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The year our leaders doubled down on doubling down



Have you noticed that our political class, and the media which helps shape its discourse, is fixated on 'doubling down'?

Tony Abbott2016 was a bumper year for the political double down: everyone seemed to lock into a stubborn defence of a favourite prejudice or frustrated demand.

Sydney Morning Herald journalist Mark Kenny witnessed a dramatic manifestation of the cult of repetition on 26 November: 'Mr Abbott was seen to double down on his recent indirect messaging to Mr Turnbull about a possible return to the frontbench.'

A combined 'double down with indirect messaging' manoeuvre: perhaps a uniquely Abbott adaptation, insisting on attention to his frustrated ambition, heedless of its impact on the Turnbull government, and reducing political discourse to a focus on personal resentment.

Doubling down — otherwise known as repeating yourself — is the public language of aggressive redundancy, drowning out alternative voices and ideas.

Mark Thompson might see doubling down as a further debasement of political language, which he argues in his recent book, Enough Said, has lost its power to persuade.

New York Times CEO Thompson argues that in the face of intensifying political conflict, economic disorder and technological change, political language in western democracies has become a blather of evasive spin and crude dogmatism.

In Australia, the absence of either an ethical or credible policy can be overcome by doubling down. The media will dutifully record an obstinate stand with a 'double down' marker. The evidence suggests politicians are comfortable with a DD badge.


"Doubling down is the diminished language of a political culture locked in its own prejudices and unable to articulate ideas to shape a better future."


On 21 November the ABC reported that Immigration Minister Peter Dutton 'doubled down' on his insistence that the Fraser government's immigration policies opened the door to Lebanese Muslim criminals and terrorists.

Having been attacked by Labor for an initial swipe at Fraser's recklessness, Dutton reiterated the claim in Parliament, and added that: 'The advice I have is that out of the last 33 people who have been charged with terrorist-related offences in this country, 22 of those people are from second and third generation Lebanese-Muslim background.' Dutton suggested a prolonged period of 'sleeper' terrorism, passed from one generation to the next until finally being unleashed nearly 40 years later.

Consideration of complexity — the force of recent circumstance, the role of western nations in destabilising the Middle East in the Iraq war, the susceptibility of the young to new discourses and technologies that facilitate radicalisation — is set aside in favour of vilifying an entire community for nurturing a nest of brooding malcontents. Dutton's double down echoed across the media.

Labor has also embraced redundancy. During the 2016 federal election Opposition leader Bill Shorten criticised Malcolm Turnbull for having 'doubled down' on ruling out privatising the Medicare payment system. Shorten found Turnbull's denials insincere.

Unable to sustain his 'Mediscare' privatisation claim by rational construct, Shorten resorted to prejudice: 'I just don't believe him.' Labor doubled down on Mediscare in the last weeks of the election campaign, and was almost rewarded with government.

Treasurer Scott Morrison joined the election repetition challenge, urging a double down 'on trade, investment and innovation, entrepreneurialism, on the ways we collaborate to improve the financial architecture and share data to facilitate the new digital economies'.

Recycling digital economy clichés was too much for Bernard Keane, Crikey politics editor: 'Morrison's suggestion that we merely double down on globalisation suggests a profound disengagement from the political challenge posed by the resurgence of economic populism.'

Morrison's enthusiasm for doubling down on simplified neo-liberalism has persisted since the election. He insists that economic policy can be reduced to implementing Abbott era spending cuts and reducing company tax.

Forget about chronic problems of low wages, sluggish growth in full-time work, or younger generations permanently priced out of the housing market: asked how the government would address such issues in an ABC 7.30 interview on 23 November, Morrison doggedly stuck to repeating a formula of cutting spending and company tax.

Morrison's double down resists the need for flexibility, or a breakthrough to a more creative policy response. Or perhaps Morrison can't imagine an adaptable politics, or find the words to express it.

The impact of doubling down is intensified by the speed of transmission.

Thompson argues that the internet has not fulfilled a promise of providing space for compelling and well-researched journalism. The online media is a 'digital sweatshop' driven by the demands of relentless deadlines and an algorithm-induced repetition of slogans and bullet points: high churn doubling down, inserting lazy code that obviates the need for analysis.

An accelerating news cycle suits politicians, thriving on the blunt force of simplified repetition. Doubling down is the diminished language of a political culture locked in its own prejudices and unable to articulate ideas to shape a better future.


Mark HearnDr Mark Hearn is a lecturer in the Department of Modern History, Politics and International Relations, Macquarie University.

Topic tags: Mark Hearn, Scott Morrison, Peter Dutton, Bill Shorten, Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott



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Existing comments

Good stuff

Dr David Stephens | 01 February 2017  

We long for leaders with commitment to a common good, to a moral stance, to acceptance tolerance values. We wait in vain. We are ill served indeed in this country.

Molly moran | 01 February 2017  

Concentrating on globalisation wont create jobs here in Australia. Geelong is a ghost town. Hazlewood is an exit wound. The French leave Hazlewood well content because theyve picked up a $50 bn contract to build subs that could easily have been placed here. The whole issue of job creation is glossed over by our politicians. In the mad stakes of Canberra political ambition the real issue of work for the people gets trampled underfoot. No wonder we have to build new goals to house our chronic unemployed. There has to be a revival of manufacturing in this country and we should take some salutary lessons from the Japanese and the Thai peoples on how to go about it.

francis Armstrong | 01 February 2017  

‘Politicians thriving on the blunt force of simplified repetition‘. When they have the power, politicians can simply forge ahead regardless of opposition. If in a position of weakness, they can resort to deception. But when they cannot afford to be caught out in a barefaced lie, they may embrace the old saying, ‘the best lie is the Truth’. Not the whole truth, or nothing but the truth, but a carefully a carefully edited sliver of truth, with an implication of honest endeavour that allows their supporters to embrace their words with enthusiasm. There are many such examples in the news of late.

RobertbLiddy | 01 February 2017  

If you repeat a message that I like, you're 'on message'. If you repeat a message that I don't, you're 'doubling down'. If there’s a whole bunch of you repeating a message I don’t like, the collective noun is ‘an echo chamber’, an echo chamber of empty vessels, presumably.

Roy Chen Yee | 02 February 2017  

Roy, I don't think this is about being on or off 'message'. It's about the content, or lack of it, that is associated with 'doubling down', whether it be on or off message. Turnbull was only the latest of our polls to promise dialogue instead of catch phrases - then we got 'jobs and growth'. The opposite side of politics - at least in Canberra - were no better when they were in office.

Ginger Meggs | 03 February 2017  

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