“There used to be a real me, but I had it surgically removed.” The late Peter Sellers knew how to deliver a line.
Australian politics sometimes seems to suffer from too many people who have had the same surgery.
It’s as if modern politicians have lost a little bit of trust in their own soul.
They peer out from behind walls of manufactured rhetoric, inordinately concerned that people might accidentally find out what they really think.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s recent performance in delivering an hour-long press conference to face-down questions regarding her time as a lawyer was a salutary lesson in the value of authenticity.
She said what she thought. She took on questions directly. Nobody needed to tell Australia that this was the ‘real Julia’ – it was obvious for all to see.
Politics is hard. It’s complicated, messy, and unforgiving. The 24-hour news cycle can magnify the smallest slip-up into an all-you-can-eat buffet of political pain.
Politicians understandably seek to protect themselves. They select words carefully, repeating a line over and over again rather than risk a new formulation that might be misconstrued.
The sad irony is that this understandable avoidance strategy serves only to make politicians look ridiculous.
Who can forget Tony Abbott standing mute for seconds on end in press conferences to avoid answering a question in case he says the wrong thing? And what of Julia Gillard’s declaration that the ‘real Julia’ had somehow got lost in a maze of pre-conceived and meaningless sound bites?
Labor MPs smile into the camera and confirm that there is no leadership tension in the party, knowing that not a single person in the country believes it. Scott Morrisson appears on the 7:30 Report and can’t commit to the Liberals supporting their own asylum-seeker policy if Labor was happy to adopt it.
And we wonder why people don’t trust politicians.
In trying to avoid saying the ‘wrong thing’, politicians end up saying nothing at all, and are distrusted by their constituents as a result.
If nobody is sure who the ‘real Julia’ is, perhaps it’s because she doesn’t go off script for long enough to let us find out.
And people seem equally unsure of who Tony Abbott is. It is hard to think of a time in Australian political history when an Opposition has enjoyed such a profound and prolonged advantage in the opinion polls with a leader who is – according to the same polls – so deeply unpopular with the electorate.
Our politicians have lost sight of the simple truth that the most popular political leaders gain their popularity simply by being themselves.
They are not afraid to sometimes just say what they mean.
When Bob Hawke declared an unofficial public holiday to celebrate Australia winning the America’s Cup, he wasn’t delivering a line. He was just being himself, and people loved him for it.
People might disagree passionately with Bob Katter or Bob Brown, but nobody doubts that they are who they purport to be. They put themselves out there – warts and all – and their supporters love them for it.
Sure they have detractors, but would a single one of those detractors be won over by more carefully worded statements devoid of meaning? Unlikely.
When Prime Minister Gillard last year told the media to not write ‘crap’ the response was warm and good humoured. Here was a real person just saying what she thinks. When Tony Abbott was involved in a car crash in Brisbane he jumped out and helped and was self-effacing about his contribution. Here was a real person just doing what real people do.
Sadly, such moments seem to be only the exceptions – small diversions from the tightly scripted stage-play of modern politics.
Maybe it’s time our leaders took a risk and let their constituents see a little more of their authentic selves.
They might find electoral rewards await them.
And if nothing else it might at least remind them why they got into politics in the first place.”
Dr Dennis Grube is a lecturer in politics and public policy at Griffith University’s School of Government and International Relations.