Attempts to portray the government as newly “pragmatic” are more interesting for the light they shed on political communication than telling us anything about politicians.
In case you failed to read a lot of the political coverage of last week, the important message was “pragmatism”. The government had decided, apparently, to stop being so rigidly ideological and embrace political realism. Central to this interpretation was the dumping of the proposed amendments to s.18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Even as the Right railed against the decision, Coalition loyalists were lauding the move. Dennis Shanahan hailed it as a Howardesque “cleaning of the barnacles” that would help portray Abbott as a moderate centrist — attacked by Labor and the Greens for even thinking about changing the RDA, and attacked by the Right for not doing it.
While the interpretation that the whole 18C business would turn out somehow to redound to Abbott’s credit was a classic Shanahanigan from the soon-to-retire veteran commentator; the broader idea was more that a new, more realistic government was emerging. Let’s call it “the real Tony”. The launch of “the real Tony” didn’t quite go according to plan: not merely did both Abbott himself and his Attorney-General comprehensively bugger up the initial selling of their draconian national security changes, but Eric Abetz, the government’s Senate leader, managed to wreck the whole theme with his episode of “Dr Eric’s Casebook”.
Abetz is entitled to feel aggrieved by his treatment at the hands of his colleagues. Normally, blatant denialism isn’t merely tolerated by this government, it’s a hallmark of it. The Prime Minister believes climate science is absolute crap. This is the Coalition of the $100 leg of lamb and wiped-out Whyalla. Half the party room believes wind turbines damage health. The government seriously maintains that our spy agencies don’t engage in commercial espionage. The list goes on. But Abetz’s linking abortion and breast cancer — the sort of half-arsed, long-discredited pseudo-science in which much of the Right and, when it comes to vaccination, some in the Left, like to trade — was slapped down. Abetz hadn’t got the talking points about being “pragmatic”.
“If you can’t speak authentically, you can at least dress up as a man/woman of the people …”
The problem with “real Tony” is that Abbott has long declared that pragmatism is one of his defining traits. In June in Canada, Abbott lauded the “pragmatism with values” that he believed was a mark of his and Stephen Harper’s governments. In addressing the Business Council in December, he declared “we will be pragmatic reformers rather than ideological ones”. During the 2010 election campaign, Abbott explained that “mine is a genial, pragmatic political creed. But it is pragmatism based on values”. Supportive commentators have agreed. “Unbeknown to many of his critics, the Prime Minister is a practical and pragmatic politician,” Gerard Henderson said in December. Andrew Bolt, before trouble erupted in paradise last week, even declared “pragmatism is now a conservative value” — whatever that means.
“Pragmatism” and “moderation” are motherhood political values. But behaviour that demonstrates those values can also be described as “weakness” and “not knowing what you stand for”. In the same way, “inflexibility”, “unbending” and “doctrinaire” also describe “strength”, “standing up for your beliefs” and “you may not agree with me but you know what I stand for”. Usually the adjectives depend on whether you agree with, or like, the politician concerned. And presumably, Bolt’s endorsement of “pragmatism” doesn’t include the abandonment of fixing the RDA.
This is tangled up with the obsession on the part of both the media and politicians themselves with the concept of “authenticity” — something that, like art, pornography or bad poetry, resists definition beyond “I know it when I see it”. The media and politicians have been locked in a vicious circle spiralling away from authenticity for decades, with ever more professional, media-wary politicians relying on talking points rather than communicating, a frustrated media clamouring for “authenticity” but then portraying any evidence of it as naive, divisive or amateurish, and politicians reacting by clinging ever more closely to carefully rehearsed messages. For example, you can bet Eric Abetz now won’t be discussing abortion any time soon.
The obsession in recent years with parading political leaders around in the garb of manual labour — high-vis vests, helmets, industrial goggles — is an attempt to manufacture this precious commodity of authenticity without the risk associated with unrehearsed communication — if you can’t speak authentically, you can at least dress up as a man/woman of the people. (Julia Gillard appeared obsessed with this, at one stage almost deifying “tradies” and celebrating manual labour as innately superior to other forms of existence.) And one of the few definable characteristics of “authenticity” is a willingness to appear to be ready to articulate and defend your beliefs regardless of their unpopularity. The problem is, no successful politician made a career from rigidly sticking to their beliefs through thick and thin — the pragmatically profligate John Howard of 2001-07 would have horrified the rigidly doctrinaire, and politically toxic, Howard of the mid-’80s; Tea Party icon Ronald Reagan presided over a massive blow-out in US government debt; Margaret “the lady’s not for turning” Thatcher presided over an expansion of the British welfare state and only fractionally reduced the level of tax in the UK.
The only real lesson from any of this is that, at least when it comes to successful conservatives like Thatcher, Reagan and Howard, the trick is to be pragmatic while appearing ideological. At the moment, this government is persisting with ideology while advertising itself as pragmatic. We’ll see what happens with that approach.