Opinion

Sean Kelly
Abbott baulking the talk

A year into the job that would define him evermore, a job he had lusted after and the legacy of which he would defend for decades to come, the prime minister of Australia, Paul Keating, told political journalist Michelle Grattan: “If someone said to me that you had to fill in your embarkation form and truly say what you were – whether politician or what – I wouldn’t say it because it would seem absurd, but I should put ‘aesthete’.”

It has become tedious practice in our national politics to decry the lack of great political communicators. Pejorative comparisons with Keating have become commonplace. Again and again he is referred back to as the gold standard for vivid use of political language. And why not? The man turned the Australian vernacular to the unexpected purpose of high-concept political analysis: forensic insight disguised as low insult. No less than any novelist, he has shaped our conception of what our own tongue can do.

And that is the point: Keating was doing an artist’s work when it came to language. It is also why commentary that expresses the wish that our leaders be more Keating-like misses the mark. Keating was not a simple tradesman shaping language to that day’s necessary tasks. He was that, too, of course – he was a politician and as cynical as the next, with an agenda he would pursue at any cost. But it was his belief in – no, more than that, his genuine feeling for – aesthetics that gave his words their punch.

To put it another way, it was not simply that Keating knew that language was powerful, it was that the powerful use of language was a fundamental expression of who Keating was.

In our current media-saturated era, by the time modern politicians are seen frequently on the political stage – as ministers or shadow ministers – they have usually been trained in two main skills. The first is to deliver the grab of the day, the crafted sound bite with which they hope to hit the airwaves. The second is to not screw up.

A politician who succeeds in the first will get their face on television. A politician who fails at the second will also achieve this, enveloped by a shaming miasma. Remembering that most people pay very little attention to the daily political carousel, these are the only instances in which they form judgements of their elected representatives. Perhaps depressingly, both skills depend on the same tactic: repeating the sound bite over and over so that nobody might miss the intended message, regardless of what question is being asked, in a repetition that also, conveniently, leaves no room for unscripted error.

When an MP becomes leader of their party, suddenly something very different is demanded. We are no longer seeing only the highlights reel; we are watching the unedited footage. Something now becomes obvious that was previously obscured: he or she is using the same form every day, the same form they used last week, the same form as their colleagues, the same cookie-cutter form imposed on every modern politician. Who that person is, what they believe in, what their aims are – their content, if you like – we find difficult to decipher because they are speaking the same toneless language they have had to employ to get their hands on the one political job for which that language is utterly useless.

In other words, form has been ripped from content. The effect is of watching a mid-range actor try to express the full range of Shakespearean emotion using only a Neighbours script.

I was reminded of this late last week when a reporter from The Sydney Morning Herald asked me what had happened to Abbott’s early pledge to slow down the media cycle. Thinking on it further, I’ve realised that Abbott’s problem is that his form – his media strategy – is a terrible match to his content.

Early on, Abbott was busy. He was appointing cabinets, stopping boats, abolishing taxes. He was preparing a dramatic first budget, prefaced by an audit of government spending. Things were being done and things were being planned. There was a surfeit of policy to talk about.

At that exact time Abbott chose to stop talking to the media. He reined in his ministers. Secrecy became a virtue. He had a chance to talk honestly to the country about what he was trying to do, to match frenetic activity with equally frequent communication, and he did not. He went silent.

Then, at some point, Abbott decided he had been pursuing the wrong media strategy. He has now become ubiquitous. On Monday, embedded in remote Indigenous communities, he managed to give a press conference and at least two radio interviews. Last week saw four press conferences in five days. But now the form mismatches the content in the opposite direction: he has very little to say and thousands of words with which to say it.

These should be simple principles, yet our politicians fail to enact them. A leader’s public performance must reflect their private self. A government’s media strategy should be dictated by its governing strategy. Form must match content. Voters will see through anything else, and their judgement will be damning.

So where does that leave a prime minister who has struggled to come across as anything other than robotic, or to develop a media strategy that makes sense?

Abbott must now decide, firmly and without second-guessing himself, what it is he wants to achieve in politics. He must confront the possibility that he may not be prime minister for very much longer, and ask himself for what, if that comes to pass, he would like to be remembered. Ironically, this is the only way he may survive long enough for that question to take care of itself.

Such a question, of course, is both simple and wickedly difficult, like a teenager being asked what they want to do with their life. But Abbott has been in political life a long time, he is an intelligent man, he has written a book on public policy. He knows the answer to that question, even if we don’t.

Right now, Abbott looks unlikely to pursue that path. If he was simply fighting to win an election, then it might be possible: “Let Abbott be Abbott,” his advisers might whisper to each other in West Wing-style half-hope. But his most immediate fear is not that he loses the next election but that his MPs deprive him of the chance even to fight it. That is a devilishly tricky position: he is not only fighting a real battle but his MPs’ worst fears about that battle. It is hard to take a risk when your colleagues could decide that even contemplating that risk is grounds enough to lop off your head. There are layers on layers on layers: Abbott is being asked, in essence, to fight his way out of the centre of an onion.

If Abbott somehow manages, nonetheless, to work out what it is he wants to do and to summon the courage to do it, that might be enough. There is, I believe, a hunger in the electorate for substantive policy. This is not new, and relies on a naive assumption that voters elect governments to govern. This is why last week’s near-blank cabinet agenda took hold in the media cycle, despite the fact cabinet discussed several issues of importance. Like all political symbols, the interest in it was tied to its ability to reflect an important belief voters already held. An exit sign photographed above a politician’s head only ever matters when that politician’s political mortality is under discussion.

Abbott has much from which to choose. There are white papers on tax and the federation looming. There will be a Productivity Commission report on workplace relations. The GST discussion continues. And let’s not pretend the landscape is finite – the man is prime minister, he can act in whatever area he chooses. And chooses is the key here; he must not simply follow the path foisted on him by business, or his party backers. To go into the next election with the sincerity that will be needed, the agenda must be Abbott’s own.

We may then see a man fighting, articulately and confidently, for something he cares about and understands. Seven press conferences in a week would not be too many provided Abbott was advancing a comprehensive agenda the public wanted to see discussed. As yet, though, he is not.

All of this, of course, applies as well to opposition leaders. Shorten’s problem is not that he is not Keating but that he refuses to accept that he is not Keating. His zingers are a costume, and as such do not work. He must find a way of speaking that fits him. He has chosen a form for the next election already – the future versus the past – and now must deliver sufficient content to match it. Big ideas will be needed.

It is unlikely either Abbott or Shorten would ever think about writing “aesthete” on their incoming passenger form. Both want, after the next election, to at least have the option of writing “prime minister”. The man who gets to do so will be the one who remembers why he wanted it in the first place.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 29, 2015 as "Baulking the talk". Subscribe here.

Sean Kelly
is a political commentator and writer, and a former adviser to prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.