A PM’s tears, two words and seventy seconds of silence

February 9, 2011

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.

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Tragedy at Christmas Island

December 15, 2010

This morning a boat from Indonesia, carrying perhaps 70 or 80 asylum seekers reportedly from Iraq and Iran, crashed into the cliffs near Flying Fish Cove on Christmas Island. At the time of writing, it’s not known how many have survived. Acting Prime Minister Wayne Swan confirmed ‘some rescues’ this afternoon, but the full extent of the tragedy is still unfolding.

Footage and pictures from the are shows how the boat broke up in the heavy seas until only debris was left. Christmas Island residents, standing helplessly on the cliffs above, described how they tried to throw lifejackets to the people in the water, only to have them flung back by the high winds. One woman broke down as she told Sky News how she heard screaming, and saw babies children falling into the water. A man who went out on the rocks to try to pull people to safety said he could see people being flung against the rocks by the waves.

The pictures don’t begin to encompass the horror that took place today – and it’s not over yet. Some critically injured people were airlifted to hospitals – but how many of those who survived lost loved ones?

I can’t help but think of the SIEV X disaster, back in 2001. Around 146 children, 142 women and 65 men lost their lives when a dreadfully overcrowded boat sank in international waters. These people, like those in the current situation, were heading for Australia to seek asylum.

Unlike today’s events, though, those deaths happened far away from any cameras. In fact, it was three days before Australia learned of a ‘certain maritime incident’.

Their deaths became the subject of a Senate Select Committee enquiry. They also became political capital in a Federal election that delivered John Howard’s Coalition a decisive victory. The question inevitably arises: just how will this terrible incident be exploited?

Swan stonewalled most media questions that dealt with the wider issue of asylum seeker policy. ‘The rescue is ongoing,’ he said, over and over. ‘The priority … is the rescue.’ Gillard, who was on leave, has cut short her holiday to return to Canberra.

The Coalition’s current spokesperson on Immigration, Scott Morrison, was remarkably circumspect in his comments. He confined himself to saying only that ‘worst fears’ had been realised, in his media conference this afternoon. He also stressed repeatedly that now wasn’t the time to discuss policy. Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop was likewise very careful to avoid making political comments.

A generous interpretation of their behaviour would say that they are showing respect for the situation. A cynical one would point to how dangerous it is to politicise a tragedy before a decent interval has elapsed. For whatever reason, our politicians are currently keeping the focus firmly on the incident.

Much of the media are likewise treading carefully. Comment on asylum seeker policy has been largely restricted to fairly neutral recaps of the history of asylum seeker landings in Australia.

Would that columnists like Andrew Bolt could show a similar level of respect. This afternoon’s blog, entitled ‘Blood on their hands’ is a real piece of work. In Bolt’s mind, apparently, he was a voice crying in the wilderness for at least a year. ‘I told Julia people would die!’ is his refrain. He points his journalistic finger, trembling with indignation, at the Labor government and commands Gillard to resign. After all, these people were ‘lured to their doom by her laws’.

He also finds it necessary to point out that Gillard previously interrupted her holiday to appear with Oprah Winfrey in Melbourne. The implication is clear: she has time to deal with trivia, but it’s doubtful whether she’ll front up and take her lumps for this.

Of course, he prefaces all these remarks with a handy-dandy little graph to show everyone just how terrible Labor’s asylum seeker policy really is – helpfully adorned with a big yellow dot to mark the point when former Prime Minister John Howard instituted the Pacific Solution. Just in case his readers didn’t realise that this was all about denouncing the Labor government.

It’s disgusting. Actually, well beyond disgusting. This isn’t just politicising a tragedy – this is wallowing with morbid glee in death and trauma. Bolt’s one concession to the human beings at the centre of all this is to use the words ‘ghastly tragedy’. Everything else is schadenfreude and exploitation.

Of course, Bolt isn’t the only one quick to shove their heads in front of a camera or a computer in order to join in the political fray. Jonathan Green at The Drum chronicled some of the rush to judgment by both bloggers and commenters.

For once, our politicians are behaving better than those they represent.

Sadly, it’s pretty much guaranteed that this won’t last. All too soon we’ll see the pollies going head to head. The Opposition will probably give us a softer version of Bolt’s rhetoric – and it’s perhaps a blessing that Parliament won’t sit again until February, so we won’t get the full-blown hyperbolic rantings that usually characterise this debate. The government will defend its policies, perhaps conceding to a Senate enquiry that is likely to conclude – as with SIEV X – that there was little Australia could have done to save this latest boat. Of course, if the polls show the Opposition gaining traction, we might see new, ‘tougher’ policy – which would undoubtedly bring the Greens and the Independents into the arena.

All of that is inevitable. As much as we’d like to wish otherwise – that the debate can be sane, rational and above all compassionate – there’s little chance we’ll get more than each party’s message. If we’re very lucky, we might hear Andrew Wilkie deliver a stinging rebuke to both major parties – not that they’ll be listening.

We can shrug and say that’s the nature of politics. And in a way, it is. But it’s my hope – and, I believe, the hope of many Australians – that politicians would keep at the forefront of their minds the fact that many, many people died today in terrifying circumstances. That they listen to the stories of the survivors, and those who risked their own lives to save them. That they know the names of the dead and never forget them.

And above all, that they realise that they have no right – none – to exploit their deaths to make a political point.

Are you listening, Andrew Bolt?

I didn’t think so.


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