Notable absence as a political tool

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Notable absence as a political toolBritish author G.K. Chesterton once wrote, "White … is not a mere absence of colour; it is a shining and affirmative thing, as fierce as red, as definite as black." Much the same thing could be said of absence itself, as it rarely adheres only to its literal meaning of 'to be away'. A person’s absence is hardly ever neutral, as the place where they are expected, the empty chair, the unsigned letter, can be filled with questions about the reasons for and possible implications of their non-attendance.

This is especially true when a nation’s leader is conspicuous by his or her absence. With every decision and every appearance under the microscope, any false step in terms of where a leader chooses to be can spell a public relations disaster. One need only think of Marie Antoinette pirouetting around Trianon while Paris burned; or, in an example burned into modern memory, the excruciating footage of George W. Bush continuing a visit to a primary school for several minutes after being informed of the 9/11 attacks.

We live in an age of spin, one in which blunders can be made into triumphs, non sequiturs become bold manifestos, and lies metamorphosise into truth and back again. It is hardly surprising, then, that a politics of absence seems to be emerging in this country, and elsewhere in the world. Rather than apologising for a notable absence, there is now a growing trend towards harnessing the power of absence. Not turning up to a public event has become a form of poltical comment.

A poignant example of this possibility emerges when comparing two military deaths that made front page news in Australia last year. Prime Minister John Howard attended the funeral of Jake Kovco, the first Australian casualty in Iraq. However, he did not attend that of Mark Bingley, a Blackhawk captain who died whilst on duty in Fiji.

This decision sparked anger in the community, particularly as the facts of the two cases are remarkably similar – both Kovco and Bingley were young men from small communities who left young families behind. So why presence at one funeral, and absence at another? Is there a suggestion in this choice that involvement in Iraq is a more serious business than military actions in our own region? Or was it simply, as the Prime Minister said, a case of being unable to attend due to a previous engagement at a science conference?

This is not the only time when the Prime Minister’s absence has been questioned. His decision to not attend the funeral of Pope John Paul II — an event which brought together the largest gathering of heads of state in history, surpassing the funeral of Winston Churchill — raised eyebrows, as did his choice to not follow in the footsteps of other world leaders and agree to meet with U2 frontman Bono to discuss Australia’s role in eradicating global poverty.

Notable absence as a political toolCertainly, these absences cannot be taken as clear and direct messages about the Prime Minister’s priorities, but it is interesting to note that these absences are both related to Australia’s relationship and responsibility to the rest of the world, to seeing ourselves as connected to the international community, and not simply those nations that are trade and strategic partners.

It would appear that notable absences are not limited to Australian politics. The sustained absence of George W. Bush from the funerals of American soldiers who have died serving in Iraq has reached a point where families, politicians and commentators are starting to ask questions. But again the power of silence and non-attendance shows itself; we may read into these decisions what we will, but there is no comment, no black and white evidence to prove what is implied, and to hold the non-attendee accountable.

This is at once why absence has the power to be such a useful political tool, and so corrosive to the values of truth, transparency and integrity that are supposed to be the foundation of our government. However, when looked at as a pattern, absence can create definable shapes; it is always possible to throw a sheet over the invisible man. White is never simply white, and absence must be read as closely as what is said and done.



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In the absence of the PM it might be inappropriate for the Leader of the Opposition to attend. However, there are any number of precedents when Prime Ministers have been represented by another senior cabinet member and why not? Perhaps the Governor General, representing the nation, could have found the time?

DD | 08 March 2007  

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