Australian politics, society & culture

The art of dodging political gaffes

Carly Learson

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On the campaign trail, the modern politician is utterly dependent on advancers, the stage managers with an eagle eye for potential embarrassments

It was the perfect location for a political announcement: the headquarters of a rural company that built crop dusters, a company battling to stay afloat in a time of fear over Chinese dominance of manufacturing, one that would benefit from a new Labor initiative to keep industry in the country. Jo Scard was one of two advancers helping Kim Beazley attempt to win government from John Howard in 1998. Young, ambitious and capable, she had persuaded the owners to allow a press conference to be held in one of the hangars. It was a feast for the cameras – planes, machines, technical-looking papers pinned to corkboards, rural scenery, hard-working country folk. Pleased with her find, Scard set about gathering details to report back to the office: the company owners’ stories, the names, numbers and roles of staff, the angle of the windows. Her last question was about the name of the plane. The unfortunate answer: “The Fat Man”.

Advancers are the invisible players in the unspoken negotiations between politicians intent on selling a message and photographers intent on finding the angle to best entertain the public. Advancers scout out venues, envisage exactly where the press conference will take place, take into account the volume of foliage (outdoor press conferences are always better, and sunlight diffused through leaves gives a nice warm glow to the face), identify trip hazards, find “hold rooms” to escape to in the event of a terrorist attack or wardrobe malfunction, and clock where the exits are. Most importantly, they’re alert to anything that could embarrass their boss.

Ambient signage is crucial. Sydney radio personality Alan Jones famously obscured the letter “O” while giving a speech in front of a banner displaying the word “count”. John Howard’s advancers failed to notice in time the man wearing an “I’m with stupid” T-shirt having his photo taken with the then prime minister. There are other basics: keep the candidate away from exit signs; never allow them to walk down stairs; always screen children’s books and drawings on classroom walls. An advancer accompanying Julia Gillard on a school visit once caught a photographer scanning a bookshelf and picking a title to prop up in the foreground of his shot. It was Traitor by Stephen Daisley. The advancer smartly intervened.

A peculiar challenge for advancers is that Australians like their political candidates to conform to a certain standard of ordinariness. Scard, a former Australian Young Labor president, speaks fondly of Beazley. “Kim was sometimes too nice,” she says. “He felt that he had to compensate for his intellect by being extra-compliant.” She recalls a visit to the Sydney fish markets, where the faceless voices behind the cameras urged Beazley to pick up one of the giant fresh, pink specimens. His unscripted touch of kissing the fish is now regarded as a “great election moment” by the Sydney Morning Herald.

During the Beazley campaign, Scard’s boyfriend (now husband) was press gallery photographer Andrew Meares. “I know how photographers think,” she says. Beazley’s advancers had to be hyper-vigilant when it came to his weight. “Kim loved having a dip at the beach near his house in Perth,” she says. “I just wouldn’t tell Andrew when Kim was going for a swim.”

In Gillard’s case, her advancers actively avoided settings that drew attention to the fact of her female body. If there were any chance of an up-skirt camera angle, she’d wear pants. When Gillard became prime minister, she had her chair in parliament moved slightly to the right, to better avoid the photographers’ prying lenses from above.

Rudd and Abbott have many more advancers than Beazley did, though their task is perhaps easier. They don’t have to hide breasts or stomachs or bottoms. Both candidates have successful wives and hot daughters. Rudd’s electoral shortcomings are psychological rather than visual, while Tony Abbott’s loosely sexist or otherwise inappropriate statements anger only people who would never have voted for him anyway. (Although his advancers remain jumpy. In week three of the campaign, ABC TV cameras caught one frantically trying to cover up an adults-only joke book as her boss strode past a book stand in Geelong.) At least Abbott’s team has convinced him to keep his shirt on for the duration.

Scard believes the disdain with which many Australians regard their politicians is partly due to the perception that they are controlled by others. Though the choreography is growing tighter with each election, it may have some way to go. Two years ago, while working for Senate leader Christopher Evans and meeting some of Gillard’s staff in Parliament House, Scard heard radio static and deep American voices outside. Barack Obama was visiting Australia in a few days’ time, and the noise was from his advancers. She went out to catch a glimpse. “There were about 40 of them,” she says, “scanning every section of the building, searching for potential security breaches, spending hours finding the perfect door for the president to spontaneously emerge from.” She managed to talk to some of them later, and was thrilled to meet the president’s “director of imagery”, whose job consisted of holding up a light meter in order to seek out the locations where the president’s radiance might be maximised.

Here, on the other hand, a prime minister can compose and publish a “selfie” in the harsh light of his bathroom. Perhaps the bigger problem in Australia, certainly in this election campaign, is that there has been precious little radiance to enhance.

Carly Learson

Carly Learson is a former political staffer and UN adviser. She now works in television and writes for Vice.

 

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