Friday, August 23, 2013

The ''shut up'' that spoke volumes

In 1980 during a US election debate, the challenger Ronald Reagan quipped to the president, Jimmy Carter, ''There you go again''.  It summed up everything Reagan wanted to communicate about his opponent, namely Carter's negativity, his inaction, and his constant complaining.  Reagan won the election easily.

Tony Abbott's line to Kevin Rudd at their debate on Wednesday night was nearly as good as Reagan's.  It's the line of the campaign so far.  In fact it's probably the most interesting thing to have happened in the entire campaign.  It's no surprise that Abbott's line dominated Thursday's media headlines.  George Brandis, the shadow attorney-general was spot on, ''I think it was one of the great moments in the history of Australian leaders' debates''.

''Does this guy ever shut up?'' encapsulates much of the Coalition's portrayal of Kevin Rudd — someone who talks a lot but whose achievements are minimal.

What Abbott said was so effective it was probably scripted — if it wasn't, it should have been.  The Opposition Leader, who has been so disciplined and so controlled for so long, showed in a moment the humanity that he's been intent on hiding.

The Coalition hopes that Abbott's words sum up what undecided voters feel about the Prime Minister.

Not everyone thought Abbott's comment was a masterstroke.  Some thought it was Abbott's ''Latham handshake'' moment.

In the 2004 election campaign, Mark Latham, the Labor leader, crossed paths with John Howard on the campaign trail at the ABC studios.  The image of Latham towering over Howard in what was widely regarded as an aggressive and menacing way was devastating.  It was devastating precisely because it confirmed some people's preconceptions of the opposition leader.  Labor's Penny Wong said Abbott's comment revealed he's ''a pretty aggro bloke''.  The ALP have promised to make this supposed evidence of Abbott's aggression a focus of their campaign.

What Abbott said at Wednesday's debate shows why election debates are important.  The debates are not really about policy — any party leader with a modicum of preparation should be able to defend their own policies and attack those of their opponents.  The reason debates are important is because they reveal the character of candidates.  How candidates speak and their presentation and demeanour give voters a chance to assess how candidates will behave in office.  Politicians change policies and break their promises all the time.  Character is more difficult to alter.

Political leaders are continually confronted by challenges and crises for which they don't have a policy.  How they respond to the unexpected is not a question of policy, it's a question of character.  Therefore, a much better guide to future performance is not a candidate's policies but their character.  Politics and policy-making is a flesh and blood process that doesn't often conform to the theory presented in the public administration textbooks.

In 2007 Rudd famously presented himself to the Australian people as a fiscal conservative.  At his campaign launch he said:  ''Today, I am saying loud and clear that this sort of reckless spending must stop''.  That commitment lasted five minutes.  What the electorate didn't appreciate at the time, but which the polls indicate they do now, is that the question of character was not about whether Rudd was a fiscal conservative, instead it was a question of whether he was simply saying what he thought would win votes.

We'll never know whether ''Does this guy ever shut up?'' helped Abbott achieve the Holy Grail of politics — having voters believe the candidate thinks what the voters themselves are thinking.  The outcome of his comment will only ever be able to be discerned indirectly when the votes at the election are counted in two weeks' time.  No doubt, rusted-on Labor voters like hearing the sound of Rudd's voice — and no doubt they'll think Abbott was rude and that what he said reveals more about his own character than it does about Rudd's.

But in this election, it's not rusted-on Labor voters who will decide the result.

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