Gift of the gaffe
With gaffes garnering as much attention as policies at this year’s federal election campaign, statements that warrant further scrutiny and criticism are being overlooked, writes Sam Butler.
I’m fully aware of the irony of what follows: a feature lambasting the declining quality in media coverage of federal elections as embodied by its obsession with gaffes, while simultaneously focusing on said gaffes – and published in a media outlet. I hope you’ll bear with me.
The fact is, election campaigning would be pretty difficult for many MPs, and most probably manage it quite well. For every Jaymes Diaz failing to get past point 1 in the Coalition’s Six Point Plan to Stop the Boats, there are maybe 10 candidates who clearly and comprehensively articulate their parties’ policies when a microphone is thrust in front of them. They’re just not going to make the news because, let’s face it, there’s no drama or comedy when things go well.
And sometimes the gaffes reflect worse on the party itself than the gaffer. Stephanie Banister – the One Nation candidate who thought Islam was a country and Jews followed Jesus, and who offered some fascinating insights into the “haram” (presumably “halal” and “Koran” were battling one another in her mind before finally forming an alliance) – clearly wasn’t ready for federal politics, and probably never will be. But as with the US Republicans’ disastrous choice of Sarah Palin for VP candidate in 2008, shouldn’t the blame lie with those who are supposed to have enough nous to pick decent candidates, let alone allow them to speak to national media?
Tony Abbott – arguably this election campaign’s greatest gaffer (so far, anyway) – is certainly someone who should know better. He’s not some backbencher or member of a fringe party – he’s most likely going to be our next PM. He’s been opposition leader for several years now, and was a senior government minister for several years before that. He’s been subject to media coverage for the better part of 20 years, and was once himself a journalist.
If there’s one person who should know by now how to keep his foot out of his mouth while the cameras are rolling, it’s Tony Abbott. Yet apparently, he still hasn’t learnt.
That said, there are degrees to even his gaffes. Claiming Kevin Rudd is not the “suppository of all wisdom” was highly unfortunate, but surely we’ve all on occasion not just let slip out the wrong word, but the worst possible wrong word we could’ve chosen in that particular context.
His other “gaffes”, on the other hand, aren’t so much gaffes as troubling insights into his true character, and deserve a decent amount of scrutiny. No other employer in the country would be able to publicly describe an employee as having “sex appeal”, for example, without making himself liable to a sexual harassment charge. Just imagine, a few months from now, a befuddled employer hauled before the Fair Work Commission seeking forgiveness. “I thought it was OK, Commissioner – the PM says it about his people all the time!”
And imagine if a PM-in-waiting claimed he wouldn’t change his mind about advancing indigenous rights because he doesn’t believe in “radical change based on the fashion of the moment”? Trivialising marriage equality and same-sex couples in this way is no gaffe, it’s a dog whistle – yet another example of Abbott saying something extreme and/or offensive, then partially retracting it and claiming he’d been taken out of context or chose his words poorly, yet all the while the whistle has been blown and heard by bigots everywhere.
The problem now is that the media covering this election campaign has become so obsessed with capturing “gotcha” moments that gaffes are being confused with statements that deserve further scrutiny and – in the case of several Abbottisms – criticism. “Suppository of all wisdom” has nothing to do with government policy or the Coalition’s agenda should it win government, but dismissing marriage equality as a “fashion” is a strong clue as to what chance it may have under PM Abbott (very little, clearly).
You can’t blame comedy shows seeking mileage out of MPs saying stuff that’s worthy of ridicule. Indeed, several of these gaffes have even made it as far as The Daily Show in the US and no doubt made Australian politics a laughing stock on an international scale.
And that’s OK – free speech and satire are wonderful things, when done well. But we need to be clear about what is a “gaffe” and what is an antagonistic, agenda-revealing statement from somebody seeking to be the next prime minister. Our media should focus on the latter, and leave the former to the comedians.