The pursuit of character over substance
© Andrew Taylor/Reuters
Would you like extra character with that?
Does it really matter whether Tony Abbott, some 35 years ago, punched a wall on either side of the head of Barbara Ramjan? Well, yes, it must, because Tony Abbott himself has told us so.
In any sane and rational world such hi-jinks, however sexist and offensive they may appear now, would be dismissed as the excesses of youth, to be forgiven and forgotten by all but the obsessed. But it was Abbott and his colleagues and supporters who introduced the absurd American concept of ‘character’ into Australian politics, and now they are having to live with the consequences.
According to my dictionary, character actually means “the aggregate of qualities that distinguishes one person or thing from others; moral constitution or status; reputation”. In the American context it has turned into a kind of test of political fitness, meaning that anything discovered or twisted to the detriment of an opponent can be used to disqualify them from political office.
Did this person smoke a bit of dope at university? Did this person ever have, or even contemplate, sex outside marriage? Any dubious friends or acquaintances in the past? What about the odd drunken escapade? Trouble with workmates? Fudging an application form? Queue jumping at a bus stop? Taking 14 purchases to the check-out for 12 items or less? Come on, there must be something we can get on the bastard. As soon as we do, it means that the target has been shown to be unfit to sit in the parliament, far less to stand for any higher office.
This unsavoury technique was pioneered in Australia in 2004, when the Howard government unexpectedly found itself up against a relatively unknown opposition leader in Mark Latham. Of course, spreading damaging stories about political opponents was nothing new. Back last century Tony Abbott himself had spent a good deal of time baiting the press gallery with stories about Cheryl Kernot’s sex life, stories that were largely ignored until Kernot had left politics.
It was only during the campaign against Latham that delving into the past developed as a major political strategy. More importantly, it was in this period that Australia’s mainstream media finally followed their American counterparts, printing the stuff raked up by political operators. Until then, the Canberra press gallery had observed the unwritten rule that politicians’ private lives were off limits – unless and until those private lives affected their public duties. There were times when the line could be hard to draw; for instance, when Laurie Oakes finally published his ‘scoop’ about Kernot’s affair with Gareth Evans – an affair that had been known to many in the gallery for a long time – there was much debate about whether he had broken the code. In general, though, the rule was followed: gutter trawling was just not part of the job.
In 2004 that changed. Printing stories about Latham’s youthful indiscretions was suddenly the norm. A blue with a taxidriver was front-page news. An old colleague was unearthed to say that Latham had ratted on him over an expected vote. It was even reported that Latham had been known to put the hard word on fellow students during his university days. This muck was run not only by the gossip columnists of the tabloids but by so-called investigative journalists in the Sydney Morning Herald.
The government justified its campaign by the use of that magic word, ‘character’. The public wanted, nay, needed and deserved, to know all about Mark Latham because he was a candidate for the Lodge. Therefore nothing was off limits. And so the pattern was set.
Mark Latham was seen off, but then Kevin Rudd appeared: a harder target, but that only made it more fun. His recollection of his mother’s eviction from the farm on which his dead father had worked may have been less than perfect. He had once been to dinner with the notorious Brian Burke, which meant that he was irrevocably tainted. He had been to a New York strip club with a journalist (this was, of course, perfectly OK for the journalist, but utterly beyond the pale for a political aspirant). No peccadillo was too insignificant to drag up from the past in the hope it might end the man’s honeymoon with the voters.
This time it didn’t work, but apparently the failure was taken only as a sign that it might be necessary to try harder in future. Thus Julia Gillard has been subjected to an even heavier dose. Her university affiliations, her work history and, of course, her sex life have all been subject to unrelenting scrutiny, culminating in the long-running and completely artificial uproar over her time at the law firm Slater & Gordon and the circumstances of her resignation.
Despite all the innuendo, no one could actually find any evidence of wrongdoing on her part, so her opponents both in parliament and the media (notably the Murdoch press) fell back on the old reliable: character. She had shown poor judgement, she had cut corners, she had yet again failed the test. At which point Labor declared that all bets were off: sauce for the goose should also be applied to the gander, and when the Barbara Ramjan story was resurrected as a minor anecdote in David Marr’s recent Quarterly Essay, they went in boots and all.
So does this matter? Only in the sense that it provides yet more evidence of the trivialisation and debasement of political debate – indeed of the whole political process. For what it is worth, I have heard far worse stories about Abbott’s university days, but I have never felt they had much to do with his fitness or otherwise for high office today.
There is no need to go back 35 years to find arguments against making Tony Abbott prime minister. A quick look at the way he handled the controversy surrounding the claim will suffice. Instead of simply brushing the claim aside, as any sensible politician would have – and especially one who is leading a party that appeared to be comfortably on track to win the next election by a large margin – he was clearly bugged by it. He started by saying he had no memory of it; then he amended this long-discredited excuse to outright denial; finally he combined both lines. It had never happened so he didn’t remember it, or possibly vice versa.
The problem was that the story had an innate credibility. We know that Abbott was a right-wing warrior at university – indeed, he boasts about it. We know that he took militant and uncompromising attitudes towards the liberation movements of the ’70s – those of women and gays especially. And we know that he didn’t mind a bit of biffo on the rugby field and later won an Oxford blue in boxing. And we know, from more recent times, that he does not accept defeat gracefully, if indeed he accepts it at all. Thus the concept of Abbott taking a physically threatening stance against a female leftie who had beaten him out of a job he coveted has the ring of truth about it.
Whether he could remember it or not, he might have done better to ’fess up. It certainly worked for Kevin Rudd. After the story broke about Scores gentlemen’s club, his standing with the electorate actually improved; it showed that he wasn’t a total prude and nerd as everyone had assumed, and probably the only thing he did wrong was to ring his wife the next morning to apologise for his behaviour. Julia Gillard spent an inordinate amount of time pussyfooting around the tittle-tattle about the legal work she had done for a shonky boyfriend before taking her accusers head on. When she finally did so, she came out all the better for it. Going back further in time, Bob Hawke always cheerfully – or tearfully – owned up to his drinking and womanising, and became the country’s most popular politician at least partly as a result of it. Had Abbott simply said yes, they were rough old times but we fought the good fight against the hairy-legged commie harpies, it would almost certainly have enhanced his reputation among the peer group on which he principally relies – the blokey battlers. It would not have helped him with the sisterhood, but nor did his half-hearted denials.
Abbott’s inability to attract the same following from women as from men is probably due to a number of factors, but one of them is almost certainly his up-front membership of the Roman Catholic church and his adherence to its most conservative tenets. While he acknowledges Cardinal George Pell as his personal mentor, it doesn’t much matter whether he punches walls or not. His misogyny – at least in the political sense – is simply taken as a given. His character, in the wider sense of his beliefs and values, will forever work against him in the eyes of progressive women.
From one perspective, it is Abbott’s insistence on defining himself by his character and lifestyle, rather than by a political vision and agenda, that has kept his own popularity lagging so significantly behind that of his party. He is, of course, not the first opposition leader to rely on an unpopular government – or at least prime minister – to bring about its own defeat without the presentation of a specific alternative; his great role model John Howard did exactly the same in 1996. But Howard always claimed that the Australian public knew who he was and what he stood for. As it turned out, most of them didn’t, but at least they thought they did. In Abbott’s case, they don’t and they know they don’t.
Abbott has presented very few actual policies, and those he has presented often appear confused. He has constantly changed his mind in the past about everything from pricing carbon to nationalising the hospital system: there has been no serious attempt to present an overriding, coherent philosophical or even political position. His book, Battlelines (written when sulking over a ministerial demotion), is full of ideas but totally lacking in detail about how to translate them into public policy – in any case, he has since abandoned many of them.
Instead, we are given a series of sound bites and photo ops: slogans about paying debts and stopping boats and images of Abbott in fancy dress (Speedos, lycra, hard hats, whatever), performing for the cameras. If there is a more sober and serious figure behind the pizzazz, it has not often been shown to the public. This apparent superficiality makes Abbott much more vulnerable to stories like Barbara Ramjan’s. By simplifying his politics to the tabloid level, he gives credibility to tabloid accusations.
Even if his approach has failed as an exercise in self-promotion, it has been an unqualified success in tearing down his opponent. Julia Gillard has shown herself to be simply incapable of fending off what has been a prolonged and vicious assault aimed principally not at her policies but at her character. The attack on the carbon tax has been based only peripherally on the tax itself. Abbott still claims (in the majority of his statements at least) to believe that action against climate change is needed, and has in fact proposed a program of remediation that would cost consolidated revenue far more than Gillard’s tax proposes to raise from the big polluters.
His real argument is not against the tax, but against Gillard: the prime minister said she wouldn’t do it. It was a key promise made to the Australian people before the 2010 election. But then, in the extraordinary circumstance of the hung parliament, she went ahead and brought in what Abbott happily christened “the great big new tax on everything”. This means, according to Abbott, not that she simply changed her mind or even broke a promise, in the long and unremarkable tradition of almost all those who have come before her. No, she told a lie, a deliberate and calculated deceit. And this makes it a question of character. By failing this single test, Gillard has shown herself unfit for the office of prime minister.
She had, of course, already revealed herself as unfit by simply being who she is: a childless republican atheist, living in sin with a hairdresser and an empty fruit bowl. In her youth she associated with socialists, and as a politician had usurped her leader’s job – just like Abbott had, in fact. On top of all that, she was a woman. There are claims that this fact of gender alone has been held against her, and that she has been subjected to more denigration than any of her male predecessors. In a recent speech to Newcastle University, the dedicated feminist Anne Summers made a compelling case that the abuse has been more personal and vicious than is the political norm: ditch the witch, Bob Brown’s bitch, deliberately barren, Juliar, put her in a chaff bag and throw her in the sea, send her a noose for her birthday, the women are wrecking the joint – it goes on and on and gets steadily nastier, culminating in the notoriously obscene blogging of cartoonist Larry Pickering.
It can be argued that she was an unpopular prime minister before the worst of it began. Many of the insults are undeniably sexist, but many of the attacks on Tony Abbott have been based on his religion or even his hairiness. Australians will take their opportunities at vulgarity where they find them. Whatever the starting point, it cannot be denied that the end result has been to trash both leaders: we really don’t like either of them, and the prospect of having to choose between them in about a year’s time fills us with gloom. We may not have to. Both parties have the leaders they dispossessed panting in the background, and even if these are unacceptable to their respective party rooms, there are plenty of others in the ranks radiating availability. But the improving trend in the polls for Gillard and Abbott’s much longer ascendancy make them both, if not sure things, at least odds-on to last the distance.
So, having dismissed them both as people, we may have to do the unthinkable: examine what they have done and what they are promising to do, and make our choice based on their policies rather than their personalities or even characters. In other words, we may have to focus on what politics is really all about instead of the spin, trivia and simplistic sloganeering that pollute the process. It probably won’t happen – we have been dragged too deep into the cesspool for too long. But what a wonderfully ironic outcome if it did.