It was auspicious that on election night Prime Minister Julia Gillard referred to Bill Clinton’s remarks about the impossibly close result between George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000: “the people have spoken but it's going to take a little while to determine exactly what they've said.”
To be sure, Australia has a different form of democracy to the United States. In Australia we do not directly elect our Prime Minister, and the PM is not separated from the Parliament. By contrast the American President has executive power which is distinct from Congress. Despite these facts our latest federal election campaign resembled America’s presidential race because it quickly became all about the party leaders. Even past PMs from both parties featured more than the current deputies and cabinet members running alongside Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott.
The 2000 presidential campaign provides some interesting points of comparison with our election because the results of both were so close that days (if not weeks) of counting and recounting votes have been needed. Moreover, both have had legal issues (ours far more minor), and each campaign had an incumbent candidate who wished their predecessor would vanish from sight (in 2000 the then Vice President Al Gore was dogged by his decision to distance himself from the controversial yet charismatic Clinton).
However the “Gush and Bore” presidential race is not the only one that warrants comparison: the tight contest in 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon also offers important parallels. 1960 was the first time that campaigns were brought to the public primarily via television. This meant that advertising principles reached a new level in informing strategy and determining the winner. What we saw in Australia this year was advertising strategy in the form of slogans, stage management and rehearsed lines on a level not yet seen in this country. Not only was the campaign historically significant for this reason, but was made doubly so by the backlash both major parties faced thanks to the breaking down and decoding of these tactics by a sophisticated media and healthily cynical public.
Nowhere was this decoding better exemplified than on the ABC’s Gruen Nation which averaged 1.6 million viewers and whose producer Jon Casimir noted that “politics, for better or worse, has been a subset of advertising and [become] part of an image-making science. There is incredible control of the brand.”
It is worth noting at this point that perhaps the most memorable event in the 1960 presidential race was the debate where those listening on radio gave the victory to Nixon, whereas the larger audience watching on TV saw a tired and sweaty looking Vice President who had refused to wear make up, and considered the youthful looking Kennedy the victor. Brand Kennedy went on to win office.
A happy sounding bunch of 50’s style adult voices sang the jingle for JFK’s ads. “Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy …” went the song. Fast-forward to Australia in 2010 and things looked eerily similar. All that had been added to repetitive words were the odd verb about “moving”, “standing up” or “stopping”.
The morning midway through the campaign when the Prime Minister decided to morph into the “real” Julia Gillard was in itself testimony to how contrived the campaign had become. You can imagine the scene the evening before as the PM sat down with her “Hollowmen” who said something like “let’s face it, this campaign is boring even us to tears. What we are missing is authenticity. We need you to come out tomorrow with a football metaphor about how playing it safe is not the Gillard way”.
From that point on we saw some improvement from both leaders as they made themselves available for longer question and answer dialogues where they couldn’t simply recite their short-grab spin.
It is understandable that Tony Abbott was given instructions to appear as a moderate in the eyes of the electorate after building a reputation under John Howard as a head kicker and maverick. He, too, had bored us all at the first and only leader’s debate (otherwise known as the thing some of us watched before the MasterChef final).
Australians were crying out for some personality and a little humanity from their political leaders, and eventually they received it in the final weeks of the campaign. Both leaders had made policy blunders while in office and it was gratifying to hear them at least hint at past mistakes instead of ignoring them completely.
Still, if the case of the 1960 presidential election tells us anything positive for us today it is that the style over substance bias that television has brought to campaigns does not always result in poor leadership. As history would show, Kennedy was more fit for office than Nixon. From day one of his presidency JFK’s speeches were sophisticated and rousing, and it was his cool head that averted what could have been nuclear disaster in October of 1962.
Nothing attests to the power of the individual’s democratic voice than when a President takes power or a government is formed by a margin of literally a handful of votes. Let’s hope that the underwhelming nature of campaign 2010 and the initially inconclusive result is eclipsed by a people reinvigorated by a sense of each person’s worth in our democratic system and a government that prizes the opportunity to lead from the front.
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