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The alchemy of Australia's personality politics


'Personality politics', by Chris Johnston. Battle-worn Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd hide behind shimmering icon likenesses of themselvesOver the past couple years, I have observed with some sympathy the frustrations of Labor members over the apparent media obsession with leadership contests. Their argument that political discourse should be about policies rather than personalities is valid. The reality, however, is far more complex.  We have always voted, with varied intensity, for personalities. We are susceptible to charisma — a quirk that has been exploited since the first televised debate between Kennedy and Nixon. We saw it at work here in Bob Hawke.

It was at play when Kevin Rudd won in 2007 and Barack Obama in 2008. If it were only a matter of ditching the incumbent and voting for change, any of their predecessors could have delivered. After all, party platforms rarely shift from one leadership change to another. These men won because they seized public sentiment in a way that preceding candidates did not. The success of their campaigns echoes Bill Clinton's image-driven run in 1992, which mined his childhood and featured an election-turning saxophone performance on The Arsenio Hall Show.

The straightforward explanation for this phenomenon is that we are social beings. It is in our nature to be captivated or repulsed by people. The argument recently posed by veteran journalist George Negus — that voters should vote for the ideology of a party rather than its leader — is therefore inadequate.

It ignores the fact that our attachment to ideas and organisations is often inextricable from our attachment to their leading proponents. This is as much the case in politics as it is in other areas like religion, economics and philosophy. Our belief systems or loyalties live and die according to the perceived credibility of leaders. It explains in part why questions regarding trust and authenticity are potent in elections, or rather, toxic for the hapless candidate, as former Prime Minister Julia Gillard found.

Mere ideology doesn't bind if the sense of betrayal and disillusionment runs deep enough. This is not necessarily a matter of sentimentality. In the postmodern setting, where politicians themselves seem to pick and choose which aspects of their party philosophy to stand by, it shouldn't be a surprise that voters have lost their compass. The problem is not that they have abandoned their ideological sensibilities, as Negus implies. Our political parties have.

Consider, for instance, how an ostensibly economically Liberal Party under Tony Abbott has been vociferous in its opposition to a market-based policy on climate change. Or an ostensibly socially democratic Labor Government downgraded single-parent payments to leverage workforce participation, when single parents have been identified as at risk of falling into poverty. We see the same dissonance across the Pacific, where a Democratic government led by a Nobel Peace Prize winner has been far more hawkish on war and security than its Republican predecessors.

In other words, voters find it difficult to buy ideas wholesale when they don't make sense in retail. This is gritty stuff: imagine a voter who would like to see the Labor Party build on reforms in education and health but cannot abide its policy on asylum seekers. 'Ideology' has limited value under such conditions.

This is where the focus on personalities actually matters. Much of the dissatisfaction with leaders ultimately rests on a public assessment of the way policies are prosecuted. The fact is that whoever is on top does determine the policy direction for the party and the cohesiveness of its agenda. There is no clearer demonstration of this than the fact that the Liberal Party backtracked on an emissions trading scheme that had been negotiated in good faith by Malcolm Turnbull, by replacing him with Tony 'Climate Change is Crap' Abbott. 

In the case of Labor, the justification in 2010 that 'the Government has lost its way' under Rudd turned out not to refer to policy but his character. Partisans can thus hardly complain that the media obsesses over personalities.

As for the electorate, the focus on personalities does not always constitute undemocratic laziness or a reality-show mentality, but a demand for leadership on specific issues. If anything has been reinforced lately it is that there is alchemy to political leadership. It turns out that one can govern reasonably well, build consensus, and institute important reform but still not convince. Maybe we're poorer for that. Or perhaps as an electorate, we have become more astute about the nuances of our choice.


Fatima Measham headshotFatima Measham is a Melbourne-based social commentator who contributes regularly to Eureka Street. Her work has also appeared in The Drum, ABC Religion & Ethics, and National Times. She is a recipient of the Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship in 2013. She tweets as @foomeister.

Test tubes image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, Kevin Rudd, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Julia Gillard, George Negus



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Existing comments

Much food for thought here Fatima. In his recent book "Bedtime Stories" the antithesis of shock-jockery, Phillip Adams, mentions the British politician Tony Benn's categorisation of political leaders: there are the straight men, fixers and maddies. So personality is important, and so is a sense of trust. Even if we are 'let down' as we inevitably will be, something indefinable will allow us to keep trusting. And I wish I could articulate the recipe.

Pam | 15 July 2013  

"Imagine a voter who would like to see the Labor Party build on reforms in education and health but cannot abide its policy on asylum seekers." The Labor Party’s ‘policy’ on refugees is much more humane than its performance suggests. Which was more or less forced on it by the Liberal Party tapping into the reluctance of so many Australians to shoulder the burden of supporting refugees. The Labour Party should have learned from the success of introducing “New Australians” after WW2, when they sought the blue-eyed blonds from Northern Europe to introduce the idea. If some of the problems facing persons with whom we could empathize were high-lighted, a more humane approach might become more acceptable to all.

Robert Liddy | 15 July 2013  

An elegant discourse on the progressive decline of the Western World, Fatima. Perhaps you are describing the primacy of man and secularism over the humble acceptance of human unimportance in the face of God and a life built around human virtue rather than selfish indulgence.

john frawley | 15 July 2013  

whether we like it or not Western society has inherited the propaganda methods of Nazi Germany. That if one tells lies long enough and often enough people will believe you. At least in the commercial world the consumer has legal redress, Unfortunately in the world of politics this does not apply. it is important that in education pupils should learn not to accept all one sees or reads without analysis. In elections there should be more room in the media in stations like the ABC and SBS for serious discussion.

John ozanne | 15 July 2013  

mmm... food for thought, Fatima - intellectual nourishment. Your reference to Bill Clinton's election-turning saxaphone performance in 1992 reminds me of the image of Kevin Rudd walking through the Queensland floodwaters juggling a suitcase as I believe he helped a household of foreign students to dry ground. How could you NOT trust this man to lend a hand?

Bob GROVES | 15 July 2013  

Yes indeed personalities are on display and the media love it! I will venture to predict that when it comes time to actually cast a vote most thinking majority will stop and think about what Labor delivered in the past years - failed asylum seeker policy, failed financial management that has us in severe debt, Labor party infighting, broken Labor promises, not a surplus in cooee etc etc... All started under Rudd who was so bad they got rid of him; replace him with a worse package, and now he's back in all jis glory pontificating how he is so positive... Rudd is a dud and Labor had him pegged as a psychopath, egocentric control freak and those in Labor that have any shred of integrity have either resigned or wil not work with Rudd... Does a Leopard change its spots? No does not! And in the end that's what will sway the voter the second they put pen to ballot.

Cherna | 15 July 2013  

An interesting piece. I am not sure I agreed with anything in it and I found some of the comments on it interesting (to say the least) but it certainly made me think. My personal opinion is that, in our politicians, "personality", as described by their PR machines and the commentariat, is inversely proportional to genuine character and ability. My ideal politician in the West would be Angela Merkel. With her you get what you see. Steady, (possibly dull to those who enjoy our Punch and Judy politics) and effective governance. The decline of Western politics/democracy is a long, long way away. In fact I find most prognostications on it, from a non-responsible armchair usually, incredibly fatuous. We need less narcissistic politicians who can actually do something. I think we also need to beware of expecting either Labor or the Liberals to live up to their Platonic Forms. Politics is the art of compromise. This need not be cynical but needs to be realistic. Sending all the boats back or accepting everyone planet who wishes to enter this country are both hopelessly impractical. We need proper border protection with compassion. Paradoxical? Life and politics are. Heaven on Earth is impossible.

Edward F | 15 July 2013  

"We must, however, acknowledge as it seems to me, that Tony Abbott, with all his noble qualities ...still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.'' CharlesDarwin? http://www.independentaustralia.net/Wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Cartoon-Howard-to-Abbottport-fazzari-620x3491.jpg

Game Theory | 17 July 2013  

We should all have the same free and equal right to vote, free from government coercion. Our decision to vote should be democratic. Then our leaders would need to inspire us to vote instead of just being the least repulsive alternative. They would also then need to motivate their base, which would distinguish the major parties ideologically instead of squabbling over the centre-ground. I've experienced federal elections living in the UK and USA and our political debate, if you could call it 'debate', is embarrassing. We need democratic voting.

Jason | 20 August 2013  

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