AusOpinion Reblogged 8 – What is Western Sydney? Part 5 – The Cult of Personality

There was a night on Lateline that focused on the personality of Tony Abbott in the community. There was a line from this post – “The man whose image which is part Vladimir Putin, part Bollywood star and part tradie” that appeared on Lateline.  It’s interesting to consider how much the image of Abbott has shifted, especially in the light of recent focus group testing like this conducted by the Sydney Morning Herald.

In this, the last post about Western Sydney (possibly – I am thinking of writing, Douglas Adams style, a 6th Part to the 5 Part series), I will warn you before you read on.  Mentioned in this post is Tony Abbott, Julia Gillard, Alan Jones, Ray Hadley, Kevin Rudd, John Howard, even Peter Slipper and James Ashby. I will mention personality politics and media representations. I warn people because loads and loads and loads of blogs address these issues and there may be people out there who will scream “enough, no more Ruddmentum!!!!” and the like.  This is partly about them and mostly about the engagement in politics of people I know, worked with, have taught and met in Western Sydney.

There has been, for many years and will continue to be, however, an election factor in Western Sydney based around the personality and persona of the Leader of a Party. It is a real factor that may get various people frustrated – “what about policy?” they will ask. I agree, it is frustrating to someone like me, who was interested in politics at an inordinately young age.  Going to work in workplaces (schools) where you would expect people to be engaged in political news but finding the opposite has been a long held annoyance.  However, in the cold light of day, not everyone is me (thank goodness, when you think about it) and it’s important to listen to people in the suburbs who are focused on providing the best lives they can for their families, rather than worrying about every single political issue. While being a tweep who makes jokes about Ted #Baillout and Denis #mothballs Napthine is fun, I am not representative at all of my region. This post, like the previous four in this series, is based on observations of others from various walks of life in Western Sydney.

For a number of people in the Western Suburbs, politics mostly only plays a background, almost nonexistent role in their lives.  Something that appears on the evening news for a few minutes in a set of garbled comments before the Important stuff comes on. Things that are relevant and engaging.  Not virtual irrelevancies like whether Kevin Rudd received a ute for an election campaign, or what steps a Liberal candidate for a Queensland seat did in terms of working against his potential opponent. Ask most people in the West who Peter Slipper is, you wouldn’t get much of an answer, except maybe “he was a bit dodgy, wasn’t he – but who is he again?”  These are seen as Canberra created media storms that are curiosities quickly forgotten.  This is not to say that the issues aren’t important and the like – but they don’t make much of an impact on people in the region. The AWU “scandal” didn’t really resonate either – it was barely discussed by people I talked to.

The main time politics becomes interesting for many of my friends and teaching colleagues in the region was when politics becomes relevant to their everyday lives. Such as was when there were budget cuts in education (suddenly many more people were asking me questions about Barry O’Farrell) or when governments start new tax systems that aren’t well explained. The tax reform that came as a part of the carbon pricing scheme was such an example – a mix of Government communication problems and a hostile and aggressive Daily Telegraph, which is the newspaper of choice of many of the middle class in the West.  If any media outlet has influence over some votes in this region, I think it is the Telegraph that will have played more than its fair share at swaying a number of swinging voters with its pretty relentless anti-Gillard campaign – which included their ridiculous pursuit of Slipper and the AWU nonsense.  In the case of the Fairfax press, it’s not particularly popular in the west – after all, why would people read the Herald west of Parramatta when the paper barely credits that there is anything happening there. The newspapers, however, are only part of the issue.  Most of the people I know in the West, however, don’t even read the Tele. For them, news is contained in Sunrise with Mel and Kochie, or, for less of them, by Karl and Lisa on Today.  In the evening, many will watch The Project, due to its light tone. Certainly not on anything ABC, however. Indeed, the ABC for most of the people I have taught or met in the West is the kids’ channel, ABC 3.  Mention The Drum or ABC News 24, and for the most part the reaction is a quizzical look.

As a result of a general level of disinterest in the nitty gritty of policy and newspaper reportage of same, the interest for many in the West is in the style and nature of the leader. For many people I know, there was a (to me, strange) attachment to the kindly uncle, John Howard. He was daggy, out of touch, but was generally perceived as kindly and a man “who got things done” – like getting payments out to “struggling” families to large mortgage payments and families. The biggest mistake in the eyes of these voters was when he turned into the man who threatened their leave entitlements and penalty rates with WorkChoices. This was John Howard trying to Change the way people worked.  For a deeply conservative region resistant to radical change, WorkChoices was much too radical and damaging.  But, except for that, the Kindly Uncle John image stuck – it was a masterly creation by the various people responsible for it. We know that it full of holes – he presided over a government responsible for things like the ridiculous children overboard gambit, he cynically played the Tampa crisis like a Maestro – and really, fill in the gaps with the other problems he left behind. (For example, I see many community members much less tolerant towards Muslims and refugees than in previous generations, which I see as the Howard effect.)  The image of the genial man in a Wallabies tracksuit hasn’t faded all that much as the years have worn on.

The success of the Kevin 07 campaign in Western Sydney was that he was cast as a “safe pair of hands” – a little bit like Howard, but without that nasty WorkChoices and the other problems that had beset Howard – like the on and off again challenges by Mr. Smug, Peter Costello. Memorable to me was the billboard put up next to the 2 lane M5 near Ingleburn, with Rudd’s almost blank expression and the words “A Rudd Labor Government will widen the M5 to 4 lanes”. It helped Rudd that he was from Queensland – Queensland is a favourite destination for many in Western Sydney, because of its laid back reputation, in contrast with the busy and self-absorbed inner cities of Sydney and Melbourne. That is why “I’m Kevin. I’m from Queensland. And I’m here to help” worked so well. He was slightly daggy, friendly and looked like a pleasant enough bloke for a politician.  The Sunrise appearances helped in this regard – as the show became more popular, Rudd’s smiling face became more seen and familiar.  These factors helped him in 2007. Anyone who lived in the West in 2007 could see the wind change for Labor – even the Telegraph supported the Rudd push with positive stories. I remember talking to a union organiser and Labor member that Macarthur might fall to the ALP in 07 – it needed nearly a 16% swing. He thought I was mad. The Libs held on in that election, just, after getting a 15.2% against it. When people in the West decides it likes a leader, it swings hard – as it did against Keating in 96.

That Rudd was becoming a bit of a micro-managing, workaholic nightmare for Canberra staffers didn’t matter much for most voters in the West I knew, who had gone back to their lives, looking after families, paying off mortgages and the like.  Even a reputation for uncompromising hard work would enhance a leader’s image in the region, not lessen it.  This is why the Spillard of the 2010 was such a mistake for the ALP, in terms of Western Sydney. For better or for worse, many people in Western Sydney believed they voted for the Prime Minister, not the smiling man / woman they might see in the local paper every so often or on oft ignored signs by the side of the road that appear just before elections.  Knowledge of the Westminster system isn’t strong for most in the region. While it is true that Rudd’s popularity numbers slipped in some polls before those events in 2010, the switch has created something worse for the ALP – nostalgia for the struck down man – I have often heard the line (or variations thereof) “oh, that Kevin, he was a nice man, why did he have to go?”  They don’t often want to listen to the reasons I provide as explanation.

In terms of personality politics, the selling of Julia Gillard has therefore been a problematic task for the Government. Before she was the leader, she had developed the reputation for being a hard working, efficient minister of education as well as the person who dismantled WorkChoices. That was it, though.  She did have a reputation amongst some, however, to be laid back and self depracating. But much like Mark Latham when he became leader, Gillard almost completely changed her style and approach to speeches, sounding like a measured robot. Even Gillard herself was aware of the change of style, promising more “real Julia” during the campaign – but since that promise, we haven’t seen anywhere near enough of that. What Gillard is perceiving to lack in her delivery and presentation is warmth and humanity – which is a pity, because from what I have heard from those who know her, she has oodles of both.  That maybe should be something that can still happen. The stage managed nature of appearances, though, don’t help – this week’s Western Sydney visits have not freed her from that prison of artificiality.

It hasn’t helped Gillard that the attacks against her image have taken a breathtaking personal and nasty tone, with constant attacks on her from people like Ray Hadley and Alan Jones – I mention Hadley first because he has a wider audience in terms of age groups than Jones, due partially to his presence as a rugby league caller on the weekend. I can’t say I have seen such a relentless personal campaign against any Prime Minister – even the comments about the late era Howard from various quarters never took the dimensions of the types of comments one hears on talkback or sees in the online comments page for Piers Akerman’s column.  I think the fact she is a female PM has added an edge to the attacks and negativity. The attacks have taken their toll, and resonate with many of those who were unhappy with Gillard for the carbon pricing “promise” as well as the number of problems that have beset the Government – both real and illusory.  I wish the attacks hadn’t had this impact – but the many conversations I have had in the last 2 and a half years about her haven’t provided me with much of an alternative conclusion.

Alternatively, we have Tony Abbott. The man whose image which is part Vladimir Putin, part Bollywood star and part tradie. Indeed, some people might well believe that Abbott used to be a tradie in a former life, he wears headwear and safety vests so much.  Tradies play well amongst many in Western Sydney, because they are the lifeblood of the region. Private contractor tradies, though, small business ones.  The strategy of having him doing things, being physical, being an Alpha Male, does have resonance amongst those in the West who do similar things, or look up to people who do those things. The Abbott – as – Mr. Capable image isn’t there to appeal to those in the inner cities and other more old fashioned safe Liberal regions who would prefer Malcolm Turnbull as leader.  It’s there to directly appeal to those areas where that kind of image gives him traction. The repetition of “real” action is in line with this image built of him – as if the ALP are providing abstract ideas like carbon pricing, rather than Practical Solutions to problems is part of that. This is not to say everyone in the Western Suburbs buys Abbott’s image hook, line and sinker and have become slavishly adoring of him.  The Cult of Personality never takes off here in the way it seems to in Russia. There is, though, a sense where Abbott seems more sure of what he wants to do and how he will do it. It’s pretty simple – Say no to new things and bring back old John Howard things, except WorkChoices.  I have a strong suspicion that when Abbott unveils what he actually plans to do and starts doing it, he will lose the sheen, lose the image and will find it hard to stay in for longer than a term. There are only so many staged media appearances one can do as a Prime Minister before it looks hollow.  Until that time, however, Abbott will, like Howard in 1996, stay as small a target as possible – and that may well work for him this year.

In terms of personality politics, the Greens may well suffer in this election because the party has lost Bob Brown as a leader. He divided opinion amongst many – those who didn’t like the Greens called him “dangerous” and “loopy”, without knowing much about him – but to others he seemed warm, compassionate and able to listen. It will be difficult for Christine Milne to develop a known “personality” in the West, especially if she can’t get appearances on Sunrise, Today and other forums like The Project.   She could be positioned, however, as a warm, friendly, approachable contrast from the robotic Gillard and the macho Abbott if there are forums provided to her before the upcoming election. That will be one of the interests as the year wears on.

Some people may say that I am unfairly pigeonholing people in the Western Suburbs as superficial, interested only in image.  That is not the case. To many in the west, politics is based on the personal, the human relationship.  The issue of trusting a Leader to do his / her best by the voters. Sometimes, that is governed by the way they appear.  Personality is an element that is important.  To say that it isn’t is to misunderstand the great mystery that is politics.  Personality combines and weaves it way with all the rest of the things I have discussed in this week of Rootyhillard.

By the way, if people are still wondering – Tony Abbott, Bollywood Star? I’ll finish with this trailer for a Bollywood film that makes me imagine Abbott being the lead. Maybe it will start with a commercial, but plough through that – it’s worth it for a idea to stay in your Friday mind.

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