Chicken suit politics

Every three years, whoever leads the Labor Party is stripped to the waist, covered in tar and feathers, and marched through The Daily Telegraph’s newsroom, clucking and scratching like a chicken. The ritual is designed to debase the leader and show Rupert Murdoch’s dominance.

This time it produced a front page showing Anthony Albanese with his arms folded and the headline “I am not woke”. The subhead read “Albo vows to swerve away from the Left”.

The treatment was not entirely accurate. Albanese rarely vows. He doesn’t swerve. He made modest commitments to respecting faith and engaging with business.

He practised his lines: “Labor’s historic task is to move more people into the middle class, to appeal to small business, and if we don’t do that, Labor won’t be successful.”

And: “You need to have successful businesses to have more workers working for those businesses. The key to both increasing profits and increasing wages is productivity.”

He reminded the greedy that they can trust him. He owns three houses and will not tinker with negative gearing. He wants to spend more on defence.

He won’t govern with the Greens.

Asked if men could have babies, he said no. It was a bizarre question. It affects a few dozen trans men a year who choose to give birth. It was an odd gotcha, too, in that the paper asked it hoping he would get it right: of course men can have babies.

The interview was a reminder of how Murdoch’s warped fetishes shape our politics. The agenda is set by men who will ask a potential prime minister “Captain Cook: Hero or zero?”

The answer doesn’t matter except in a world where everything is part of an imagined culture war. This is a world in which a future prime minister cannot say anything decent or just without fear of approbation.

It has forced the opposition into three years of non-politics. Every thought is stretched over a fulcrum. Conviction is forgotten lest it upset the scale. “I was an avid supporter of marriage equality,” Albanese told The Daily Telegraph, “but I also supported a conscience vote at the same time.”

Recently, Nick Bryant profiled Albanese for The Monthly. The most revealing line came two days after the party released its less ambitious climate target. “Labor staffers seem delighted with how little controversy the new policy has stirred,” Bryant wrote. “One points me towards Peter Hartcher’s weekend column in The Sydney Morning Herald, which described Labor’s policy menu not just as small target but ‘no target’, a phrase I thought might displease them but that evidently meets with approval.”

This hollowness is the compromise Murdoch has produced in Australia. He wishes for a country as ugly and gnashing and spiteful as his tabloids. Sometimes he gets it. Mostly, he gets a country that looks like Albanese in his polo shirt: uncomfortable and uncertain and hoping to get by.

The ritual humiliation is over for now. The Murdoch papers will go back to scouring university pamphlets for evidence of the opposition leader’s communist sympathies. Hopefully, if he wins, he will start governing for the country as it is and not as its clapped-out hacks wish it to be.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 26, 2022 as "Chicken suit politics".

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