In 1952 the polio epidemic hit its peak in the United States. Fifty-eight thousand cases were reported. More than 3000 people died and more than 20,000 were left with some form of paralysis. Most were children.
Amid a scarred and terrified nation, filled with parents fearing for their children, a young researcher named Jonas Salk decided the answer might lie in injecting healthy people with dead polio cells. To find out whether he was right demanded audacious risk. It was a dangerous experiment. Specifically, Salk had to find volunteers willing to be injected with a deadly virus.
A year later he announced the results of his tests at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. They had been successful. Salk also revealed that he, his wife and his three sons had been among the first volunteers to be injected with the vaccine. Widespread vaccinations began in 1955. By 1979 the disease had been eradicated within America.
I bring this up because the Liberals stand at the edge of their own crazy-brave experiment demanding audacious self-sacrifice, this budget’s sugar hit notwithstanding. The experiment is simple: keep Tony Abbott as prime minister for the next election; risk annihilation under an unpopular leader.
Like Salk, if the Liberals go through with it, and meet with failure, they will suffer disastrous consequences. But what courage for the sake of the nation. Whatever the result, we will have learnt something important about the way politics in Australia now operates.
In 2010, I was working for Kevin Rudd when he was replaced by Julia Gillard. Historians will forever debate the precise reasons, but one of them was certainly a belief by sections of the Labor Party that Rudd’s vertiginous descent in the opinion polls – especially in his personal approval rating – signalled an inevitable loss at the next election.
Some say Rudd’s removal brought about a shift in our politics. But I would say a shift was already occurring in Australian politics, one our political parties had failed to recognise. It was the shift, in fact, that led to Rudd standing down, and not the other way around.
The truth is that by 2010 politics had become infinitely more volatile than it once was.
It is so easy, these days, to attribute responsibility to the 24/7 media cycle. A sped-up, ravenous media has become a little like the “sitting down” of the past few years or the “sugar” of the late noughties: the root of all evil. And of course it’s not to blame for everything.
But it is to blame for this.
The facts are well rehearsed, so I’ll be brief: the rise of online news and the 24-hour television news channels created an absurdly high demand for content among editors and producers.
There were two simple ways of providing that content. Opinions, as the saying goes, are like arseholes – everybody’s got one. So procuring opinions was not hard, and certainly much cheaper than procuring actual news.
The loudest, most saleable opinions are complaints. A complaint turns us all into comrades-in-outrage. They’re easy to agree with, even if you happen to like the person or party being complained about. And so, suddenly, loud and vitriolic opinion was coming at us from everywhere.
The second simple way of providing that content was breaking “news”. I’ve used quotation marks because the threshold for actual news and breaking news is very, very different. For something to be news it must be important, have some bearing on our lives or our understanding of the world. For something to be breaking news it merely needs to have just happened.
Of course a journalist isn’t allowed to say, “This fact isn’t really relevant to political debate at all, but I did just see it on Twitter.” So it needs to be dressed up in the garb of something important: usually something with awful implications for a politician. And once it’s happened, and been reported, and had the gloss of faux-importance applied, it’s time to call in the opinionistas to fill some space.
And on the caravan rolls.
These developments have had many consequences but one of them is to expose the public to a continuous litany of complaints about their elected representatives. This has always been true to an extent – bad news has always had the edge over good news. The difference lies in the volume, venom and constancy of those complaints in our age.
And of course that troika affects the opinions the public holds about its leaders. It should be no surprise that governments now, more than ever, suffer dizzying dives in popularity between one election and the next. Which brings us back to Rudd.
The removal of Rudd might have seemed to some at the time like a rational political response to the fading public valuation of a leader. But looking back on that decision, it looks more and more like a failure to take account of the changes that were already under way. Yes, Rudd’s popularity fell steeply. And we all should have expected that.
My former colleague Lachlan Harris, head of communications for Rudd, put it like this in an interview with The Australian’s Paul Kelly: “What Labor missed in 2010 is that this is the new norm. We were running around saying, ‘Oh my God, we’re so unpopular, 2GB hates us, The Australian is trying to kill us.’ But this is how politics now works.” Harris went on to say: “The days of people thinking about a competent government don’t exist anymore. The story from the media now is dissatisfaction with government.”
Of course, the ALP didn’t make this mistake just once. I stayed on after Rudd, working for Gillard, but had left by the time she was replaced in 2013. I listened to the news unfold over a sketchy internet connection in Lisbon. This time there was not much debate about the purpose of the shift: the party had decided it could not win with Gillard. It didn’t think it could win with Rudd either, not really, but perhaps, went the reasoning, he would lose less badly.
I have always believed both changes were political errors. Both leaders would have done far better at the approaching elections than their party gave them credit for. But the ALP chose to treat both sets of polling numbers as if they’d occurred in an old media environment, before rampant dissatisfaction became the status quo. The party was a little like a family in one of Chekhov’s plays: trying to act as it always has, responding to emerging threats with ancient habits, on the tragic assumption that the world is as it always has been.
Or, perhaps, like Allan Border’s cricket side if they were suddenly parachuted into the 2015 World Cup – desperately trying to play a new game as if the old rules were still in place.
In both cases, I believe the public would have adjusted their expectations of government as the election approached. Of course this is just a new variation of old wisdom: the polls always narrow as you approach an election. But because leaders’ popularity crashes so much earlier now, and therefore seems so much more dramatic, it takes faith for political parties to believe that recovery is possible – faith that the ALP lacked in 2010 and 2013.
The ALP is not alone in its failure of faith. One of the most amazing political spectacles any of us will witness came when the Liberal party, having spent years attacking Labor for dysfunction and chaos, almost committed a regicide of their own, coming close to removing Tony Abbott in February this year.
In the end they were content to lightly dangle the sword over the neck of their leader, resheathing the weapon at the last minute.
We are now several years into this new media environment. My strong suspicion is that voters have adjusted: they are happy to be unhappy in the middle of an electoral term, without feeling at all bound to maintain that unhappiness all the way to an election. Was that true in 2010 and 2013? I believe it was, but we will never know. The ALP’s actions deprived us of that knowledge.
For the sake of democratic experiment we should hope that the Liberal party gives Abbott the chance to go to the next election.
Let me be clear about what I am not saying. I am not saying Abbott is the best person to lead the Liberals – I believe Malcolm Turnbull would give them a better shot. I am also not saying Abbott, if left in place, will win the next election. He faces an awesome array of challenges, including a gloomy economy and a weak cabinet.
But there is no doubt in my mind that it is eminently possible today for a prime minister to crash, and crash badly, and still come back to win an election.
And until one of the major parties has the courage to stick with a leader, unbeloved of their people mid-term, then we will not know whether that is true or not. We will remain trapped in the midst of this rolling political pandemic of cowardice and instability.
Courage and the risk of self-sacrifice will be necessary to rid the country of this disease.
Perhaps, if Liberal MPs are concerned only about themselves, they will think of Malcolm Turnbull, or Julie Bishop, or Scott Morrison. But if they are concerned about the country, and the future of Australian democracy, they should think of Jonas Salk.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 23, 2015 as "Courage under ire".
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