Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Stunt Fail

Give ’em the old Razzle Dazzle
Razzle dazzle ’em
Show ’em the first rate sorceror you are
Long as you keep ’em way off balance
How can they spot you’ve got no talent
Razzle Dazzle ’em

And they’ll make you a star!

Good politics is like good theater, with the best politicians having an actor’s timing and presence about them. Barack Obama for instance went on a fortnight trip to Europe during the 2008 presidential campaign to give the impression he had foreign policy contacts and experience. A stunt to be sure, but it made him already look Presidential, 3 months before the voting opened. Sometimes however, the magic just isn’t there:

Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull is relying on a ute to help turn around his political fortunes following the disaster of the Utegate affair.
Mr Turnbull unveiled what he called the “debt truck” on Tuesday during a visit to Western Australia – an idea the coalition first used when last in opposition in 1996 to highlight the level of foreign debt the then Keating government had racked up.
The “debt truck” is a massive billboard towed by a ute, which Mr Turnbull says was “acquired on commercial terms”.
It will be flanked by billboards that spell out the level of domestic debt the country is currently carrying – more than $300 billion by the coalition’s sums.

Every time journalists write about this foolish idea, they will raise these two facts, and while ute-gate will slowly fade from the public memory, the very people Turnbull needs to impress in the press gallery will see this as nothing more than the wholesale borrowing of an idea they once cheered on over a decade ago. Ordinarily Turnbull’s image of a dynamic and brilliant man may excuse an indulgence such as this, but given that questions are already being asked about his lack of new policy ideas now leader (as compared to his first few years in Government), it just re-enforces a new meme: Being Leader is crimping his natural style and reducing his appeal. This is a common situation within the sporting world, where the hot young star is given too many responsibilities as a ‘future captain’ and suddenly begins to buckle. They play defensively to protect what advantages they have gained, instead of the aggressive, free flowing style which earn’t them so many credits in the first place. Consequently they soon lose the lauding’s and title and people wonder what happened.
Worse, such antics bring to mind the antics of Mark Latham and his preference for giant cheques. Such stunts are utterly transparent to the public and not even that interesting or fresh. Meanwhile you’ve bored the press gallery who have to cover you each and every day. Everyone in politics these days talks about the bias of the press, as if they are ideological microphones who do no more than record and then helpfully re-edit the text to fit their prejudices. Yet in John Curtin’s famous phrase to describe a media conference ‘feeding the chooks’, he captures an essential truth. Journalists like to be kept informed, to know before the rest of the public, to be entertained and interested in their work, and the best politicians play to that. When Keating stopped inspiring and exciting the Australian press gallery in 1994, they savagely turned on him, despite most probably still voting for him in 1996. And many of them remain slightly mystified by Rudd’s popular appeal, in spite of the boring and very repetitive nerd they encounter in person. Turnbull’s debt truck will simply bore them all once more, and wont change any public votes. In short, a net neutral, if not negative in asking where the inventive, interesting Turnbull has gone, and why this party hack seems to have replaced him. Where is the man who championed climate change, but who now cowardly defers all discussion for a few months. Where is the man who challenged a successful treasurer of his own party on tax, yet hasn’t said a thing about the topic since taking over as leader. Where is the animating spirit of a man who embodies youthful ambition, but is yet to articulate any vision of Australia in a similar form. Turnbull has only one shot at the Prime Ministership and it’s a long shot at that. But worse than falling short, would be if he did so whilst campaigning in a way utterly foreign to himself and his true nature. Most politicians never make it to Prime Minister, but those who tried on their own merits, rather than some hacks’s handed strategy at least will have such solace in their retirement. Turnbull risks losing without ever showing the public who he is, or why he wants the top job.

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