support of his leadership. They dumped him a few weeks later.

Andrew Peacock was lampooned as the “sun-lamp kid”. When he campaigned in 1990 with the slogan “Questions that need Answers”, Bob Hawke said if the answer was Peacock it must have been a very silly question.

On another famous occasion, Peacock declared that a vote for Bob Hawke was really a vote for Paul Keating. The impeccably pitched response from Keating was that a vote for Peacock was a vote for… Peacock.

Yesterday, Julia Gillard’s government became the object of derisive humour. When she appeared on Channel 7’s Today Tonight to demand two more debates from Tony Abbott, the stunt was met with a chorus of jokes about backflips and broken commitments.

Gillard’s new mantra of being “real” has exposed her to ridicule. It is indicative of a campaign that has run aground.

On QandA, Senator Barnaby Joyce interrupted every response from Emerson by demanding to know whether this was the “real” Emerson talking.

But Tony Abbott and the Liberals are not free of this ridicule either. Abbott was reduced to stuttering incoherence on Sunday when questioned about his own backflips on key issues. His positions on social issues have been derided for years.

On both sides, neutralising this ridicule may well become an important ingredient in what remains of the election campaign.

At the moment, it has to be said that Abbott is ahead on points. His demeanour is measured, his tone calm. Asked yesterday about Gillard signing her name in the corner of an Australian flag, he generously acknowledged no disrespect was intended or shown.

His utterances these past few days have been carefully delivered to maximise an impression of prime ministerial readiness. It’s been an impressive performance.

Gillard, by contrast, appears one moment as a giggling football fan, then as a serious Prime Minister talking about economic reform or her record as an educational reformer. Whether establishing a website and taking on the teacher unions counts in the policy reform stakes is another question.

I’m inclined to agree with those who argue that Gillard’s campaign is counter-intuitive. She is running both as a prime minister with a record but also against that record, or at least those parts of it which are difficult to defend.

She is both Prime Minister and Opposition Leader. She is the new broom but also the old broom. She offers reforms, such as more power to school principals, which seem more in keeping with the views of her political opponents.

Gillard is also operating in a climate where every mention of Kevin Rudd gives rise to jokes about knives in the back, bile ducts or leaks. The humour carries with it great danger. It signifies an election slipping from her grasp.

Day 17 brought forth contradictory opinion polls. Newspoll and Galaxy both had the parties even on 50-50. Morgan and Essential said 53-47 to Labor. Nielsen gave it 52-48 to the coalition.

That’s enough to make you laugh.

This article first appeared on The Drum.

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