I hate to impose hipster criteria on Australian politics but, really Wayne, a lot of politicians co-opted Bruce Springsteen long before you did.

Ronald Reagan may have been the first, on the stump in the ’84 election campaign. “Bruce may have been born to run but he wasn’t born yesterday,” quipped challenger Walter Mondale in response, displaying that sharp wit that saw him win Washington DC and Minnesota (thank you, Simpsons).

As a Salon article recently noted, it’s now routine not just for American baby boomer politicians but political pundits as well to worship at the altar of the Boss, although few go as far as right-wing New Jersey governor Chris Christie.

Springsteen just isn’t any old celebrity of course, but, variously, America’s troubadour, troubadour of the highway and the blue-collar troubadour and the heir to James Brown’s title as the “hardest working man in showbusiness” with shows that go on for so long eventually they turn the power off on him.

What he also has, except in the eyes of a few critics from both the Left and the Right, is that most prized political commodity, authenticity. There’s an episode of Doctor Who in which some aliens come looking for the Doctor while he’s regenerating because he’s chockful of vast energies that could power them for years. That’s the basic model for politicians and Bruce Springsteen, the former forever looking for ways to tap some of that precious, powerful authenticity of the latter for themselves.

The quest for authenticity in politics grows ever keener as politics becomes ever more ritualised and  the media and politicians become ever more disconnected from voters. Politicians stick to talking points out of fear of facile “gotcha” media coverage; the media ever more aggressively pursue such coverage and hype the slightest deviation from on-message delivery in frustration at the unwillingness of politicians to speak like intelligent adults. Only a few MPs avoid the trap, either by not caring the slightest what comes out of their mouths and how it’s covered (Barnaby Joyce) or having the wit and intelligence to converse with the electorate while avoiding the obvious traps (Malcolm Turnbull).

It is not irrelevant that Joyce and Turnbull remain extraordinarily popular with their respective constituencies, while not being overly popular with colleagues. Craig Emerson is another possible candidate for that list, primarily because he seems to have had the part of his brain that is responsible for the emotion of embarrassment surgically removed.

The authenticity problem is particularly acute for Labor because it is led by a woman who, even before she crashed in the public’s trust and respect, had come to be regarded as believing in nothing (just a few short years after she was regarded as a left-wing firebrand, but let’s not dwell on inconsistency). Without a leader who can connect with voters, its reputation across a range of issues trashed and desperate to find a way to restore its standing, Labor has turned to Wayne Swan as a sort of blue-collar tribune, a People’s Treasurer determined to prosecute a “fair go” (a phrase used remorsely by Swan), albeit with language borrowed from the Prime Minister, whose focus on hard-working suburbanites ritualistically toiling for their families has now been appropriated by Swan.

The Swan — or more accurately Swanny — white-man-dancing while his daughter plays Dancing In The Dark“, doing his Treasury papers on the back porch in at-home clothes while Born To Run plays, is Labor’s last stab at demonstrating to voters it has an actual soul, one rooted in this case in the suburban reality of the daggy but hard-working dad and his family.

It’s not entirely confected: one of Labor’s few remaining “brand” strengths is the perception that it manages to economy for working people, not corporations — for all of Tony Abbott’s hanging-out with workers in fluoro vests, voters still believe the Liberals are close to the big end of town. And Swan’s stewardship of the economy has been outstanding, regardless of what voters might think or what he himself tells them every time he talks about families “doing it tough”: in particular, he’s managed employment growth while keeping inflation and interest rates low, the three things most important to working families.

Starting another stoush with the Twiggy Palmerhart is all grist to this particular mill. It worked earlier in the year — why not try it again? Forrest and Palmer walked right into Swan’s trap last time by lashing out in response, and Palmer has already responded this morning, in between planning to put a dinosaur on Mars or whatever his latest scheme is.

In other circumstances, it would all look very much like a deputy burnishing his image as part of a quest to seize the top job. But, of course, we know that’s not true.

Peter Fray

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