It was a day when Parliament was entirely given over to condolence motions to victims of the recent natural disasters, and celebrating the life of Corporal Richard Atkinson, killed in action in Afghanistan earlier this month. It was a day when Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Nationals Leader Warren Truss, among others, almost broke down during their speeches.
And it was a day when the Coalition finally released their proposed budget cuts to pay for flood relief.
All in all, a pretty full news cycle in terms of Australian politics. There was so much to choose from – bipartisanship, stories about those who died in the floods, pulling apart the budget cuts to see if they stacked up. It was a veritable smorgasbord.
So what became the focus of media attention?
A Prime Minister’s tears, two words and seventy seconds of silence.
Julia Gillard’s speech of condolence started fairly conventionally, setting the scene with formal words. Then, a few moments later, there was this:
‘Here today, it’s with very great sorrow that I offer words of condolence to Australians who are now facing this hard journey and to assure them they won’t travel that hard journey alone – we won’t let go Mr Speaker, we won’t let go.’
As she said those words, Gillard’s throat seemed to close over and her voice started to thicken and shake. As she continued, it was clear she was fighting back tears – a fight she lost. It wasn’t until her closing remarks that she was able to compose herself. Even then, as she sat down, she looked shattered, surreptitiously wiping tears away while she listened to Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s speech.
Those watching and commenting via the internet were stunned. There was clear empathy for Gillard, which was summed up by a tweet from @AshGebranious – ‘Behold Australia. The real Julia’.
But then came the unbelievable accusations that Gillard was ‘faking it’. Internet commentary was vicious – the mainstream media was more circumspect, but still …
Andrew Bolt danced around the issue – paraphrased, his blog (published within minutes of the speech’s conclusion) boiled down to, ‘I won’t say she faked it, but it’s awfully interesting that she should cry just when everyone’s talking about how wooden she is’. He developed his theme later in The Daily Telegraph: it was ‘too perfect, and timed too well’. Everyone would always wonder if those tears were real, he opined – not that he thought that, of course. Dennis Shanahan was a little more clever, confining himself to remarks that crying wouldn’t save Gillard in the eyes of Australia. The 3AW blog commented cynically that it was ‘better late than never’.
See what they did there?
It’s not that they disbelieve her. It’s just that she was so ‘wooden’ and ‘robotic’ that, well, it’s difficult to credit. People could be forgiven for distrusting it. Why, only on Monday night people were talking about it on QandA.
Never mind that Warren Truss, hardly renowned for displaying emotional vulnerability, struggled to control his voice during his own speech. There was not even a hint that Truss might be faking it.
Never mind that Gillard – a notoriously private person who struggles to keep her personal life away from her political one – had tears in her eyes during the Apology to the Stolen Generations. That’s long forgotten.
The emotion that Gillard displayed yesterday was very, very real. To believe she was faking, you’d have to credit her with a talent for acting worthy of Oscar nomination. To believe she was faking, you’d have to accept that she is so completely without any moral sense that she would deliberately work herself into a state where she nearly broke down several times just to get a bump in her approval rating.
Watch this video – it’s a small snippet of the whole thing. There’s nothing fake going on.
Then there was the sh*tstorm in a teacup that boiled over on Tony Abbott last night, courtesy of Channel 7.
Over three months ago Abbott, visiting troops in Afghanistan, engaged a group of soldiers in conversation about. The topic was the recent death of Lance-Corporal Jared McKinney. Ostensibly off-camera, the mic was nonetheless live and it was possible to make out what was being said. On being told, ‘”Was everything done perfectly? Absolutely not. Was it tragic? Absolutely,’ Abbott nodded thoughtfully. He replied, ‘It’s pretty obvious that, uh, well, that sometimes shit happens’. At the time, the soldiers appeared to agree, and certainly no one visible in the footage seemed to take offence. Something must have pinged on Liberal strategists’ radars, though, because for the Opposition engaged Channel 7 in an FOI fight to prevent the incident being aired.
Finally confronted with it by reporter Mark Riley, laptop in hand, Abbott replied, ‘Look, you’ve taken this out of context. You weren’t there. I would never seek to make light of the death of an Australian soldier.’ Riley challenged him to supply the context. Abbott’s reaction was extraordinary.
He stood staring at Riley for a full 70 seconds (although only 24 seconds was aired due to time constraints, according to Channel 7’s Jodie Speers), jerking his head rapidly up and down and shaking slightly. Finally he said only, ‘I’ve given you the response you deserve’, and left.
Media and commentwitters alike leaped to their keyboards to get their reactions out. Shock was quickly followed by condemnation, but it wasn’t long before it settled down into a prevailing opinion that there was nothing wrong with what Abbott said, but rather his reaction to being shown the footage – and that the real villain of the piece was Mark Riley.
Laurie Oakes said Abbott was ‘stupid’, while Hugh Riminton described it as an ‘ugly’ day for the Opposition Leader. There was wide support on the internet for the notion that Abbott should simply have punched Riley in the nose for pulling a stunt like that.
Then came the analysis, and the speculation. Abbott was clearly restraining his fury during that long silence. Why didn’t he just deliver the smackdown to Riley? Was he lost for words? Can he just not handle an off-the-cuff situation? Was this the beginning of the end? Would it trigger a leadership spill?
It didn’t stop there. Over twelve hours later, it’s still the lead story. Members of the Australian Defence Force were invited to comment, as were Lance-Corporal McKinney’s family. Anthony Albanese took the opportunity to sink the boot in, trying to create the impression that Abbott was completely insensitive.
And the man himself? Well, he was out on radio early this morning explaining himself with ever-more frayed patience.
All this over two words and seventy seconds of silence.
‘Shit happens’. It’s one of those all-purpose phrases that can mean everything from callous dismissal of another’s trouble to a philosophical observation that sometimes all the preparation in the world can’t prevent things going wrong. In Abbott’s case, it was fairly obvious that he meant the latter. There was nothing insensitive about it. At worst, it was a clumsy attempt at camaraderie – Abbott trying to show rough sympathy to those who were all too familiar with the feeling of being powerless, who know that you simply can’t anticipate every possibility. That sometimes, shit just happens.
The death of a soldier is something that strikes people deeply. Usually it’s someone who is young, perhaps with a young family, who’s put themselves in harm’s way because we have asked them to do so. We hold it almost sacred – you don’t politicise, you don’t criticise, and you certainly don’t exploit it for a sound bite.
Think of the anger and disgust that surges whenever someone comes out on Anzac Day to protest against war. Even people who might ordinarily feel that war is a terrible evil will condemn someone who decides to profane that day.
Now put yourself in Tony Abbott’s shoes. An opportunistic reporter fronts up to needle him about what must have been a very difficult conversation – and chooses to do it on a day when emotions are already raw. The sense of mourning in the Parliament yesterday was very real, and it’s fair to say that few in the chamber were unaffected. Add to that the fact that part of those speeches dealt with the death of another soldier serving in Afghanistan.
Suddenly 70 seconds of silence starts to look pretty understandable, doesn’t it?
Watch the video. The interview starts about 1:30 minutes in, but it’s clear from the surrounding context that the aim was always to exploit Lance-Corporal McKinney’s death.
Sure, as a politician Abbott probably should have had an answer ready to clarify his remarks and rebuke Riley. Maybe he did have one. He knew he was going to be interviewed about his trip to Afghanistan, although perhaps not the specific questions. But when the moment came, Abbott didn’t react as a politician. He was a man furious with someone who exploited a soldier’s death.
What’s remarkable is that Abbott didn’t verbally flay Riley. He held it in and got himself under control enough to shut down the interview. I’m not sure many of us could have had that kind of restraint under the same circumstances.
So in the end, what we saw yesterday were two political leaders who, for a few moments, weren’t politicians. They were vulnerable human beings showing us sorrow and outrage.
In our political milieu, the most frequent criticism of our elected representatives is that they are not ‘genuine’ – that all we get are scripted remarks designed to deflect scrutiny and convey exactly no information, and confected emotion carefully calculated for maximum appropriateness. It’s extraordinary, then, that on a day when we saw politicians revealed as people, they received such vicious criticism. Gillard and Abbott were pilloried for doing exactly what we said we wanted them to do – step out from behind the political masks and show us the ‘real’ people underneath.
It’s a truism that we get the government we deserve. If yesterday is anything to go by, if our leaders retreat to the safety of scripts and media advisors, we have no one to blame but ourselves.