The Politics    Monday, April 20, 2015


By Sean Kelly

When is a beer just a beer?

On Sunday morning I was in the Channel Ten studios in Melbourne, about to record a panel segment for The Bolt Report. Bolt threw to an ad, saying we’d be back to talk about Tony Abbott making unexpected friends. I asked him what he meant.

It turned out he wanted to ask about some footage showing the Prime Minister skolling a beer in Sydney. The footage ran on a TV screen in front of us – it was the first time I’d seen it – and Bolt asked me, cameras rolling, what I thought.

We’d just gone through a pretty sharp debate on Islamic immigration and I thought this was the light, jovial part of the show, so I asked if Bolt could be sure it wasn’t a shandy. Bolt pushed me for a real response. Something was making me mildly uneasy, so I compromised and said you had to admit he’d drunk it quickly. Bolt said if it had been Bob Hawke drinking I would have sung his praises for it.

I didn’t give it another thought until Monday, when I was asked by a woman I know if I was bothered by the skolling. I said no, not really. She suggested to me that I should be, that “macho crap” like that shouldn’t be making appearances on the national political stage.

I don’t like it when trivial issues get blown up into national debates. So I wasn’t going to write about beer today. But I started thinking about both Bolt and my female friend. I decided they were both right.

There’s a principle in politics I often come back to, which is that small stuff only ends up mattering when it confirms an underlying truth. Think of Kim Beazley mixing up Rove McManus and Karl Rove. Or Kevin Rudd throwing that hairdryer. Both were trivial. The Rudd story might have been completely untrue. But they reflected things people were beginning to think already and so hurt the politicians involved disproportionately.

Bob Hawke is a national hero. Some of that’s to do with floating the dollar and so forth, but a fair whack of it is to do with the image we have of him: a beer-drinking, ladies-man larrikin (though of course he gave up drinking for his years in parliament). When he skols a schooner at the cricket these days, he gets cheered because it backs up exactly who we think he is. And Bolt was right: if he’d showed me footage of Hawkie skolling I would have laughed and said what a legend he was.

Here’s where I think it gets complicated. Hawkie was a great Prime Minister, and deserves credit for many achievements that set this country up for success. But turning only to his personal image, and Bolt’s point, I was forced to ask myself why we continue to worship at the altar of Hawke’s larrikin image.

On reflection, I suspect it has something to do with nostalgia: for a simpler time when men were men, men loved women, and a beer was just a beer.

And life probably was simpler, in many ways, for many of us. But it’s a complicated nostalgia, because some of the factors that made Hawkie so beloved were the same factors that made it unthinkable that a woman would become Australian PM; that put men and women on deeply unequal footing; that made the idea of gay marriage seem absurd.

None of that was Bob Hawke’s fault. I’m not suggesting anything remotely like that. That would be idiotic. But of course his popularity was a product of the times he lived in, and of an Australian culture that prized a certain idea of what it was to be a man.

When the current Prime Minister skols a beer and is lauded for it, more than 30 years after Hawke was first elected, of course it’s worth asking why that’s still a valid currency in Australian politics. And whether it should be.

After the PM downed that beer the other night, some people attacked him for it. His defenders pointed to Julia Gillard drinking a beer during the 2010 campaign.

I don’t particularly blame either of them. Abbott didn’t have long to think through the complex politics of his actions – he just did it. And Gillard was doing what she thought she should. (I was working for her at the time, but have only the foggiest memories; for all I know I told her it was a good idea.)

The political problem for Abbott is that his act reflects a truth about him suspected by many Australians, and especially Australian women. As Judith Ireland perceptively put it in the SMH, asking why the skol didn’t sit quite right, “perhaps it is that it was an unmistakably and assertively macho act – amid a chanting group of hyped-up dudes. And that it came from a Prime Minister who has been trying for the last 18 months to convince us that he is also the Minister for Women.”

I agree with Ireland, but I think the more complex issue is why the Prime Minister felt that he could, and even should, skol that beer. And of course the same question applies to Gillard: why does a female PM, who prefers red wine, feel the need to drink a beer in the middle of a federal election campaign?

And that’s the deeper, more worrying truth underneath all of this. That Australia is still a deeply macho country in which old ideas of masculinity play far too great a role in influencing how both men and women feel they have to behave.

I’m not saying Abbott shouldn’t have drunk that beer. And the truth is, next time I’m at the cricket and Bob Hawke downs a beer in 12 seconds, I’ll probably cheer and wave with the rest of them. But he was elected PM 30 years ago. If we’re still doing this in another 30 years, then Australia, we’ve got a problem.


Julie Bishop has secured a significant success in Iran, with an agreement the nation would share with Australia intelligence gathered by operatives fighting ISIS in Iraq. It is the first visit by an Australian minister to Tehran in more than a decade. Bill Shorten responded by saying we can’t afford to relax our guard, though he also defended Bishop from criticism for her decision to wear a headscarf while in Iran.

The full Family Court found that rich spouses (usually men) should not automatically expect to keep most of their earnings after a divorce. Family lawyer Paul Doolan commented that “the fact that one party produced the income during the relationship is not to be seen as more important than the role played by the other in making contributions to the family”.

Joe Hockey has refused to put a date on a return to surplus. I reckon that’s entirely sensible given recent economic uncertainty and complex conditions, though there’s no getting away from the fact that both Hockey and Abbott promised a surplus in their first year in government.

Plans to move the first group of refugees from Nauru to Cambodia have been delayed a “couple of days” by “logistical issues”. Elsewhere, hundreds of migrants drowned making their way to Italy – the figure is thought to be 700 – after 400 drowned last week. Italy’s Prime Minister has called for an emergency European summit. The Pope and the UN Secretary-General have both called for action.

Oh, and Australia’s immigration policies have been praised in a column that the Independent has described as “a piece so hateful that it might give Hitler pause”.

China and the US have lodged questions with the UN for Australia to answer about its climate change policies.

The Greens want a two per cent tax cut for small business. I look forward to Peter Costello declaring his support.

On the weekend: Five men were arrested over an alleged terrorist plot. One was charged and one was held under a Preventative Detention Order. The plot, involving an attack scheduled for Anzac Day, was said by police to be “ISIS-inspired”. Police are investigating an official complaint about the treatment of one of the men. And Laurie Oakes on the PM’s weathervane tendency and associated recent failures of leadership. 

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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