Julia Gillard and the Labor government are on the precipice, and it’s nothing to do with pink batts. It’s simply that Julia, who I like and admire, is a perfectly lousy actor.

I’ve spent a lot of my life watching actors bring my words to life. The difference between a great actor and a very good one isn’t all that great, but the difference between a good actor and a terrible actor is huge and embarrassing. And Julia as an actor, as distinct from a human being, is profoundly bad.

Of course in the best of worlds it shouldn’t matter. A politician, indeed a person, should be judged on their deeds, not their acting skills. But in the real world that’s not how it works. Humans have evolved to be incredibly sensitive to how others are really feeling. There are something over a hundred facial muscles which operate to express our emotions and survival dictated that we needed to be able to discern whether someone was hiding deep anger under that contrived smile.

When you’re faking emotion only half of those hundred muscles come into play and most people can spot the difference between fake and real. Method actors remember real emotional moments in their life as they act in order that real emotions emerge during performance.

What we really want to see in our leaders is sincerity and conviction.  We want to be able to trust them. What we see in Julia is a stiff and wooden performance that gives us no idea of what she’s really feeling, if anything at all.

The Queensland floods were a turning point for her. I’m sure Anna Bligh felt genuine distress at what had happened to her state. But she also had the performance skills to convey that state of distress. Julia’s acting skills were appalling. At the height of national emotion she displayed no emotion at all. It’s possible she felt every bit as distressed as Anna but no one would have known it.

The only role Julia seems to be able to play in front of camera is that of a pedantic, emotionless, primary school headmistress lecturing slowly and carefully to a particularly dull-witted class.

As I said in a rational world it shouldn’t matter.  A person should be judged on their deeds.  In fact the federal government’s response to the Queensland floods was by all accounts swift and efficient. But Julia negated all of that.

The plan to take a little money from the well off to help Queensland rebuild, and thus do a little to prevent debt pressure on interest rates further down the track, was sensible and logical. But Julia couldn’t even sell that one.

When Labor says “we’re just not getting our message across” the reason is pretty simple: you’ve got to have someone putting that message across who has the performance skills to appear confident and full of conviction.

It’s no accident that ex-actors like Ronald Reagan and Arnie Schwarzenegger succeed in politics. They can sell a message. Our best prime ministers have been great performers: Bob Menzies did assured and confident patrician with consummate skill; Bob Hawke did smart as a whip but a man of the people to perfection; Paul Keating was an immensely gifted performer, but let his role drift a shade too close to arrogance to sustain in the long term. Even John Howard, who many thought to have practically no personality, was very good at performing the dogged little man of conviction and courage.

Acting skills have nothing much to do with real-life persona, which is a tragedy in Julia’s case. Julia on her feet, extemporising in the House of Reps, is one of our finest performers.  She’s quick, acid, funny and endearing. But there’s a world of difference between actually being all those things and being able to act them.

On camera all the good things about Julia’s personality die instantly, to be replaced by the level of animation she’ll have if ever recreated in Madame Tussaud’s waxworks.

The only thing allowing her to hang on is that Tony Abbott’s one-note performance as an incessantly yapping and snarling Australian terrier endears him to very few.

But sadly for Labor, Julia’s performance skills are so abysmal that she isn’t able to defend herself with conviction, and the independents will shortly find an excuse to switch sides. Then we’ll have the terrier as our new prime minister, whether we want him or not.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey