Scrolling through the average Australian’s Facebook newsfeed, you could be forgiven for thinking the social media behemoth had been bought out by someone harbouring a serious grudge against Tony Abbott. Recently, acerbic posts that delight in deriding Abbott have outnumbered the filtered pictures of food and vines that tend to dominate the online scene. And they’re not just coming from anti-Liberal sources. From the non-partisan ABC to the crass—yet oddly amusing—Tony Abbott’s on Pingas page, Antipodeans of many political persuasions have united to satirise our nation’s leader.
But here’s the rub: there’s little substance behind them. Before the federal budget was announced, you’d have been hard pressed to find a non-news source ripping into the intricacies of Abbott’s policy. Even after it was announced, popular media continued to focus on such banal missteps as Abbott’s mispronunciation of Canada. The budget’s resounding unpopularity was also used to justify republishing Abbott’s funny yet unremarkable moments of stupidity, ignorance, and plain weirdness.
These are the sorts of things we tend to focus disproportionately on in politics—minute stuff-ups of leaders that have little relation to their leadership or policies. Abbott is fast earning the moniker of most unpopular prime minister in Australian history, but the focus on politicians’ perceived mistakes and oddities didn’t begin with him. You only need to cast your mind back a couple of years to remember Julia Gillard’s tumble in India and Kevin Rudd’s tears dominating our news pages and water cooler discussions. But who remembers why Gillard was in India? Who remembers what Rudd was crying over?
It’s possible to explain this situation as a by-product of our modern society, where cameras, phones, and technology have created a Foucauldian’s wet dream. Surveillance of everyone’s behaviour—and intense examination when this falls outside the norm—is now fair game and easier than ever. Yet the exaggeration of minor personal gaffes to define and discredit politicians has been around long before modern technology. It’s certainly been around long before Clive Palmer bounced away his final shred of credibility by tweeting a picture of himself trampolining, captioned “this is more fun than #twerking”…
The ‘90s saw Paul Keating derided and celebrated in equal measure for his sharp-tongued insults towards the Opposition in parliament. They ranged from the witty to the lewd and even vaguely sexual. In 1986, the popular Bob Hawke was ridiculed for mistaking a light globe exploding for an assassination attempt. Even our first prime minister Edmund Barton found himself on the receiving end of some Victorian-era sass when The Bulletin called him “Tosspot Tony”. They gave him the nickname because of the club-like way he conducted parliament, rather than because of anything he did.
Perhaps the historical trend toward scrutinising politicians’ superficialities comes back to our inherent laziness; it’s easier to invest in the person than the policies. But even then, we focus almost all on the bad. The good a politician does is often regarded as contrived at best and cringeworthy at worst.
We thrive on the schadenfreudistic kick that comes from seeing politicians fuck up because it brings them down to our level. It humanises them in a way that goes beyond anything PR can achieve; it exposes their capacity to make mistakes.
Maybe this is why Abbott seems to have copped so much slack for his slip-ups. Abbott maintains an air of unwavering righteousness, asserting that we should have expected him to double-back on virtually all his pre-election promises. Thus it’s especially sweet when he does anything that undermines this construction.
Whoever Australia’s next Prime Minister will be, they’ll likely be subject to the same intense lampooning over the littlest things, no matter how popular they are. Bar us actually meeting them, it’s the best way we can reduce them to a level of normalcy. For as long as our leaders harbour the potential to screw us politically, we’ll be waiting for the chance to expose their own personal screw-ups. Fingers crossed they fare a little better than Abbott, though.