leaders debate

Midway through week three, at the exact halfway point of the campaign, the two leaders came together at the Broncos Leagues club, somewhere in the northern burbs of Brisbane, god knows exactly — it was night, and the press are taken to these things like prisoners about to be swapped for land, hustled out of the Hilton and driven through dark streets of palms and peeling verandahs — to have a town hall-style meeting, where they would make short statements and and answer questions from the public, unmediated by the chai-quaffing sodomites of the meeja.

Rearing up from its surrounds, Broncos Leagues is done out in the usual club-style architecture — i.e. it looks like a cruise ship smashed into a postmodern-style children’s hospital, bright panels flying each which way. Last night there were about a hundred protesters out on its footpaths, as the coaches and the white Commonwealth cars came and went, dropping off the journos and the fixers, the suits and the party regulars — and as the actual punters, parked further off, streamed in on foot.

Twenty or so Labor/union footsoldiers with printed up windcheaters and placards, 15 Liberals stumping for Brisbane MP Teresa Gambaro — gambaro, the lobster, the name Italians give to right-wingers pretending to be Communists for political advancement (red outside, white, i.e. Bourbon/Savoy, inside), which says all you need to know about Italian politics — the ACF campaigning to stop sandmining on Stradbroke Island, and the refugee action coalition, i.e. Socialist Alternative, banging the drum loud and proud.

“God, there’s protesters,” went up the moan from the press bus as we pulled into the parking bay. “You know, this is my least favourite form of democratic action,” someone said. “What, as opposed to journalism?” another remarked. There was a touch of Noel Coward in it, and a tacit acknowledgment that perhaps the dutiful recording of Kim Jong Rudd and Monsignor Abbott’s utterances at the Bathurst branch of Tint Professor is not what one got into the game for. The camos sighed, hauled their units onto their shoulders and clambered out to get B-roll.

Inside, the lobby was filled with security suits, the coiled wires hanging from the back of their shaved heads, giving each other hand signals as they scoped the crowd. The regulars were waiting for the grand arrivals outside the entrance to the Cavern of Cash, the vast pokies room, the rat lab, the tax on the poor and needful that no one will talk about. There was a wall of pride down one side, the trophies, glass-encased jerseys and other paraphernalia of a club that’s the centre of lives, starting from its very roots, which are, er, in the 1980s.

The Broncos is not some community club gone corporate, it is a corporate creation, confected for a two-state league and then publicly listed and now owned by, of course, News Corporation, with a 70% holding. Now it is hosting a debate broadcast on Sky News, i.e. News Corp News, co-run by the News Corp Courier-Mail, while the boss of all of them tweets his explicit intent to sack one of the debate’s participants. As we walked into the main hall, I noticed a whole other level below, with a staircase leading down around a waterfall, and amid it, a sculpture of a rearing bronco, his proud form exposing a dick as meaty and full as a hot calzone, surmounting two stewed eggplants. Was there any need to have this debate at all? Could we not just have, Warhol-style, a locked-off shot of this magnificence, broadcast for an hour straight?

“And I have to say, if ‘shut up’ ‘no, you shut up’ counts as a contest of values here, we are in terminal trouble.”

Now in the main room, we were prepping for the debate. The Sky News panel was off to one side, feeding their intro into the camera under a giant crane camera arm, swinging around. They were all talking to “Richo” on the feed, “what do you think, ‘Richo’?'”, and he, the crumpled sage of Sussex Street, contained on a 10-inch screen like the Mekon or Hannibal Lecter, gives his entirely obvious spiel. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s already in the room, there’s a cheer and applause outside, Rudd drifts in ahead of the applause, and it’s clear he’s having an up day, buoyant, floaty. PM Kevin Rudd took the stage to the left of David Speers, Abbott to the right. Three men in neat suits and mildly interesting ties before an assembled crowd in a circular function room, one bloke a bit of a chub, the other angular, and a geek in the middle. It was as if same-s-x marriage had not only been legalised, but we were at the first one being celebrated. Then we were off.

People would say afterwards that this was where the gloves came off, when it all got real. Well, Jesus, sorry, all I can say is, if this is getting down to it, it is not exactly what the late Russ Meyer called “low blow f-cking”. For the most part it was what Australian politics has become, an argument about costings and what is on the public record, a series of mild gotchas around a substantially shared program. There were questions from the public about the proposed Abbott cuts, about Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme, about … well, as it turned out, there were almost no questions about the Rudd record, and Mr Tony was forced to keep doing the hard lifting and turn it back on Rudd.

From the start it was clear, that if the global Murdoch org was a sinister conspiracy, then they were a pretty f-cking shit one, because someone had selected a bevy of questioners designed to slate it home to Abbott. Four of the first five questioners were young women students all rising inflection and Socialist Alternative angst, asking about excessive corporate power and species extinction, etc, etc. How did these jokers get into a Sky/News/Broncos/ event, you could see the blue suits — they were all gathered in one bank of seats — asking. Simple, as it turned out later, after questioning a few of the hundred “non-aligned” people selected by Galaxy — most of whom turned out to be Labor-shifted — there was no process at all. People who wanted to ask a question were simply herded into a section and sorted by topic. The result? The debate was skewed, never really got down to it, to two different ways of thinking about how we arrange things. Labor has questions to answer about its spending, but it won’t answer them; the Libs have questions to answer about their cuts, but they wont be deposed on them. We’re living in a weird shadow politics, halfway between policy and ethics, blah blah blah.The situation has been compromised by the determination of the Coalition, under Abbott, to cleave to a parental leave policy more generous than Labor had ever imagined, more reckless than the conservatives had ever contemplated. The debate quickly came round to this, and it proved the sticking point. Labor is going hard into the idea of the inequality of the tax, and also its unfunded nature, while the Libs are grooving on feminism and positive freedom, all the things they would once have despised. Having taken these positions, they must now justify them with ideology, when they are really bidding for sectional interests. Labor was caught on the hop by Abbott’s commitment to parental leave — a move the Scandinavian Right had pulled a decade earlier — and Labor’s only response has been budgetary, which cuts against the grain of its beliefs, that the economy should be organised for the benefit of real people. Had Labor taken your correspondent’s advice seven, yes, seven, years ago and embraced parental leave as an expression of the community honouring those who committed to motherhood, this would be a dead letter. Composed of eco-rationalists and anti-familial feminists, Labor didn’t, and this is what happened.

On this or something, there was a testy exchange with Abbott leaning into Rudd’s reply and saying “doesn’t this man ever shut up?”, the old rugger bugger response with a bit of applause. Louder applause was for Kevin’s response that “people always tell you to shut up when the questions are getting hard” or something like that, and which pretty much won the day. It was all everyone was talking about. And I have to say, if “shut up” “no, you shut up” counts as a contest of values here, we are in terminal trouble.

Truth is, the whole occasion had a democratic air, but was also a sham. My god, everyone in the press gallery was dutifully taking notes but on what, on what? Here was a rugby club owned by the largest media organisation in the country, hosting a debate to be broadcast by the same media organisation, with the event organised by a newspaper owned by that organisation dutifully attended by many of the journos who worked for that organisation and its dozen newspapers, and would have their copy duly co-opted to serve whatever the purpose of the day was. Was this a public event, a debate? Of course not, it was a sham, a simulacrum, of popular entertainment, such as News Corp specialises in. You know if the biggest event is someone saying “why don’t you shut up?” and the other guy says “that’s what people say when they’ve run out of arguments,” then that’s not a contestation of values, that’s a Bert and Ernie argument on Sesame Street. The fact that the news cycle can focus on this three-line spat for eight hours is a measure of the vacuum at the heart of Australian politics, policy on one side, trivia on the other, nothing in the middle.

But that was the story, that was the thing that became the real story, for better or worse. I wandered out of the auditorium, spoke to a few folks watching the thing and interviewed a great girl named Stacey, who was a cleaner, there in a tank top, wanted to know what the two leaders had to say about the cost of living. She was my prole gal, fighting the power — and of course as I wandered back into the main bar past the pokies, half an hour later, saw her working a machine at the speed of sound. All her talk of a cost of living squeeze had nothing to do with the actual prices of things and everything to do with the fact that she was juicing her income through the pokies, a topic that would never get covered in the mainstream media, because of course they run the joint we’re having this event at, and to which both parties have promised free government money.

Nevertheless, this was the moment when it turned around for Rudd. For the first half of the debate, he was in your face with Abbott, almost rude, owning the territory, classic Obama move, courtesy of his recent hires. Maybe he faded a bit towards the end, maybe there were other questions to ask, maybe — in the morning — this feed wont make as much sense as it did in the plain light of day, or night … After the debate, the punters, harassed three deep by journos, scored it for Rudd, on both form and content.

By the time we all leave, Rudd’s blow — “people always tell you to shut up when you’re making a valid point” — has gone viral. It’s become the story of the debate, helped by the ever more concerted attacks on the paid parental leave scheme that Rudd is now making, turning it into a mark of Abbott’s failure as a would-be economic manager — and also throwing in a bit of so-called “class war”, i.e. talking about equality, with his argument that it’s a baby bonus for millionaires.

Whether this will work or not remains to be seen, but Labor has no other choice but to try this complex pas de deux, defending themselves as responsible managers of a social welfare state. But word on the street is that Abbott’s PPL is — as your correspondent forecast years ago — wildly popular, too good to resist for a big slice of voters, who aren’t concerned with a few freebies. There’s precious few to ask about it at the Broncos, though the rampant stallion statue would suggest that this is the centre of a sinister fertility cult. But the questions that could never be asked here are the ones that surround PPL and other issues: what sort of economic and political system are we going to live under, and who’s going to own it?

Perhaps if we wish it will come true. I went and touched the Bronco’s enormous pizzle for luck. Beneath his rampant form, the water feature foamed and flowed, as if he was creating multitudes.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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