For the first time in my blogging career, I am changing names to protect the innocent. And by innocent, it goes without saying, I mean guilty. (I am also evading self-Googlers — Fran Wilde, I’m looking at you). To help readers, I will place an asterisk next to any piece of information that has been altered. Beyond that, I will leave it to the reader’s imagination.
The year was 1998* and I was helping out on the campaign of Dan Parker* in the middle suburban seat of Pineleigh* in Melbourne’s northwest*.
The incumbent Liberal (which means conservative in Australia, true story) was a talented* man* by the name Bruce MacHill*. The swing required to unseat MacHill* was around 4 percent from my hazy recollection. In the wider context of the ’98 election*, Pineleigh* was both a must-win and bloody-hard-to-win seat for Labor. Anyway, I was flicking through MacHill’s* files at the Parliamentary Library one lazy afternoon when I stumbled upon a report from an official overseas trip he* had taken during the previous term. Accompanied by his wife*, MacHill* had embarked on a whirlwind tour of Rome, Paris, LA and the like, reporting breathlessly on each location as if he* were writing for Lonely Planet’s Junkets edition. No doubt MacHill’s trip took in a couple of official meetings to provide some skimpy justification for this stupendous rort, but MacHill* was too dumb or entitled to bother mentioning them beyond a perfunctory sentence or two.
I sat in the library frowning, not at all punching the air*, thinking to to myself “I can’t possibly use this. This isn’t gold”*.
A few hours later, I had produced a three panel leaflet made up simply of photos of the cities where MacGill* and his wife* had gallivanted, along with direct excerpts from the Parliamentary report itself. The tagline read simply:
Hey MacHill! Pay your own travel bill!
A day or so later, the leaflet had found its way into the letterboxes of Pineleigh, and MacHill’s outdoor signs were plastered with stickers that similarly requested that he take care of his own holiday expenses in future.
A week or so later, MacHill* was bleating at election night TV cameras that his much-worse-than-expected loss was the result of dirty tricks and Labor Party hacks.
I had no idea about what or whom he spoke*.
A current flap in the US midterm election campaign has brought this old war story back to life. Pundits in the US are currently in a tizzy over the Democrats’ decision to target the US Chamber of Commerce over using foreign money to fund attack ads. Obama spoke at length on the topic at the Philadelphia rally I attended on the weekend, and the issue was debated endlessly on the Sunday talkshows, including by the President’s chief strategist and grumpybum-in-chief, David Axelrod.
It is inevitable that the political gabbery in the US, who all live and work within a few blocks of each other, tend of coalesce around a singular point of view. In the case of the Chamber and foreign donors story, it has taken the form of self flagellation. Let me sum it up for you:
This is a non-story out there in real America, where real Americans live, work and raise their real American families. This is a process story from inside the beltway that only assholes like us give a damn about. Honest, decent folk don’t care about these inside-baseball stories. Obama and the Democrats have dropped the ball on this one. They should be talking about jobs, jobs, jobs.
Right, left or centre, this is the overwhelming consensus among talking heads of this latest Democratic campaign ploy.
To quote Colonel Sherman T Potter, “Horse Hockey!”
Sure, the pundit assessment seems like a clever argument – and, in fact, it has the benefit of often being true. The media and political elite often misread what interests the public in favour of what interests them, a sizable gulf. Take the Valerie Plame/Joe Wilson/Niger uranium/Scooter Libby story. While this intriguing DC scandal is such that it warrants a movie treatment (starring Sean Penn and Noami Watts), it is unlikely to have shifted a single vote among punters in the great American midriff.
But the same cannot be said of the foreign donors story and this brings me full loop back to MacHill and his travel bill.
The Chamber of Commerce taking money from foreign corporations and using that money to try and influence the election is precisely the kind of inside-story that resonates beyond the elites for the same reasons MacHill’s silly parliamentary travel report did:
- It fits and amplifies an existing negative preconception among voters, i.e. MP’s are corrupt nest-featherers and travel rorters, and the perfidious business lobby favours foreigners and destroys US jobs.
- It aligns with existing narratives: MP travel rorts had dominated the headlines in Australia in the late nineties, and the political influence of the super-rich has been in the spotlight since the US Supreme opened the floodgates with the Citizens United ruling.
- It is gettable in a breath or less. MP rorts travel. Foreigners Corrupt Elections. Easy, compelling, viral.
The Chamber of Commerce yarn works precisely because, to American voters, it is about jobs, jobs, jobs. Jobs lost to outsourcing and sacrificed at the altar of corporate profits. It is not much of a leap for a jittery populace to make the connection Obama wants them to make.
The quake has arrived only a fortnight before ballots are sent to Christchurch voters — which is ideal for an incumbent. He gets to bathe in the “roll up the sleeves, unite and fight” afterglow before it turns ugly when people realise the extent to which the Council is mismanaging the recovery. His incompetence won’t come to light until well after the polls close.
Don’t change horses midstream, the saying goes, and if Parker doesn’t make that sentiment the key focus for the remainder of the campaign, then he doesn’t deserve to win.
When told that certain muffins are as bad for you as ice-cream, the idea is not to eat more ice-cream.
Wrong lessons have been troubling me of late, since Saturday night’s Bledisloe Cup especially. I was struck by the extent to which Wallaby supporters were willing to infer from their humiliating defeat at the hands of a sub-par All Blacks all kinds of things except the glaringly obvious. It is canine-testicles to a non-Aussie that the result was a searing indictment on the Wallaby team’s myriad weaknesses. It further struck me that the whining about All Black infringing, and bluster about injuries and poor fortune, are more than just helpful fibs to salve the sting of defeat. They are actually inhibitors to improvement.
The ALP is undertaking a review into the recent campaign which is either (a) recognition that it was atrocious, and therefore an encouraging development or (b) window dressing and, thus, pointless.
If rumours that Robert Ray will head the review turn out to be true, then that is a tremendously good sign. Robert is by far my favourite former employer. He possesses both the most well-tuned — and the least tolerant — bullshit detector I have ever witnessed. His toughness is legenday — but, unike other former factional “heavies”, this is not the product of careful image management and self-instigated myth-making (think Richo, Conroy, etc.) To the contrary, Robert has not the slightest interest in having a public image at all. In the place where politicians usually keep their tender and enormous egos, Robert seems to store an extra brain.
A former Defence and Immigation Minister, as well as a devastatingly forensic and effective Opposition Senator, Robert Ray treats the media with unbridled disdain (except in the rare instances where he finds them useful). In stark, stark contrast to his snivelling and obsequiois colleagues, he never panders to power or patronises voters.
Steve Bracks, another erstwhile boss and former Premier of Victoria, is the other name bandied about. He is a smart and steady fellow — but he is Jimmy Stewart and this is a horror movie. Nice guy, wrong genre.
If the campaign stunk only midly, Bracksy would do nicely. But the scale of the debacle is such that it will take a person in possession of rare qualities: a peerless political mind, unwavering integrity and a gigantic pair of steel balls.
Since one of my many unwritten books is “Robert Ray: Mind, Integrity, Gigantic Steel Balls”, it seems obvious that if Labor want to learn the hard but necessary lessons from its dreadful campaign, then he — and only he — is the person for the job.
A few minutes ago, I asked my Dad whether he studied any linguistics at University. He explained that he had wanted to, but when he tried to enroll, the lady at reception told him that the discipline hadn’t yet been invented. When I consulted Wikipedia about this, I discovered that the study of linguistics first emerged in 8th century India which led me to ask, “Dad, how old are you?”
What Dad meant was that modern linguistics, embodied most famously in the work of Noam Chomsky, has really only been a standalone field of inquiry since the sixties. Before that, my father explained, the study was focused on grammar – which explains why he is prone to using sentences like “losing to the Wallabies is something up with which I will not put” and sending back text messages with punctuation corrected.
I have been thinking a lot about linguistics as a field of study lately. Along with rhetoric, ethics, logic, philosophy generally, psychology (beavioural and social) and even biology and physics, linguistics is on the list of things I should know something about but don’t. It is a long list which, oddly , grows longer the older I get. I often find myself wading in the shallows on my own pathetic intellect, howling at some intractable issue or other: “ I would need to understand something about linguistics (or physics or logic…) to really understand you, you complex son of a bitch”. It is as if am walled in by my own inadequate education and, just importantly, too lazy, fat and stupid to scale the walls. When I say a version of this to people, they always say things like “there’s nothing stopping you going back to do some study”, to which you feel bound to say something like “yeah, I guess not” but what you’re really thinking is “oh, for fuck’s sake: do you really think I am going to give up a regular income to spend 30K a year to sit in lecture theatres surrounded by impossibly hot young people who will be cross-checking my name against the sexual offenders list by sundown?” So, no, I am far too immature to subject myself to the humiliation of becoming a mature student.
My thoughts returned to linguistics last night while watching the televised debate between Len Brown and John Banks, the two main contenders in the new Auckland Super City Mayoral race. (There has been a major consolidation of local government in the Auckland region, meaning the new Mayor will oversee a municipality of 1.5 million –a third of NZ’s population.) The debate itself was a totally uninspiring affair, but it was the first time I had seen these candidates on the same stage or, indeed, turned my mind at all to this campaign.
I was struck by the stunning clarity of choice between the candidates — not on policy (neither said anything compelling or believable about anything) but governing style. The Brown versus Banks contest is surely the most clear-cut example of the Lakoff model of political discourse ever witnessed. George Lakoff, a brilliant linguist and author of Moral Politics, believes that modern politics boils down to a contest between “strict parent” (conservative) and “nurturing parent” (liberal). He argues that the right have prevailed in US politics (and, he implies, elsewhere) because they have been more comfortable in their metaphorical skin. By always fighting against their nurturing instincts to appear “tough”, Lakoff argues, liberals have effectively surrendered. When elections come down to a choice between a bona-fide father figure on the right and a gender-confused mummy in daddy’s clothing on the left, the result is predictable enough: John Kerry.
Lakoff rejects, therefore, the prevailing orthodoxy in centre-left politics – that, in order to win, our candidates must neutralize conservative advantages on law and order and security. Instead, he suggests liberals embrace their nurturing persona with pride, and will find a treasure-trove of potent metaphors therein. Get in touch, Lakoff tells his fellow lefties, with your inner-girl’s blouse.
He would argue that Obama’s victory went a long way to proving his point – McCain was undeniably a daddy figure, and Obama never felt compelled to drive around stupidly in a tank or get in a pub fight – but there are plenty who would argue that there were many other factors at play in that most extraordinary election.
The Auckland mayoral race could be seen as an epic test of Lakoff’s powerful theory. Never have two candidates embodied the stereotypes envisaged by a single academic with such precision. They are like Lakoff’s lab rats. Banks is a uber-Daddy, alpha-dog: brash, arrogant, in-charge, fuck off and leave my wife alone, if I ever see you on my property again I will empty my firearm into your corpse. Brown is the personification of the maternal politician: oozing empathy and sincerity in equal measures, caring and compassionate, please make yourself at home, don’t tell your Father but here’s $100 to tide you over. Both try to militate against their instincts and pretend they are nice and inclusive (Banks) or capable of tough-minded arse-kicking (Brown), but not hard and not at all effectively. I have searched high and low, but to no avail, for a transcript of the debate. This is my best recollection of one of the key exchanges.
Banks: Look, this new super-city is a huge and complicated enterprise. We need to keep things tight, in budget and under control from day one.
Brown: Yes, but this is a question of leadership style, and we need to ensure that Aucklanders are made to feel part of this endeavour, and not trampled over.
Banks: What Aucklanders don’t want is to be trampled over by taxpayer-funder namby-pamby do-gooders from South Auckland.
Compere: Mr Banks, I think you will find you said that out loud.
Banks: What? Oh shit.
Brown: Well, there are the true colours of Mr Banks. He is a bully and a thug.
Banks: Listen, Auckland, you may not like me, but you know you need me.
Brown: Don’t listen to him, people of Auckland. He’s a brute. Come, let’s hug and think of happy thoughts.
Banks: It’s time to turn off the lights.
Fades to black
Len Brown’s poll lead has dissolved in the past two months. He is now neck and neck with Banks, whose voters (rich white people) are far more likely to fill in their ballot papers than Brown’s, who are decidedly less white and far less rich. Advantage Banks, sadly.