The age of stupid: Turning politicians into celebrities

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The recent Leaders Debate was publicised as a major media event (Screenshot via YouTube)

The media is starting to turn politics into a reality TV show, with publicity stunts and celebrity culture at the forefront, writes Dr Jennifer Wilson.

WITH 16 DAYS TO GO until the Federal Election on 18 May, it’s probably asking for trouble to claim we have reached peak stupid in what must be one of the country’s most stupid election campaigns ever.

And yet, after Opposition Leader Bill Shorten won a resounding victory in the first debate between himself and Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Nine News Australia claimed that ‘a measured and confident Scott Morrison upstaged Bill Shorten’ and attributed this view to ‘a leading body language expert’.

This expert turned out to be one Michael Kelly, whom Nine quoted explaining his method as:

“I leave aside the value of the policy and focus on look…”

Which, if you think about it, pretty much sums up the LNP’s entire election campaign.

But wait, there’s more. Fairfax journalist Mark Kenny decided that Morrison was “more polished and sharper” than Shorten who was “slow to answer” and, wait for it, got “bogged” down explaining “policy”.

Shock and awe. A politician discussing policy in an election campaign. A politician considering his answers before speaking.

The ABC’s Patricia Karvelas found that ‘the PM performed strongly’.

The Conversation’s Michelle Grattan concluded that Morrison had the most energy in the debate.

At this point, it occurs to this writer that arguably the worst thing to happen in Australian politics of recent years is the collusion between media and politicians to create a celebrity culture for both. This culture elevates a masculinity that perceives bullying and aggression as “strength” and considers appearance more significant than substance, the latter apparently too tedious to bother with. The only “energy” recognised as worthwhile is that which fuels shout-overs and fast-talking, while the energy required to thoughtfully consider questions and explicate policy, which is considerable, is devalued because look at the empty vessel over there making such a lot of lovely noise!  

Making a lot of noise is one of Scott Morrison’s greatest skills, as befits a marketing man. Another is his capacity for stunts, as also befits a marketing man. The man could talk under wet cement and say nothing at all of substance —, check, marketing man. His slogan skills leave those of backbencher and former Prime Minister Tony Abbott languishing.

The dominant theme of Morrison’s election campaign is that he is not Bill Shorten and that is why the LNP deserves your vote. There’s little talk of policy, not because the LNP don’t have any, but because what policies they have are so destructive and anti-human that even they feel it’s better to keep quiet about them.

Some media tend to interpret this LNP silence as evidence of lack of policy, which is the easy way out, as academic and writer Ingrid Matthews points out in an excellent piece here:

Reporting whatever lies the Liberals tell about Labor is a reversal of the public interest responsibility of the Fourth Estate. It is supposed to report what the Government is doing and what the opposition offers in the alternative, so that people have a meaningful choice at the ballot box.


And what is the Government doing? How can we glean a Coalition policy platform from all this carnival barking? Easy. Just canvas what it has done over the past five years; and check whether any Liberal or National party representative, whether officially or by the traditionally worst political gaffe of all, which is accidentally telling the truth, has repudiated or deferred or suspended or cancelled the policy position.

What, indeed, is the Government doing and why is so much of our media focused on “carnival barking” rather than on pursuing the LNP over policy as Matthews suggests?

Politics in Australia has become a reality TV show, that misnamed entertainment focused entirely on the superficial which it then markets as “reality” when it is merely one small aspect of it. We are the audience for a series of stunts performed by the Prime Minister, including those staged by him in his own church as he invited media to record him at prayer. In “reality”, Morrison was at prayer. However, also in reality, he invited the media to film and publish images of him engaged in this pious occupation, an invitation that for many transposed the act of worship into a disturbing spectacle.

Morrison’s performance at his Pentecostal church marked a new moral low in political stunts — come and film me praying as well as shaking hands with a dog, molesting a sheep and having a ride at the show with my kids, they’re all photo opportunities to me. Many commentators are only too willing to collude with this descent into infinite stupidity and the stupidity is infinite, as U.S. President Donald Trump and his supporters so ably demonstrate almost daily.

It’s also much easier to give in to Morrison’s demands for spectacle than it is to hound the man about his Government’s policies, or to demand where all his ministers have disappeared to and why. Morrison is running a presidential-like campaign in a Westminster system and somebody in the Fourth Estate needs to urgently address this perversion of our liberal democracy.

It would be much better for everyone if politics was boring. We need politicians to make policy, pass legislation that will benefit everyone, take responsibility for public services and the adequate defence of our country, be trustworthy administrators of public money, give priority to urgent issues and hear the concerns of constituents. We do not need reality television wannabes creating spectacles.

Morrison is the ideal man for the age of stupid, not because he is stupid – he isn’t – but because he knows how to exploit stupidity and, even better, he knows how to perform it. He is blessed with a media who in the main are easily distracted by his antics and apparently reluctant to speak truth to power on behalf of the Australian people.

You can follow Dr Jennifer Wilson on her blog No Place for Sheep or on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.

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