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The alchemy of Australia's personality politics

  • 15 July 2013

Over 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