Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Today by Sean Kelly

Taking your time
Slow and boring sometimes wins the race


Really my main conclusion right now is that we’re not learning anything new. So, you know, skip the rest if you’d prefer.

I can give you my verdict on Bill Shorten’s performance on Q&A last night, if you like.

He was fine.

He didn’t put a foot wrong. And it was obvious, from the first minute or two, that he wasn’t going to. He was a little nervous at the start, but he’d come with a script, committed to memory, so he was fine. He got all the questions you’d expect, and he knew what he wanted to say, and he said it. There were things he hadn’t quite anticipated, such as a question about bulk-billing rates going up under the government (some good possible explanations here, in case you’re curious). But, still, he was fine.

It’s very easy to armchair coach this and throw up explanations for this general OK-ness like “he was overprepared”. But I’ve spent some time in the past two years criticising Malcolm Turnbull for turning up to interviews underprepared, so I’m reluctant to settle on that as advice. The reality of Q&A is that the questions you might be hit with are so broad that you have to prepare broadly, which often comes at the expense of depth.

That is also probably the experience of being prime minister, or Opposition leader, to be honest. Maybe it wasn’t always this way. But it certainly is now, with a jittery media cycle tossing out a hundred new tidbits every day.

I watched some old footage of Paul Keating at the National Press Club, and while there were some good lines in there, what really struck me was how boring Keating was prepared to be.

I don’t mean that I was bored. Far from it. What I mean by “boring” is that he was prepared to take his time making a long argument, using long words, juggling technical terms. You had to concentrate, sometimes, to understand the point he was making. Not because he was communicating badly, but because he was communicating to a room full of professional journalists who were interested in his actual thoughts, his analyses of the country, and because he didn’t have in the back of his mind that they’d be tweeting out headlines to voters, bored at work, who would instantly consume the simplest thing he’d said and then throw an opinion of their own into the public sphere.

This move towards soundbites and digestible explanations is partly a product of TV, but I’m certain it’s become worse as the media cycle has sped up. Politicians know they have an audience to reach, and will always do whatever is necessary. They know, these days, what will be tweeted out. What messages are testing well. Certainly there were too many moments in Shorten’s performance that seemed like he was playing political bingo: “Make sure they notice you’re agreeing with your Opposition”, and so forth.

Some of this is inevitable. But I also suspect the general move towards ease-of-consumption is, over time, the wrong approach. That, while we’ll all keep skimming Twitter and reading clickbait headlines on our lunchbreaks, the appetite for seriousness is also increasing, as a kind of antidote. Yes, the zinger is sometimes the necessary thing – but gee we see a lot of our politicians these days, so we might as well learn something while we’re at it. We want to hear arguments in detail, convincing cases that they’ve spent time with, reasoning their way into. Coming to a moral conclusion is hard work, or should be; we want to hear evidence of that in the responses we hear.

Shorten sounded clearest, to me, when he was prepared to take time: on the republic, on trusts and on marriage equality.  

Interestingly, this morning, Turnbull sounded as convincing as I’ve recently heard him on same-sex marriage and the postal plebiscite. This was a prime example of the phenomenon I’m talking about. Reading reports of Turnbull’s radio interview – entirely accurate reports – I was left with the impression that the PM had sounded a little silly, urging people to hug their gay friends and so forth. Actually listening to the interview, though, it was clear the prime minister was paying attention to his interviewer, Em Rusciano, and engaging with her points. I might not agree with him on the topic of the plebiscite, but his answers were genuine attempts to convince. And his answers on same-sex marriage itself – a cause he supports – were the strongest he’s given lately.

Still, as I said at the outset, this is all stuff we know. The PM can be very good at arguing a brief – his misfortune is to keep being handed briefs with which he doesn’t obviously agree. Shorten is not an exciting public performer, but he doesn’t make many mistakes. As long as the polls have Labor far ahead, only one of these men needs to change their approach.

In other news


Lessons from camels

A ten-day camel trek through the South Australian outback. With your parents.

Robert Skinner

“‘I walked over to the holding pen to see if maybe I had a magic touch with camels. This is the persistent dream of dilettantes: that we will, at some point, uncover a superpower that will make sense of lives filled with false starts, failures and endless dabbling. I stood up on the railing and said ‘Hello, ladies!’ to what I would later learn was mostly a bunch of bullocks.”  READ ON


A family in flux

Taylor Mac’s ‘HIR’ at Belvoir is not your average kitchen-sink drama

Fiona McGregor

HIR arrives here at a time when Australia’s LGBTQI community is being demeaned and traumatised by our government to a degree not seen for decades. It feeds a hunger for stories outside the mainstream that show the chasm between the populace and their federal administrators. Belvoir, like every other theatre company in this country, has long known it needs to diverge from the white male viewpoint.”  READ ON


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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