Sunday, July 18, 2010

Leadership, Persona and Self-effacement

We are now entering a new election campaign in Australia. and the world is a-twitter with conjectures and interpretations of what the future holds. Because the campaign is a brief five weeks, and because media need to focus their energies, a contemporary Australian election campaign is incredibly leader-focussed. Of course, this is only marginally different than the extended campaigns of American politics, or the slightly shorter British version or even the in-between Canadian campaign. What all of these democracies share is a simplification of politics on leadership and election campaigns both highlight this structure and concentrate its delivery.

In the Australian campaign, we have the newly acknowledged Labor leader and Prime Minister, Julia Gillard jockeying with the Leader of the Opposition and the Coalition of the Liberal and National parties, Tony Abbott. There are many interesting dimensions to explore related to the political persona and elections permit a microscopic study and analysis of this form of presentation and representation; but perhaps one of the most interesting phenomena of the last 15 years is how the political leader has to demonstrate their capacity to be ridiculed, to be the object and subject of humour and its sometime companion, humiliation - and the leader has to do this with a jocularity that they can take it and they enjoy the process. In a more general sense, political leaders have had to cross the divide between entertainment and politics and permit their "personalities" to become part of popular culture as they campaign for their political lives. We might remember the pantheon of key images of the cross between the popular and the political engaged in by politicians: Bill Clinton with his saxophone on the Arsenio Hall back in June 1992; Paul Keating and John Hewson both appearing on the Australian comedy/sports program Live and Sweaty; Barack Obama with his iconic appearance on Oprah; a myriad of successful and unsuccessful New York and national politicians hosting Saturday Night Live. In the American context, there is now the regular crossover moment occurring with Comedy Central's The Daily Show and The Colbert Report and Showtime's Real Time with Bill Maher.

We can expect that in the current Australian campaign this "playing" of politics with comedy to continue. In fact, Australia demands this quality in their politicians may be more than other parts of the world because a self-deprecating humour is such a quintessential Australian characteristic.

So Julia Gillard's recent interview (14 July) on the comedy drive-home nationally networked radio program Hamish and Andy began to establish her credentials of self-effacement. In the at-times nonsensical interview, Gillard had to answer questions about what she had to do with the leftover stationary from Kevin Rudd's prime ministership and whether she needed to cross out his name and write her own to save both money and the environment. And in looking for appropriate rhymes with her name, Hamish riffed on the idea of "Jule's Rules". Julia laughed appropriately and improvised as best she could in the interview. She acknowledged that she was the clumsiest person in the world and would perhaps win a knitting contest with Tony Abbott, but not any sporting contest.

All of this points to a breaking down of gravitas around political leadership and may identify some other developments that have been accumulating over the last 20 years. Certainly the intercommunicative dimension of contemporary life and politics demands a personalisation of politics. One has to maintain a connection to a political audience through tweets, facebook sites, media appearances, youtube re-presentations, which are added to by consumer/political junkie-generated blogs, videos and commentaries. All of these are circulating and informing the flow and significance of television programs and newspaper reports and interviews. Gillard's interview on Hamish and Andy could be seen simply as a way to attach to a more youthful audience demographic to ensure her future election; but it also could be seen as part of a wider trend that breaks down the distinctions between politics and popular culture and where politicians have to reveal greater aspects of their personal life. Within that revelatory culture, one has to acknowledge that these moments reveal but they are also further constructions of identity and persona. Self-effacing flattens the politician to make them part of their audience and not some distant representation.

Self-effacement of the political persona is an interesting contemporary development which may also point to a more dramatic change in our forms of legitimation of politics. Are these signs of how our system of representation - and specifically political representation - is breaking down in their capacity to represent the populace? Are our political leaders losing that capacity to embody? Are we seeing signals of how the representational regime of both politics and media is being eroded by a system of presentation and personalisation?


Gillard image - Reuters, Andrew Taylor 17 July 2010

Abbott Gillard photo - ABC News online 17 July 2010

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