Parody and grotesque exaggeration are the key elements of theatrical burlesque. The entertainment genre is also known as travesty. As the Australian election campaign entered its final two weeks, political burlesque held sway over the weekend.
A Nielsen poll in Fairfax newspapers on Saturday morning showed the coalition leading Labor by 51-49. Labor was up one point but still behind.
By mid-morning, Julia Gillard was meeting with her predecessor, Kevin Rudd, in a secret location, somewhere in Brisbane. Unlike former US Vice-President Dick Cheney’s undisclosed locations, this one had little to do with national security but everything to do with managing the media.
Later, when Gillard appeared in the grounds of the Ballycara Retirement Village to face the media, the parody of political management skills fell apart. All that the assembled pack of reporters wanted to know about was Kevin Rudd.
Why didn’t they look at each other during the encounter recorded by one video camera and one still photographer? “Why not come out and speak publicly if you’re all one happy family at the moment?” one reporter asked.
Apparently confused about the leadership change, another reporter asked, “how does footage of you and the Prime Minister looking at a map help to convince Australians not to let Tony Abbott slide into power?”
An especially observant reporter asked about eye contact between Gillard and Rudd. Another demanded to know whether they would be appearing in public together. “Just take us through it,” Gillard was ordered.
And so it went. The Prime Minister’s announcement on changes to pensions was completely lost as the issue of Kevin Rudd continued to preoccupy the media at least.
There was much excited and indignant talk online after that press conference about the behaviour of the media and the lack of policy questions. And it’s true that we had witnessed an unedifying performance.
But those with longer memories weren’t surprised.
The encounter simply highlighted yet again the incompetent political management of the government’s re-election campaign. Most of the benefits of incumbency have been thrown away. The alleged leadership qualities of Julia Gillard have been overshadowed by the manner of her elevation.
Of course, it wasn’t over.
One of Gillard’s predecessors as Labor leader, Mark Latham, hovered around her press conference, accompanied by a 60 Minutes camera crew. A few minutes earlier, Latham had wandered through the retirement home chatting to elderly residents as Gillard did the same. Sky News broadcast a farcical interview with Latham as the reporters all waited for Gillard to emerge for the press conference.
The grotesque had arrived.
Gillard pugnaciously tried to raise the criticisms of Tony Abbott by former Liberal leaders John Hewson and Malcolm Fraser. She was instead forced to talk about when she had last spoken to Latham. “You used to be quite close friends,” a reporter said.
Later, Latham accosted Gillard, shook her hand, and demanded to know why she had complained about him to Channel 9. Gillard handled the encounter well, holding her ground and wishing him well in his new career as a journalist. It was political burlesque at its finest.
But it was another day lost. Another day when the media focus was elsewhere. The Sunday newspaper front pages were devastating.
Back in 1975, as the Whitlam government struggled, the then ALP national secretary, David Combe, said: “We look like a party of junketeers who don’t expect to be in office often or long.”
This lot may not be junketeers but the sense of chaos, division and farce is the same. Worse, it is entirely self-created.
The Liberal Party has had three leaders since losing the 2007 election. Tony Abbott seized the crown in a mad coup which tore down Malcolm Turnbull and was supposed to elevate Joe Hockey. The party fought itself over the Emissions Trading Scheme.
But Abbott was able to stand before the Liberals in Sydney yesterday and present himself as the adult in the political room. Straight-faced, he was able to tell his audience that he had a “loyal deputy”, that his predecessor was a “good friend”.
Julie Bishop and Warren Truss were able to guffaw about the government’s perceived lack of commitment to its own policies. This isn’t government, “it’s loitering without intent,” said Truss.
Abbott’s speech by any measure was well-written and powerfully presented. He was measured and calm. He looked the part.
There was no policy to speak of. Everything was reduced to the series of slogans he has employed since last Christmas. “Stop the new taxes, stop the waste, stop the debt, stop the boats.”
But you have to wonder whether the simple clarity of that message is propelling Abbott towards victory. It stands in stark contrast to the garbled messages that emanated first from Rudd and now from Gillard.
As Abbott delivered his speech in Sydney, Gillard was in Darwin announcing a tough love policy on truancy and proposing to deny kids the chance to play sport if they don’t attend school.
The contrast between the two could not have been greater. Yet again, Gillard was out there pushing a small issue carefully targeted to a particular constituency. Let’s face it, this was more dog whistling about those bothersome indigenous types who leech off hard-working Australian taxpayers.
It was in the same category as her Howard-esque call for understanding the concerns about boat people and asylum seekers. Sorry, make that concerns about “population”…
Abbott, on the other hand, was continuing to weave the story about government incompetence and waste. That he is still able to do this in the light of the Orgill report on the Building the Education Revolution program is testament to the sorry political skills of the government.
In many respects, the bulk of Abbott’s speech was absurd. Asserting a readiness to take government, he proposed a series of actions from “Day One”. These ranged from not introducing the mining tax to telephoning the President of Nauru. The readiness for government approach was more about listing a series of Rudd/Gillard misdemeanours than it was about setting out a coherent plan of action for a new government.
The Opposition Leader spoke of values. The instinct to have a family is the greatest “conservative instinct” of all, he claimed. We are all conservatives now!
Abbott’s speech gave a bare thirty seconds appeal to people considering voting for the Greens. He acknowledged we only have one earth on which to live and suggested these voters consider his direct action plan to save the environment. The Abbott Green Army may await its General after August 21 but he seems to have conceded this issue to his opponents.
The speech betrayed some unease about the ground the Opposition needs to make up to secure victory. So far, the mantra has been: “To stop the [insert issue of choice] you have to change the government.” To this Abbott added: “To change the government, you have to defeat your local Labor MP.”
At the end Abbott was cheered to the rafters by a Liberal Party that must be stunned by the easy target the government has made itself throughout this year.
And so the weekend closed with word of the latest Newspoll. Like the Nielsen poll, it showed the ALP increasing its share of the vote, this time up 2 points to a lead of 52-48.
For the Labor Party entering the second last week of the campaign, this will surely be a morale boost. For the Opposition, it may blunt some of the presumption of imminent glory that was on display at yesterday’s launch.
It may also indicate that the voters who will decide this election are only now beginning to give it consideration. The Newspoll showed 57% of voters say their vote is already decided and committed. Another 32% are probably committed, with only a slight chance they will vote for someone else. Only 11% of those polled could be classified as in any way uncommitted.
Those of us who consume the media coverage of the election would do well to remember that much of what passes before us simply does not register with most people, let alone those who have little interest in politics. These people did not watch Mark Latham on cable television over the weekend. They did not sit for an hour to watch Tony Abbott’s coronation by the Liberal Party.
This small proportion of the voting population will decide the outcome. Much of the political burlesque is passing them by.
This article first appeared on The Drum.