Politician profiling Australia
Former prime minister Julia Gillard

Last week in Crikey, I made the claim that members of the policy class can, and do, weaponise their personal identities to gain political advantage. I also made the claim that such acts — whether a charge by former Prime Minister Gillard of antagonism toward her gender or one by former Prime Minister Howard of antagonism toward his gender, class and race in the national curriculum — achieve little but obfuscation. I made the claim that when political debate focuses on the identity of a politician, the lives of those represented by that politician are subordinated.

Such claims are, of course, neither novel nor remarkable. Whoever we are, we can probably agree that some politicians bang on needlessly about their own problems to the detriment of voters. If we are conservative, we might dislike Gillard’s famous “misogyny” speech in which she, then the nation’s most powerful person, cast herself as just another wronged gal in the typing pool. If we are progressive, we might dislike Howard’s many comments about what he perceived to be the departure of white ruling class men from the record of history — it’s only tricky to see Howard as identitarian until the point “white” and “male” are no longer perceived as default or objective positions, but, as they are, identity categories. 

If we are simply people who have had a gutful of politicians claiming the disadvantage of their identity group to gain advantage, we wish they’d all shut it. It is not, in my view, contentious to claim that politicians often claim injury to their identity to win poll spikes and, importantly, time off from making any meaningful policy.

But, apparently, it is contentious when it comes to new mothers. This is one identity category so holy, it must not be troubled. So, when I suggested that Queensland Greens Senator Larissa Waters had reversed her party’s recent move from the confines of identity politicking by claiming that the Coalition did not “care about women” — FFS, for how long must we bear the destructive force of competitive compassion? — I briefly became Herod among my peers.

In the same week that Waters had used her identity to make a policy case — and that it was a good case is something I made clear — she had also made global headlines breastfeeding her newborn in the upper house. I did not dishonour this necessary act, nor did I discuss it at length. I did, however, criticise Waters’ public declaration that the act could help welcome more women into Parliament.

Several of my colleagues then used social media to “call out” what they saw as my massacre of the innocents. Why, they wanted to know, did I so clearly hate lactation and love Mark Latham? What they did not, and frequently do not, seek an answer to is the absurd and circular logic of this politics of presence. Like the policy class of which is it so slavishly enamoured, the media class rarely stops to question the value of “role models” in government.

It is not only entirely possible for a good “role model” to produce bad policy. It is entirely commonplace that uplifting representations of identity actively serve to conceal bad policy. On the very same day of Gillard’s misogyny speech, Gillard’s austerity measures for single parents — chiefly women — were passed through the Senate. Even as Howard battled valiantly on behalf of “objective” white men everywhere to retain their place in the study of history, the possibility of actually studying any sort of history at all diminished.

Howard droned on about “family values”, but created conditions inimical to a family on median income. Obama claimed to be a champion of his nation’s “undocumented” population, but deported more people than all 20th-century presidents combined. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a frequently shirtless friend to the marginalised, supported the Canada-Europe Trade Agreement, which privileges global corporate interests above those of Canadian workers. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has undermined European democracy in the service of a devalued currency that enriches her nation. But, hey. As far as the “progressive” media class is concerned, both she and the fiscally monstrous Christine Lagarde are inspirational leaders of a global resistance. These persons, so instrumental in creating the hard ground in which European fascism flourishes and so bereft of any identifiably progressive policy, even of the cultural sort, are essentially praised for looking tough in photographs.

And Emmanuel Macron, a callow neoliberal who promises to deliver more of the austerity that divided Europe, is held, even by the New Yorker, to the standard of mere optics. He “seems like progress”, says the outlet, because he wed an older woman. Doesn’t that just make him seem French?

There are, of course, those rare politicians whose identity or lifestyle might be more closely aligned with their ideas. Larissa Waters is, likely, such a politician. But, in the end, who cares? If the media class continues to restrict their analysis to personality and acts that occur outside the work of policy, then all we voters are left with is shirtless signifiers like Justin Trudeau.

There is, I understand, a great sense of crisis. Voters, many of whom are experiencing financial hardship and real life discrimination, perceive that we are approaching some kind of limit. When they see a heroic “role model” moment play out in Canberra, DC or Brussels, they may wish to identify with it, to yell “let us have this!” to people like me, whom they perceive as a no-fun contrarian.

But, if we continue to be satisfied with the appearance of a particular identity, appearances are all we’ll get.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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