Australian politics, society & culture

Comment: Attack of the Clones

John Howard under advisement. © Andrew Meares/Fairfax Syndication

Don Watson

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“They should just clone ministers, you know. So we’re born at 55 with no past … and no genitals. Just a world of robots. It’s like a futuristic film, and you’d enjoy that wouldn’t you? You’d be in your little space station surrounded by obedient androids.” — Hugh Abbot MP to political adviser Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It.

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People who watched the first series of Yes Minister might remember a fringe character called Frank Weisel, a young man of little apparent promise much loathed by Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby. For Humphrey, finding Frank in the minister’s office was like finding an ant in his whisky and soda. The worst thing anyone could say fairly about Frank was that he was gormless and dull; but he was lower middle class, and if, as seemed likely, he had a degree in sociology or communications or media studies or something of that nature from a red-brick university, in Humphrey’s eyes this was all the more proof of his unfitness. A person of such rank deficiency could never appreciate the refinements of political power, and in his clumsy ignorance might very well trash them. It is likely that in the more ancient halls of Humphrey’s Oxfordian civil-service mind, Frank lurked as a kind of Jacobite, a threat to the order of things and all the more dangerous for being as earnest as he was harebrained.

With such an enemy Frank could not last long, and after just half a dozen episodes, he was done away with like an incontinent cat, and with a similar sense of relief.

The past, as they say, is another country, and that includes the early 1980s. Certainly there were Frank Weisels nosing around the fabled corridors when Yes Minister was made 30 years ago, but the Humphreys had the real muscle, in Canberra as in Whitehall. There were Machiavels among them, cynics, careerists and the usual 24-hour-a-day arse-coverers: they were captive to timeworn conventions and saws, very often hostile to change, insufferably arrogant and remote from the mundane life of the country.

We can say what we like about them now because they are a broken tribe; not entirely gone, but with at least one leg stuffed in the dustbin of history. And the usurpers of their privileges and power have been, of all people, the immediate descendants of Frank Weisel. As politics and the media merged into one indivisible domain, the ‘media-savvy’ Weisels went forth and multiplied. Impervious to cliché and their own ignorance, they went armed with all the demotic tools: focus group research, polling, messaging and spin. Soon every office had one or two or even more. They colonised politics, made it their personal anthill, and soon enough they ran the show.

The triumph of Frank Weisel is most spectacularly made flesh in the British TV series The Thick of It, especially in the profane Scottish genius of realmediapolitik, Malcolm Tucker – for which, we are advised, read Tony Blair’s spin doctor, Alastair Campbell. Though we have never hesitated to do it with public servants, of course, it is always perilous to generalise about any group of people. Not every senior servant is a Humphrey, and not all political advisers are Malcolms. Humphrey and Malcolm are caricatures, wild exaggerations: no public servant is quite as lubricious as Humphrey, and the modern political adviser – I mean the hard-nosed insider kind – is neither quite so base nor anywhere near as eloquent as Malcolm.

While it is reasonable to say that some political advisers have large and practical ideas for the country, it’s unlikely that they have more than we would find among a similar cohort of farmers and schoolteachers – or public servants. In fact, we might find fewer ideas among a profession that tends to attract the type of people who pride themselves less on any intellectual or imaginative capacity than on ruthless pragmatism and a willingness to kick heads.

Some advisers are articulate and informed by a wide variety of reading and experience. But you would find the same qualities in at least equal profusion among many of the professions – including public servants and their spouses and partners. Political advisers make hard decisions – or at least advise their masters to make them – and so do doctors and nurses.

Malcolm Tucker’s capacity for breathtakingly foul metaphors notwithstanding, the truth is modern political advisers are not a particularly inspiring, imaginative, worldly, or even clever, category of person. Some are shallow and dull-witted, many are prolix, and more than a few haven’t read a book in years. When they leave politics, if it is not into well-paid jobs with large corporations, including media corporations, it is often into consultancies that they go. But you would not necessarily consult them if you were looking for the path to enlightenment or grace. They do not harbour in their breasts greater capacity for leadership – more goodwill or insight, or clarity of thought and expression, or empathy, or breadth and depth of vision – than the members of any other profession or trade, including the public service.

And yet their profession is leadership. They swarm round the seats of political power. And so thoroughly have they woven themselves into the fabric of politics that they now define its character, its stripe.

When we think of politics these days we think of spin. When we think of spin we may as well think of our washing machine at the end of a wash, when the clothes are all stuck to the wall of the cylinder. We’re the wall, and the clothes, twisted and tangled beyond recognition, are the truth after it has been processed by political experts. There’s more to it than this of course, but not that much more.

Spin is the most obvious of the political advisers’ contributions to our politics: it is also the most tiresome, corrosive and, as The Thick of It would have it, both the most outrageous and the most pathetic. Yet nothing in the fevered minds of that show’s creators could match a recent grab from the rooms of the federal Opposition shown on the ABC’s Insiders program. There were the leader and his loyal lieutenants, Joe Hockey and Andrew Robb, sitting at a table like Malcolm’s brushed-aluminium androids and offering for the cameras their candid opinion of the government. This candid opinion was that the government was all spin – clichés and spin – and no substance. It was “embarrassing” Andrew Robb said. And as each spoke, the others nodded as if they had just heard that Singapore had fallen again. All it needed was a laughter track.

The latter-day Weisels did not invent spin (it’s hard to think of anything they invented), but they were the first to use it as a general anaesthetic. The basic art is older than politics, as old as language. Language and spin are cousins, surely. But it is one thing to seek advantage by putting the best or worst possible interpretation on events – it is a human trait and can be done with elegance; it is something else entirely to obey the axioms of the modern form – stay ‘on message’ and repeat ‘key’ words and phrases even if it makes you sound like a very bad actor or a schoolchild or someone who may or may not be ‘real’. And so long as you are hostage to these demands, even if you are engaged in a larger project, you cannot give the impression that you are, or that you won’t at any moment throw it over for politics.

It is not altogether fair to blame the advisers. Our leaders decide what advice they will take and what they will reject, just as they choose their words. But then very often our leaders – both the prime minister and Opposition leader, for example – are former political advisers and it is no surprise that the familiar android forms appeal to them.

The political whiz, of course, is a very democratic personage, much more in touch with the people (including those of vast fortune and influence) than the notoriously Olympian public servant. Yet the record tends to elevate the public servant as a more effective and courageous agent of economic and social improvement. The big changes in Australia were made not by whizzes, but by policy-driven politicians in combination with like-minded public servants of equal conviction.

The political fixers have their uses, naturally. It is not their existence but their dominance that depletes our politics. If they can be kept away from policy and speeches (nothing will turn a speech into an embarrassment like a mauling from the party geniuses), two or three on each side of politics can be justified. Any more runs counter to the fact that the more they multiply the less likely it is that we will see the leaders of character, foresight and independence we wish for – or hear them speak to us in ways that are not maddening.

Don Watson

Don Watson is an award-winning author and former speechwriter for Paul Keating. His books include Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PM and American Journeys.
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Published in The Monthly, March 2012, No. 76