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The fable of the frog and the federal election


There was once (as always, upon a time) a luckily amphibious beastie dubbed Australis. Australis was evolution’s champion, adaptable if oblivious to climate change. He was big of heart, if small of brain; hardworking but a tad(pole) lazy on strategic thinking. Nonetheless, this triathlete of the animal kingdom could leapfrog over others. He was a real goer; a green and gold swimmer of currents extraordinaire and mercurial hopper of bandwagons.

Long accustomed to making do whatever the eco-system afforded, splashing around in liquidity and lying low in dry, dusty times, Australis was also used to ferrying less evolved creatures through troubled waters.

One fine day the waters were rising, rising, rising and rising fast. As our hero prepared to take a dip, a loud and proud scorpion, the chief office bearer in the land, rushed up crying out for a lift.

‘Come on mate, give me a dink? You back me and I’ll be there for you when the waters go down,’ he pledged sharply. ‘I’ll drought proof you and protect you from all comers, you can trust me.’

‘Fair crack of the savoir faire,’ retorted Australis, ‘I know you and your kind. If I’m silly enough to let you lord it over me, blind Freddy knows I’ll pay for it – you’ll sting me and we’ll both croak.’

‘No mate, no way, I reject the premise of your statement — that’s not our policy,’ the scorpion huffed. ‘Think about it, why would I do that, we’d both go under.’

Australis mulled it over as the floodwaters rose even higher. ‘Fair enough mate,’ he ribbited, ‘I s’pose that make sense. Hop on and we’ll get through this, easy as.’

They embarked with hope and webbed aplomb, with office bearer regally posed on the broad back of constituent. As proverbially happens though, midway across the river, which was rising, rising, rising and rising still, the scorpion reverted to his nature, cruelly skewering Australis and putting paid to their aquatic proceedings. ‘Ouch! You bugger — why?’ cried the hapless good Samaritan, his trust fatally misplaced.

‘It’s just the way things are going,’ the scorpion insisted, paddling in panicked circles. ‘It’s who I am and what I do; I don’t hold a pose.’


'Is it wise for an electorate us to expect any different in future? Is it wise to expect anything different from his slimmed-down, small target opponent?'


Variously attributed to Aesop, to Persian and Russian fables, the tale of the frog and the scorpion is timeless in its exploration of motivation, of nature/character, and the behavioural determinism that defies consequence.

Betrayal in the fable occurs and recurs, whatever the setting or telling. So too in politics. The empowered scorpion defies reason, sowing the seeds of its own demise.

Psychologists and body language interpreters alike suggest that all of us have ‘tells’, and motivations that seem to put us in opposition to our best judgments or our best interests. The current national government’s (and prime minister’s) uneasy relationship with accountability, with women, with young people, with pensioners, with Australians living with disabilities, with under-and unemployed people, could be seen to be revealed in obfuscation, blame shifting and mis-directions. Those patterns of behaviours are ‘tells’ that suggest we Australians are not seen as happy customers.

A PM choosing not to engage with flooded Lismore locals could be said to be wise in terms of PR damage control. But that’s not the kind of damage control that will be remembered or rewarded well at the ballot boxes.

What is more compelling to you? The political compulsion to prey upon the ones who bear up the movers and shakers, or the uneasy trust with which voters choose time and again to accept the lies and fragile promises of dodgy characters seeking the high ground?

Like the trusting frog, voters have in the backs of their minds the inkling that when a government achieves power, they lavish large gobfulls of time, energy and resources on staying in power. Promises are non-core, or open to interpretation, or de-prioritised as new issues bob up to the surface.

ScoMo has played Miracle PM, Daggy Dad, the nation’s spinner-in-chief, all the while ignoring (and coal-wise, enhancing) climate change, the safety of our Pacific neighbours, and putting out all manner of non-bushfires around abuse, bullying, the banking industry, same-sex marriage rancour, fears of religious discrimination, etc. etc. etc.  

Perceived as sincere and inauthentic, a teller of porkies reaching for a ukulele rather than a hose or a shovel, there seems to be a nebulous void in Morrison where self-awareness resides in many human beings. Katharine Murphy recently suggested ‘Australia’s 30th prime minister struggles to differentiate fact from fiction… all the more troubling because this conduct is an established pattern of behaviour’. 

Erik Jensen’s 2019 Quarterly essay had suggested the PM ‘fuses prosperity with virtue’. So, pulling on that thread, if you are on a good wicket, God loves you. But if you are skint? If you are calling out for a decent wage, a welfare payment you can actually live on, or immediate assistance following a flood? That may be another story.

Morrison squats astride the electoral shoulders; a man of no policies, who never met a rhetorical adage he didn’t like. A man of no vision or loyalty, who vanishes in crises and looms uninvited in times of plenty. A man who stands by no visible legacy, professes no intellectual process, heeds no call for transparency. How good is that?

Is it wise for an electorate us to expect any different in future? Is it wise to expect anything different from his slimmed-down, small target opponent?

Has it always been thus, or do we have slim pickings to choose from? Exercises in power, tests of wills, clashes of cultures, revealers of character, cults of personality — elections are all that, and more.

Toppled and toppler, victim and executor, our first female prime minister Julia Gillard knows a lot about political survival; about seizing and falling from power. She famously recalled Paul Keating consoling her with the wisdom that ‘we all get taken out in a box, love’.

In a 2019 interview with Harvard Business Review, Gillard, distinguished as our most productive passer of legislation in the clubrooms full of PMs past, suggested there is a better way to engage and get things done: ‘… People respond to ideas and vision, absolutely, but they also respond to being taken seriously and treated decently. Then, even when you have intense engagements and end up agreeing to disagree, a human bond is formed… The days of command-and-control leadership, if they ever truly existed in politics, are long gone.’ 

In light of perceived failings in the incumbent national leadership, it is no coincidence that the opposition leader is evoking the ghost of Hawke, promising a consensus style, which ‘lights the way forward’. 

Barring any dramatic shifts in world events, or pandemic responses, the negatives and positives that surface in polls will be assessed, juggled, represented and misrepresented ad nauseum until we are compelled to shuffle out and vote on 21 May. 

I suspect once we’ve been flooded with political advertising, and the last vote’s counted, we’ll have spent weeks wishing the politicking was done and dusted. Will a ‘real’ leader emerge to hop aboard, or will we be stung, again, for the next term?



Barry GittinsBarry Gittins is a Melbourne writer.

Main image: A frog in water. (Manfred Pfefferle / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, AusPol, PM, Election



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Existing comments

After a long career as a professional statistician I have come to the dreary conclusion that "there are three kinds of lie: there are lies, damned lies and ... MARKETING!" Moreover, once a marketer, always a marketer. Sigh.

Bill Venables | 24 March 2022  

Yes, we plebs will most likely roll out and vote, once again, for the same party, although I hope not - isn't there a definition of 'insanity' that goes something like: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. How crazy can we voters be?

Richard | 25 March 2022  

Barry we used to use those green tree frogs as bait for Murray Cod. They were effective. Other than that they were highly sought after by all manner of snakes around the Murray.

Politicians in the time of Swift were elected on their ability to walk a tight rope. And of course they (as now), promised the world and delivered an Atlas. They had their favourite lines (Menzies) : "I did but see her passing by, yet I loved her till I die".
The moral high ground I take refers to Hillsong. Let them have it. We unfortunate Catholics lost it during the clergy pedophilia pandemic, and the hierarchy cover ups followed by the expensive houses for retired arch bishops handouts.
If its all about preferences then Clive's UAP will split the vote again and hand their preferences to the Libs.

Libs will be re-elected in a landslide and Labor will once again languish on the cross bench.

As Gulliver said: "I desired that the senate of Rome might appear before me, in one large chamber, and an assembly of somewhat a later age in counterview, in another. The first seemed to be an assembly of heroes and demigods; the other, a knot of pedlars, pick-pockets, highwayman, and bullies." Swift.

Francis Armstrong | 25 March 2022  

Excellent, in parts amusing and insightful, article let down by lack of pre-submission editing.

Mark Kelly | 25 March 2022  

Hi Barry,
Thanks for the reminder of the frog and scorpion story. re you . Timely indeed. In your 4th last paragraph you mentioned people's needs for political inclusion. I don't think many people do respond to 'ideas and vision' or 'being taken seriously.' People are basking in the shallows of their intellects even as the floods rise and the fires rage. Jorie Ryan

Jorie Joan Ryan | 25 March 2022  

Perhaps the demise of Brian Houston and the breakup of Hillsong is a prefiguration of the demise of 'Scotty from Marketing' and his government. Is the 'new' slimmed down, glossy Albo real? Can we trust him and the likes of Richard Marles, KK and others to lead us out of the wilderness to the Promised Land? I think not, because the Promised Land is always over the horizon, but they may, possibly, be a better choice, at least for those at the bottom end of the social and economic pecking order. The recent Q&A on the ABC raised the dreadful spectre of food unaffordability for many Australians, including some employed people. If you don't own your own home, housing affordability being another important issue, you may be in big trouble there. It's often food or something else. The cost of living is rapidly rising due to a number of factors. I wish we had the sort of national consensus about welfare, housing and education they have in the Scandinavian countries. It costs, but it works and people are willing to pay for it. This is social welfare at its best. Perhaps we need to follow their example? I think so.

Edward Fido | 28 March 2022  

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