In what has in recent years become a hallowed tradition, the Australian media have declared that the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party have a leadership crisis. Just as it was under the Rudd and Gillard Labor leadership crises that the media sounded the alarm on, the parliamentary party has dutifully followed suit and announced that a leadership ballot will be held at the next party meeting when MPs return to Canberra in the beginning of this week. There Prime Minister Abbott’s position will likely be declared vacant, and subject to a leadership challenge from favourites Malcolm Turnbull, Julie Bishop, Joe Hockey or perhaps dark horse. My personal hope (if only for the Alexander Downer-esque ridiculously catastrophically awkward and yet somehow oblivious vibe he gives off) – it’s got to be the wise and visionary statesman Christopher Pyne. Can’t you just see the election posters: Australia needs Pyne 2016?! You can’t? Perhaps it was just me…
Abbott has always been a deeply unpopular political figure going back to when he first won the leadership by 1 vote against Turnbull in 2009. At that time a split emerged in the Liberal National Coalition over how to respond to climate change. Turnbull’s centrist faction (often pilloried by members of the far right for betraying the party’s base) opted to negotiate an Emissions Trading Scheme with the then Rudd Labor government. Incidentally such schemes have been implemented in dozens of countries around the world in preparation for a global agreement on emissions reduction expected to be concluded in Paris in December 2015.
Abbott’s faction (the Australian equivalent of the Tea Party including such luminaries as Corey Bernardi and Phillip Ruddock) at this point emerges from its period of sombre reflection following the Howard government’s defeat over vicious anti-worker policies in 2007, and decides to blow up the whole process in favour of full blown heads-in-the-sand climate denial. He famously described it as “absolute crap”, only to wildly obfuscate and deny his denialism the further into the job he got.
Anyway, he won the leadership ballot 6 years ago now, and the damage to the Liberal “brand” seemed to get drudgingly worse with each passing opinion poll (consider the recent and historically significant first term election defeats of Liberal governments in Queensland and Victoria).
This goes hand in hand with the resentment of backbench MPs reacting in particular towards the centralization into the PM’s office of decision making power over both political strategy and policy decisions across many ministerial portfolios. Given that half the caucus never selected Abbott as leader thus giving him at best a tenuous grip on his position, perhaps his remarkable 6 year stretch as leader has surprised even himself.
If Abbott’s climate denialism and affection for Tea Party political shenanigans aren’t enough of a reason to help justify his unpopularity, consider his pronouncements on religion, his vicious class war on the poor through austerity economics, the role of women in society and his fascistic tendencies displayed by his macho-militaristic plan to expand the Federal Government’s spending on warfare abroad and unleash draconian and invasive surveillance on the domestic population.
But for all of these and I’m sure many other reasons you could suggest that Mr Abbott is a pretty nasty piece of work, I can’t shake the feeling that we are focusing too much on the trivial issues of personality, character and leadership, at the direct expense of attention that should be paid to substantive issues of social, economic and environmental policy.
Conclusion: Does Political Leadership Matter?
Is the share of finite energy and scrutiny the media devote to issues solely about leadership, personality and character traits warranted? The conclusion must depend, apart from anything else, on who the media is working for. If an independent media outlet was founded and continues to operate (for example as a worker-owned co-operative) on a basis of serving the community’s interests and critically analysing the actions of power systems, then clearly this kind of emphasis on trivia is unwarranted, indeed bizarre. If on the other hand a media outlet has no allegiance to serving community interests and totally prioritises the profitability of its generally multi-national corporate operations achieved through infotainment to attract greater audiences and therefore greater advertising revenues, with a hostile disregard for any principle other than rabid growth at all costs, this kind of emphasis on petty gossip, character and scandalous intrigue is exactly what we should continue to expect. Charismatic leadership, and “salesmanship” as it has been called in recent analysis of the Liberal party’s failings under Abbott, certainly has an impact in advancing the cause it represents. But we should not get so distracted by the character of one individual at the expense of discussing that which truly matters when it comes to the political in all our lives: social needs, a wider debate on economic and environmental policy and ideology. Fortunately the rise of social and independent media is quickly putting many of the Old Guard out of work. But the transition to a more enlightened media-scape is proving anything but smooth, with a great deal of Twitter for instance devoted to superficial and trivial gossip. The imposition of the 140 character limit naturally induces brevity and superficiality. A future blog will explore the theme of how the media frames issues within narrow limits.
For now this brings to mind an article for The Guardian by Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who collaborated with Edward Snowden on his NSA leaks, in which he discusses how the media system perpetuates itself through criticizing the character of dissenters, rather than engaging with the substance of their claims. Using Noam Chomsky as a case study it reads:
One very common tactic for enforcing political orthodoxies is to malign the character, “style” and even mental health of those who challenge them. The most extreme version of this was an old Soviet favorite: to declare political dissidents mentally ill and put them in hospitals. In the US, those who take even the tiniest steps outside of political convention are instantly decreed “crazy”, as happened to the 2002 anti-war version of Howard Dean and the current iteration of Ron Paul(in most cases, what is actually “crazy” are the political orthodoxies this tactic seeks to shield from challenge).
This method is applied with particular aggression to those who engage in any meaningful dissent against the society’s most powerful factions and their institutions. Nixon White House officials sought to steal the files from Daniel Ellsberg’s psychoanalyst’s office precisely because they knew they could best discredit his disclosures with irrelevant attacks on his psyche. Identically, the New York Times and partisan Obama supporters have led the way in depicting both Bradley Manning and Julian Assange as mentally unstable outcasts with serious personality deficiencies. The lesson is clear: only someone plagued by mental afflictions would take such extreme steps to subvert the power of the US government.
A subtler version of this technique is to attack the so-called “style” of the critic as a means of impugning, really avoiding, the substance of the critique. Although Paul Krugman is comfortably within mainstream political thought as a loyal Democrat and a New York Times columnist, his relentless attack against the austerity mindset is threatening to many. As a result, he is barraged with endless, substance-free complaints about his “tone”: he is too abrasive, he does not treat opponents with respect, he demonizes those who disagree with him, etc. The complaints are usually devoid of specifics to prevent meaningful refutation; one typical example: “[Krugman] often cloaks his claims in professional authority, overstates them, omits arguments that undermine his case, and is a bit of a bully.” All of that enables the substance of the critique to be avoided in lieu of alleged personality flaws…[Article continues at The Guardian.]