The best place to see politicians is actually at a writers’ festival. In their shirtsleeves, surrounded by a cheerful, engaged audience, they usually drop the PR spin and settle in for a decent chat. Nowhere was this more evident than in two stand-out sessions at the Sydney Writers’ Festival yesterday, featuring Liberal pollies Malcolm Turnbull and Joe Hockey.

Turnbull, together with writer and broadcaster Annabel Crabb, was the star of a panel discussion entitled: “Is Rhetoric Dead in the Age of the Soundbite?” The panel, chaired by Lowy Institute head Michael Fullilove, also included the Plain English Foundation’s Neil James and journalist and author James Button.

James delighted the audience with a quote from Wayne Swan, who had said one of his opponents had his head “stuck so far in the sand that he couldn’t see the wood for the trees”. Turnbull explained the mixed metaphor as the Treasurer, “seeing the end is near, [starting] to become a rather bitterly humorous caricature of himself. I think this is all part of an act, he can’t seriously be serious about being himself.”

Crabb said the 24-hour news cycle had not improved the state of political discourse in this country: “The saddest thing is that the speed of the reaction means that politicians now use language to obfuscate, to defend themselves, to protect themselves rather than to reveal. And that’s why we get this fudgy language.”

For instance, the PM extended her sentences by using stalling words and phrases that were fully reversible, Crabb said, thus enabling her to kill time while she was thinking: “And this is what gives us all of the screaming shits. It is not language, it is like luncheon meat. You don’t actually put a sentence together — you extrude it until the spaces fill.”

The opposition spokesman on communications said this risk-averse style of speech was a defence against the gotcha syndrome, in which the media was focused and jumped on any word that was slightly out of place. For instance, constantly asking politicians whether they would rule something in or out led not just to bad interviews but to disastrous policy decisions, he said.

A good example of this was the release of the Henry tax review in 2009. Turnbull said Swan and then-PM Kevin Rudd were not prepared to just release and publish it, thus triggering a debate about the issues that would help the government to decide which recommendations would be taken up.

“They were so terrified about journalists asking them to rule in or out … that they sat on it until before just before the budget,” he said. “And you journalists will have to grow up. Instead of trying to play games with us, stop being the lazy slobs you are being at the moment. Get out there and actually read the report, talk to people who know something about economics and tax and write something informative that will enable us to have an intelligent public debate. Wouldn’t that be nice for a change?”

Thunderous applause from the audience.

“… stop being the lazy slobs you are being at the moment. Get out there and actually read the report, talk to people who know something about economics and tax and write something informative …”

Turnbull then went on to criticise “pointlessly, mindlessly aggressive” television interviewing, until he was reminded by Crabb that they had just taped an episode of her cooking and politics program, Kitchen Cabinet, in which he had cooked a dish of yabbies for her. To appease any animal liberationists in the audience, she said that rather than kill the yabbies with a knife, cooks had peacefully put the yabbies to sleep by reading to them one of Rudd’s speeches.

Later in the day, shadow treasurer Joe Hockey appeared in a session called “Canberra Unmasked”, with News Limited journalist Steve Lewis and 7.30‘s Chris Uhlmann. Hockey was at his cheerful best, saying that his former colleague Brendan Nelson, now head of the Australian War Memorial, had moved back into the shared house in Canberra, but this time had been allowed into the main building. When Nelson was defence minister, he lived in the garage, from which he would be regularly awoken at 3am to sign off on a covert operation, he said. The household tradition apparently had been for all residents to gather in front of the TV and eat Paddle Pops while watching Jerry Springer at 10.30pm.

Later, a member of the audience asked Hockey if he still had a Simpsons doona cover (as revealed on Crabb’s show last year.) Hockey was able to reassure him the manchester had been upgraded to an adult standard, prompting Lewis to mutter that “we knew he couldn’t be having an affair, as he had Bart Simpson on his bed”. “I don’t know, there are a lot of kinky people in the world,” Uhlmann replied.

Asked why the atmosphere in the current Parliament was so toxic, Hockey said it was because it was a hung Parliament. “There is a lot of good humour in politics, just not in this Parliament. I’ve forged a friendship with Kevin Rudd, which has endured to some degree,” he said.

Reminded that he had in fact saved Rudd’s life while on the Kokoda trail, Hockey said “after what he’s done to Julia, I’m glad I saved him. And I know he’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but Christopher Pyne is hilarious.”

Asked about the media, Hockey said that although he had “copped it” over the years, “we need to have a free media, whether you agree with them or not, and we need to have a diverse media”. It was important that the media continued to hold powerful people to account, he said, adding that “if we didn’t have our investigative journalists like Kate McClymont, where would we be?”.

Among the scores of stimulating sessions, another great event was entitled “Hacktivism, Internet Privacy and Encryption: The Future of Politics”. This session starred the fascinating Asher Wolf, who describes herself as an “information freedom activist, an internaut and a great big can of whup-ass for the surveillance state”. The youthful digital native told the audience the most important thing for the public to know was that they are under surveillance and that everything, including all their online communications, was being recorded.

During the Arab Spring, activists in Egypt would be tortured for their Facebook  passwords, which would be used to send out social invitations to their networks, she said. When their friends arrived, they too would be tortured and murdered. But we chose convenience over security, she said: “I still have a Facebook account, but I use it to look at other people’s Facebook accounts. If you are not paying for a service, then you are the product.”

So, another fabulous Sydney Writers’ Festival has finished, and the literary citizens of Sydney are today suffering a collective hangover. Finally, we can stay in bed and read a book.

Peter Fray

Save up to 50% on a year of Crikey.

This extraordinary year is almost at an end. But we know that time waits for no one, and we won’t either. This is the time to get on board with Crikey.

For a limited time only, choose what you pay for a year of Crikey.

Save up to 50% or dig deeper so we can dig deeper.

See you in 2021.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

SAVE 50%