The Northern Hemisphere slumbers, dreaming that – one day – it is going to split up its empire, before the seas boil and the towers collapse. During this same dark night, Australia is wide awake, chirpy as a Canadian, strapping as a Bondi blonde, having an election.
Down under, well beneath the consciousness of the wider world, the 2010 Australian Federal election has an unreal, dreamlike air. We’re not talking Aboriginal Dreamtime here; we’re witnessing a new creation myth.
Julia Gillard is Australia’s first woman Prime Minister. She was installed barely a month before calling the election, deposing predecessor Kevin Rudd in a ruthless poll-driven coup on June 24, reducing “Kevin07” overnight from rooster to feather duster. According to the local media, the real interest in all this is that Gillard is also a “ranga” (redhead, as in orangutan), an atheist, childless and never-married, and the first Welsh-born PM anywhere.
All these weird factoids focused on Gillard’s past. She wanted to focus on the future. Not having a prime-ministerial track record to run on, apart from the back-stabbing, she used the Inception method. First, she bored us all to sleep. Then, she tried to implant a message in our subconscious. When she announced the election on July 17 she used the campaign slogan “Moving Forward” 24 times in five minutes.
A media savvy public dismissed the over-mediated message out of hand. It was mocked with the inevitable “Julia Gillard’s Moving Forward Dance Remix.” The Daily Telegraph analysed 50,000 comments from online platforms: “A massive 73 per cent of comments made across social media sites made negative comments about Ms Gillard’s Moving Forward slogan – or MoFo as the Twitterati have cynically branded it.”
After a week of phoney-war campaigning, the leaders of the two major parties – Labor Gillard and conservative rival Tony Abbott – met for their first and only TV debate. Did that move Australians forward? Nope; the winners of the debate were: #1, the worm or “polliegraph,” a media-invented device for recording – and influencing – viewers’ preferences on-screen; and #2, earlobes (Gillard’s proved to be pendulous). Oh, and the season finale of Masterchef, whose timeslot the debate wisely vacated.
The public took more notice of media about the election than the election itself. The ABC (our PSB “national broadcaster,” averaging about a 15% audience share, known to all as Auntie) wiped the floor with the commercial networks by not taking it seriously. Biggest winner was Gruen Nation, an election-special version of a regular comedy panel show about advertising, which topped the ratings that day (33.2 % share), followed by the return of comedy pranksters The Chaser with their own election special, Yes We Canberra! with fewer viewers but a whopping 42% share in its timeslot.
Gruen Nation advertises itself as “the national bullshit detector”: “An election campaign is about show business. But while everyone else will be busy discussing the business, at GRUEN NATION we’re only interested in the show.” Even the normally ABC-baiting Murdoch papers were impressed: “While the debate was widely panned by viewers for its lack of passion, Gruen’s dissection of political advertising and spin was a welcome relief.”
Attentive readers of another Murdoch paper would know that all this is an example of what I’ve called “silly citizenship,” in a chapter in Stuart Allen’s recent Rethinking Communication. Or, as Emma Tom put it in The Australian:
Another feverish––and fascinating––writer in this area is Queensland academic John Hartley… “In mainstream media the rise of satire TV, notably The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, has propelled comedy, send-ups and spoofs to the centre of the political process,” Hartley writes. “Comedy is becoming a more trusted source of political information than partisan commentators in mainstream news … Comedy is the go-to source for civic understanding”. (‘First the Porn, then the Culture.’ 10 July 2010)
The unruly blue-collar unions took note, running spoof election ads on YouTube, supporting the mythical “Fair Go for Billionaires” ticket.
Something I had not foreseen was the importance of fantasy fashion as a “trusted source of political information.” But, in the otherwise “disastrous” second campaign week: “Gillard won big with a 13-page cover spread in the widely-read Women’s Weekly, a highly sympathetic piece that penetrated well to an audience well beyond the headlines that were otherwise plaguing her” (New Zealand Herald, 31 July 2010). These pictures may or may not win her the election, but they are certainly having an impact on the heart-rate of her opponents. The maverick spokesman of the National Party, Sen. Barnaby Joyce, liked what he saw – while doubting its reality:
I don’t know who she is, but I wouldn’t mind going out to dinner with her! … I’ve got no problem with people doing themselves up, but some of those photos it’s just, I don’t know, it’s not the same lady I get in the lift with.
There are still three weeks to go to polling day on August 21. Anything might happen to turn this Australian dream into the usual nightmare. So, as Australia dozes fitfully under the spectre of anti-immigration, climate-sceptic, religious-right populism (and that’s just the Labor Party), the question remains: is there someone who will stand up for the real issues?
Meanwhile – here’s a reality check: just watch out for the spin.