The reason I am not a politician is that I want to understand.
That’s what the French political scientist Raymond Aron said when asked why he hadn’t gone into politics. The remark came to mind when I saw the number of politicians and ex-politicians in this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival line-up. Maybe there’s room for a separate Sydney Politicians’ Festival, or a Sydney Politicians’ and Political Journalists’ Festival.
Whatever misgivings I might have had, I turned up with 1600 or so others at the Town Hall last night to hear Lenore Taylor, Bob Ellis, George Megalogenis, Bob Carr, Barrie Cassidy and Kerry O’Brien chat under the heading, ‘A Good Leader Is Hard to Find’. Kerry O’B was moderator, and the first thing he did, whether deliberately or not, was to reframe the discussion. He announced the title as ‘Good Leadership Is Hard to Find’. I breathed a tiny sigh of relief, as the shift away from the personal made it a bit less likely that we’d be treated to misogyny-flavoured wit at Julia Gillard’s expense.
The composition of the panel – four political journalists, five if you count Bob ‘Sui Generis’ Ellis, and a former politician who was also once a journalist – made it inevitable that the discussion would focus on the relationship between politicians and the media. There seemed to be consensus that we lack effective or convincing leadership in the Australian parliament, that the interplay between the politicians and the relentless 24-hour news cycle is partly to blame, and that the attention both of them pay to opinion polls adds toxin to the brew. Our leaders are so busy feeding the media beast they don’t have time to think. They’re reduced to selling a message rather than advocating a case, performing rather than communicating. Political coverage is dominated by opinion polls, leadership challenges and early election speculation, with not a lot of room forin depth analytic conversation. Gone are the days when the Prime Minister would chat with journalists at the end of a long day and explain his/her thinking about proposed legislation – when Paul Keating would say to Lenore Taylor, ‘Love, this is what you need to know. The discussion was refreshingly free of blame: the way the media works has changed, and neither the politicians nor the journalists have figured out how to deal with the new reality.
There were no revelatory insights, but it was an interesting evening. Ellis and Carr stood out as phrase-makers, Carr describing himself as an amateur historian, Ellis enacting his familiar contrarian persona. For example, Carr:
In a democracy the normal relationship between people and their elected representatives is mistrust and dissatisfaction. It’s the job of the people to be disillusioned. It’s the job of politicians to disillusion.
Ellis, when asked why the ALP doesn’t adopt what he had just described as an obvious strategy
They do research instead of thinking.
It’s not that the others lacked flair, but as working journalists perhaps they were a little more willing to let the facts get in the way of a good story. So after Bob C made his fourth or fifth remark on the theme that things may be bad but they’ve been ever thus, George M said, ‘I’ve followed many election campaigns but this was the first one where the main candidates feared the electorate.’ And when Ellis spoke of the minority government as ushering in a new era of negotiation and persuasion in parliament, Lenore challenged him: ‘And you’ve seen this happen with which piece of legislation?’
The journoes have their own unrealities. George M told us how his faith in the electorate had been restored when ‘they’ decided to choose neither side of politics at the last election, but to have a hung parliament. No one on the panel said, ‘George, you’re talking nonsense. No one made that decision. All the millions of actual deciders chose one or the other. There was no “Neither” option on the ballot paper.’
There was half an hour of questions. Only one person mistook the microphone for a soapbox.