The Politics    Friday, July 31, 2015

How to waste 200 words

By Sean Kelly

The PM finally commented on Adam Goodes today. And said absolutely nothing

A headline on the ABC’s website today read “Adam Goodes: PM says booing ‘smacks of racism’”.

It would have been nice if it were true. The prime minister, in the midst of a national frenzy over race, giving Australians an unambiguous judgment about the behaviour at the heart of it all. Delivering to crowds the perhaps-unpopular message that they should not boo. Taking the political risk that Australians would, very publicly, defy his authority and do the precise opposite, at a football game with the nation’s cameras trained upon them.  

The PM did no such thing.

Politicians on all sides of politics often resort to what are called “motherhood statements” – vague, fluffy comments that everybody can agree with. It’s a common political tactic because the statements give the impression that the politician has said something, when in fact he or she has not. You deliver them in the hope that everyone who hears you will impose their own meaning on your sentences, which allows you to please everyone without saying something for which you might be held to account. 

“Homelessness is a cancer and we will not take a backwards step in our battle against it,” for example. Rhetorically catchy, worthy sentiment, means absolutely bugger all.

So, with that in mind, let’s look at what the PM actually said today. Keep in mind he has done no media since Monday. He has had several days to prepare for this – not just to script some sentences, but to consider carefully what intervention he wishes to make in a debate about who, as Australians, we want to be. This is the entirety of what he said:

PM: I was listening to your earlier comments about Adam Goodes, and I know this is a pretty hot issue and I know that it has been very controversial for lots of people. I am looking at the back page of the Herald Sun and there is quite a tribute to Adam Goodes. All the AFL captains are speaking as one on their brother – “stand with us”. Look, I can understand why he is upset, because no one should be subject to taunts. They particularly shouldn’t be subject to racial taunts and, yes, we’re a robust people, and I guess politicians typically get booed at the footy, but Adam Goodes is a good bloke and he is a great player and I hope he will be treated with civility and dignity.

INTERVIEWER: Me too. Well, a week off and maybe he can get on with it after that. Look, he is a star, Adam Goodes, and the booing in all honesty did get out of control. Let’s hope he has the weekend off and gets back to doing what he does and that is playing Australian Rules with the Sydney Swans.

PM: Well, that is exactly right. You don’t have to agree with everything that Adam says. You don’t have to, I suppose, like his footy team, but nevertheless I think there should be a basic respect given to all sports people and certainly the last thing we want in Australia is anything, anything at all that smacks of racism.

Let’s remember what this controversy is about. First, it’s about what booing Adam Goodes means. Second, it’s about whether the crowd should boo Goodes next time he plays, and if it does, what that means. Third, it’s about what role race plays in all this, and specifically whether Adam Goodes should be attacked for various interventions he has made in the national debate about race.

Abbott used 188 words on the subject. It’s not many, but it’s enough to make a clear statement about at least one of those issues.

But the PM utterly failed to comment on any of the substance of this debate, instead laying down assertions which anybody would agree with – Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt included.

Here is the summary of what the PM said, boiled down to his strongest statements:

  1. Nobody should be subject to taunts, and especially racial taunts.
  2. Adam Goodes should be treated with civility and dignity.
  3. There should be a basic respect given to all sports people.
  4. The last thing we want in Australia is anything that smacks of racism.

You see the problem? None of the dictums are attached to anything tangible. When he says we don’t want anything that “smacks of racism” he doesn’t say what that might include. Racist name-calling? Sure. “Ape” taunts? Perhaps. Booing? We don’t know, because the prime minister didn’t tell us.

Here is another summary, this time of what the PM did not say:

  • whether or not the booing was racist
  • whether crowds should boo Goodes in the future
  • what “civility and dignity” and “respect” would look like in practice
  • whether “racial taunts” include a 13-year-old girl calling Goodes an “ape”, even if out of ignorance.

Perhaps you think I’m being unnecessarily harsh on the PM. Comparison here is instructive.

This is what James Packer said: “To hear people booing him is something that I’m ashamed of as an Australian.”

And here is NSW Premier Mike Baird: “The relentless booing of Adam Goodes breaks this spirit of good sportsmanship. It must stop.”

Abbott’s indigenous affairs minister, Nigel Scullion: “This is bullying at such a level. People use the word un-Australian too often but I can’t think of a better way to describe the behaviour of the crowd. There is definitely an element of bigotry and racism there and people should take a long look at themselves.”

Politics is often about minimising risk. But at its best it is about seizing opportunity, acting at those unexpected moments when the nation converges on a topic, when by virtue of your position as a national leader and the point in history at which you have assumed that role you have an opportunity to change the way the nation looks at itself and its place in the world.

This week, the PM looked into the middle distance and saw such an opportunity approaching. He bowed his head, lowered his eyes, and waved it on by.

Have a good weekend.


Today’s links

Let’s face it, there are really only two issues around today, so this may get a little monotonous …

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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