Since the dawning of the age of television (and perhaps even before), there’s been no political commodity as valuable as authenticity. Politicians must be ordinary: they must be down-to-earth, one of us. It’s a tendency most apparent in US politics, where there’s an entire infrastructure of talk shows dedicated to discussing political players in terms of what’s loftily called "character".
Of course, the entire concept involves an unstated but obvious paradox: ordinary people, by definition, are not political leaders and thus to become everyday the politician must perform a strange double-act, in which he or she simulates the absence of simulation. To paraphrase Courtney Love, one must fake it so real that one becomes beyond fake.
To do this effectively, politicians must gain the co-operation of the media, and since becoming Opposition Leader in December last year, this is something Tony Abbott has been surprisingly effective at.
Abbott is, according to the many humanising stories that have been written about him recently, real: a genuine, ordinary guy, with a core set of beliefs to steer him past the political winds. In a profile for The Monthly, Louis Nowra put it like this: "Abbott has more charm, humour and common appeal than Rudd, who seems merely a willy-willy of spin."
But if Abbott is so authentic, how do we explain the wild policy lurches that have characterised his leadership — flip-flops often in blatant contradiction to his supposed core principles? And why, despite these glaring inconsistencies, have the media largely assisted Abbott in the construction of his image as a genuine guy?
Abbott’s "direct action" plan for climate change provides the most obvious example, a policy launched despite its author’s much publicised disbelief in climate change (or, indeed, direct action). But there’s now the new scheme for paid maternity leave. Abbott has a problem with women, the polls show, and so, hey presto, a sweeping new plan rolls out. A few weeks ago in an interview for Women’s Weekly, Abbott didn’t know women’s wages were, on average, less than men’s; today, he’s supposedly going to enforce a huge levy on his key business supporters so as to pay for maternity provisions.
As for social policy, the field in which Abbott is supposedly most driven by rock solid beliefs, the oscillations there have been quite remarkable. On abortion, for instance, in 2006, Abbott decried a "bizarre double standard in this country where someone who kills a pregnant woman’s baby is guilty of murder but a woman who aborts an unborn baby is simply exercising choice".
As Barrie Cassidy points out, Abbott’s current formulation — that abortion should be "safe, legal and rare" — means that he and Rudd essentially agree. Indeed, as Cassidy further notes, on most social questions — stem cell research, euthanasia, IVF — there is now "barely a cigarette paper of difference between Abbott and Rudd".
How then has the perception of Abbott’s authenticity persisted for so long? I have two hypotheses.
Firstly, the extreme nature of Abbott’s gyrations has left him seeming — for a while, at least — less calculating than Rudd, who generally performs policy adjustment with a modicum of guile. Call it the "Palin effect". When Governor Sarah Palin first burst upon the US election, her gaffes were so bizarre that they provided, in and of themselves, proof that she stood for a different kind of politics. It took some time before most observers realised that Palin played the same game as her opponents, and the real difference was simply she was bad at it.
Something similar might be said about Abbott. His gob-smacking U-turns have insulated against charges of opportunism precisely because he hasn’t tip-toed away from his principles so much as abandoned them at full speed.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Abbott has benefited from the susceptibility of political journalists to supposed outsiders. It’s often been said that George W Bush received such gentle coverage in part because he seemed like a frat boy, the kind of brash alpha male from whom nerdy journalists had always secretly craved approval. Alexandra Pelosi’s documentary about the Bush campaign, Journeys with George showed Bush goofing around in the campaign bus like a loutish undergraduate, alternatively bullying and charming the accompanying reporters.
"These are my people," he says to Pelosi about a group of drunken journos. "It takes an animal to know an animal."
Bush was, of course, the ultimate insider — the privileged son of a privileged son — but nebbish reporters found his populist shtick surprisingly alluring.
There’s something similar happening with Abbott. Kevin Rudd, despite his Christianity, is a type that every journalist understands: a nerdy bureaucrat driven by overweening ambition. By contrast, Abbott’s much discussed physicality exerts a certain fascination because it gestures at a very different world. Thus, when discussing Abbott’s university boxing career, Nowra becomes almost giddy with excitement:
"Boxing is called the ultimate sport and no wonder. It is two men pitted against each other, with no protection other than their gloves and sometimes a helmet. It is a profound act of bravery to face an opponent who is out to hurt you and could possibly kill you. There is nowhere to hide, and any momentary act of perceived cowardice is magnified. Boxing is, however, more than just punching: one has to duck, weave, guard, counterattack, parry blows and, of course, conquer fear."
Since Hemingway, writers — particularly men — have always been susceptible to this kind of thing. Secretly suspecting that their own profession might be somewhat effete, they swoon over displays of physical prowess. What better signifier of authenticity for sedentary journalists than Abbott’s buffed body and swaying penis, items about which the press gallery has devoted acres of newsprint?
Abbott’s religiosity also plays a role. If Bush wowed journalists as one of the fraternity cool kids, Abbott’s narrative of training for the priesthood fascinates secular reporters because it contrasts so overtly with the world of the press gallery. Here, in the midst of the grubby political world, is a man prepared to abandon the pleasures of the flesh so as to follow a higher calling! What could be more real than that?
Of course, Abbott abandoned the priesthood explicitly because he found fleshy pleasures too compelling and, since then, there’s not been much difference between his life and that of any other professional politician. But still the aura clings.
At the risk of stating the obvious, the real debate should not be about whether Abbott is more or less authentic than Rudd. It’s a question that’s inherently absurd. No modern politician is more or less real than any other: the nature of the contemporary political process makes the whole idea of authenticity nonsense.
Is it, then, too much to hope that we might move to less discussion about Tony’s sixpack and more discussion about the obvious inconsistency of his policies?
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