Over their heads

Thursday, 27 September 2007 

Two celebrity politicians were in the national media with varying degrees of success yesterday.

Comparing Peter Garrett to the ALP candidate for Boothby, Nicole Cornes may seem a broad brush, but they have some interesting features that point to the current state of the party that chose them.

Labor’s use of high profile candidates is not new, of course. But past bussed-in candidates like Cheryl Kernot or Carmen Lawrence, tended to have gained their profile in the political world. What is striking about the crop of current (and recent) celebrity candidates like Garrett, McKew and Cornes is that their profile comes from outside politics. In fact not only is their ability to have a name outside the political world an asset, but there is a sense where they make a virtue out of their political amateurism and not being from the political world. In a way, these are anti-politics politicians.

Entering politics while setting up themselves up distinct from politicians is fairly contradictory, but Garrett and McKew at least have special situations that help them get away with it. Garrett is Labor’s spokesperson for a global political trend that has not yet translated to a domestic agenda. So his stance on climate change can be presented as an act of faith rather than policy and his detachment from normal politics has not been too much of a problem. The government, which had been very slow picking up that pragmatism is not the issue in global warming, clearly believed that Garrett would be exposed as an extreme flake and his earlier amateurish performances would have given them hope. Instead it is the government that is battling anti-politics cynicism every time it tries to convince the public people it has seen the light on the issue. As seen on Lateline last night, Garrett is now settling in the role in a way that looked good compared to Downer and Turnbull who were on earlier talking about the same topic. However, when Garrett strays from climate change, e.g. with the Tasmanian pulp mill issue, his ability not to appear like an ordinary politician becomes much harder.

Maxine McKew’s special role as ‘giant killer’ against Howard allows her to use her outsider status both to avoid being politically presumptuous, but also to distance herself from the tedious anti-Howard frenzy that Labor supporters can work themselves up in. Her distancing from the boring ‘Not Happy John’ campaign was not only a sound move for this reason, it was also necessary to avoid being seen as out of the mainstream political process altogether. The political amateurism of these non-professional politicians can cut both ways.

This balancing act between counter-posing against the political class while trying to be part of it has been much more difficult to manage with Nicole Cornes. Yesterday’s muck-up on ABC radio has created a fuss in Adelaide that shows this is not just about a stumble by a Labor candidate in a fairly safe Liberal seat. It has brought out controversy over the credibility of celebrities, politicians and the media.

It started just after the announcement of her candidature last April. She admitted she wasn’t even an ALP or union member, had voted for Howard in the past and even, it is reported, for her current opponent in Boothby. Worst of all, she refused to enter into discussions with the media on policy until she was up to speed. The latter was especially attacked by the ABC radio’s Matt Abraham who she turned down for an interview preferring a lighter rival station because as Abraham told his listeners back in May “she said that ‘your show is different. You ask serious questions; they’re not going to give me any hard questions … it’s going to be a soft interview’.” The subsequent phone-in was not totally condemning Cornes as an ABC report at the time suggested. There was a bit of a go at the ABC itself from callers who thought it was conducting a vendetta and some viewed a candidate who didn’t want to talk about policy until they were up to speed as refreshingly honest for a politician. Abraham got his revenge yesterday when he got her on the phone and asked for details on Labor’s IR policy on which Cornes stumbled.

Despite her celebrity status, it is really the ordinariness of Cornes’ reaction to the political process that is causing the fuss. Refusing to talk to reporters after admitting not being up to speed on policy must clearly annoy a media that likes to see politicians play the game for the reporter’s benefit and bluster their way through. But it must be Labor supporters and members who are irritated most of all to see a Howard-voting candidate just step in over them to a campaign for a seat on the basis that such a person would be best to win over traditional Liberal voters. The Advertiser poll on Boothby that kicked it all off yesterday showed the Liberal primary at 44% (down 7%) and Labor’s at 29% (down 7%). Where that would settle down on 2PP was not that clear (not helped by the Advertiser publishing the split to be 54:24!) but it would be safe to argue that there would be more protesting Labor voters coming back to Labor in preferences than Liberals returning to their party.

Rudd’s tactic in Boothby may not be working that well, but his use of candidates from outside the party would seem feasible given how soft the Liberal vote is. However, it also has internal consequences. These candidates Garrett, McKew and Cornes all have one other thing in common besides their celebrity status, they are non-aligned to any faction. Rudd’s ending of his attendance at right faction meetings since becoming leader and resistance to meeting power-broker demands on the shadow ministry signal a decline in the power of the factions. These new candidates, more reliant on the leadership for their entry into parliament than any faction, may begin at celebrities but are likely to become more of a feature of the make-up of the Parliamentary Party as Rudd remakes the ALP.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 27 September 2007.

Filed under State of the parties

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