In the very late 1990s I was in my late teens and in my first serious-ish job as a dogsbody for a political party. When you’re in Opposition and campaigns run on the smell of an oily rag, junior staff do a little of everything, from the menial to the major, and very occasionally even the memorable.
During this time, I was a hanger-on in a live-action display inside the Myer windows in Bourke Street. With a small handful of senior staffers, I stood to the side of the kitchen installation as our candidate made laksa in front of a bemused crowd.
Laksa was on my mind when I saw Scott Morrison bent over that salon basin. And it was laksa again for me when he whipped out that ukulele.
It’s tempting to sneer at these PR stunts. To dismiss them as yet another campaign cliché, akin to my personal favourites of construction site dress-ups and public workouts. Tempting to shrug, to cringe, or to even spend a few hours and 900 words overthinking them.
But rolling our eyes and minimising them as merely the hokey hijinks of the hustings overlooks some fascinating lessons in political communication.
With my social scientist hat on, I’m fixated with measurement. So when I’ve been asked whether these stunts work, I’ve responded by asking what does ‘work’ look like? Do I think those of us who’ve been cataloguing four years of Morrison catastrophes and cruelties will spontaneously recall him singing a Dragon song and cast a vote his way? Of course not.
So, is there a level on which they do work?
Yep. In fact, there’s at least two.
The PM lacks the charisma to have a Clinton and the sax or Obama slowjam moment. So instead of traversing the country hawking his wares and feigning cool, Morrison just wholeheartedly embraces his inner daggy dad. He’s out and proud about liking his music inoffensively mainstream and he’s seemingly quite pleased with his reception as a White Toast Man. Sure you might be laughing at him but he wants you to think he’s in on the joke. That he knows he’s a little bit cringe and that that’s perfectly okay. That cringey might even pass as authentic.
Such stunts are about giving him a little personality and relatability to those inclined to support him. They’re about making him seem too vanilla and innocuous to really be a psycho. And some of his base will find all that ‘normal white bread’-ness familiar if not even a welcome retort to those who eschew a solid slice of Tip Top for some sprouted sourdough. A base who’ll think that in a world of spin and artifice it’s quite refreshing that Scott’s owning his identity as the unslick God-fearing suburban barbecuer who’s just giving this whole prime minister thing a red hot go.
These stunts absolutely work to present the PM to his supporters as a man comfortable with his life and who doesn’t care about what the mean kids on Twitter say. They also work to platform a man with no capacity to make anyone feel inadequate—something important in a world where ‘too smart’ can, alas, be a grave deficit.
More interestingly though, such stunts also work to antagonise the haters.
For followers of US politics, the idea of ‘owning the libs’ will be familiar. It’s the well-worn routine used by conservatives to trigger detractors and savour them melting down in their indignation. While conservatives in Australia have yet to demonstrate great aplomb in this arena, it doesn’t mean they don’t try. When the PM’s media team booked him into that salon and when they invited Karl Stefanovic around for curry and a sing-a-long, of course they knew they were choreographing scenes tailormade for derision. So when his critics—those who’ve already pegged and condemned Morrison as a liar, a God-botherer, a ducker-and-weaver—lampoon his Saturday night curries and feel revolted that his perception of 2022 womanhood centres around beauty parlour gossip, we look predictably petty. Equally, we look just plain mean when criticisms of his use of his wife, of his daughters are levelled, even though he’s the one actively deploying them for reputation rehabilitation. Media-savvy onlookers know all about beleaguered men using lady loved ones as human shields. But saying anything and we’re the nasty ones grasping at the low hanging fruit. Fruit of the kind he put before us.
So while I’m watching his nonsense through parted fingers or messaging friends to mock his mediocrity, of course I’m being owned. When we’re exerting energies thinking about his stunts and forming any opinions, we’re all getting owned. But it’s not just happening on an individual level. Such stunts not only seize the attention of the #auspol pundits on social media, but work to hijack the news cycle. And it’s here where a comparison to another failed COVID-era leader, Boris Johnson, is useful.
Cast your mind back to 2018. After likening Muslim women in hijabs to bank robbers, journalists flocked to Johnson’s home demanding a response. Eventually a dishevelled Boris buffoons his way outside with a tray of mismatched mugs. And instead of answering questions, he keeps pushing the tea and, more significantly, pushing the distraction. Regardless of whether Johnson’s charm ‘works’ is subjective—some people like the tousled-haired scamp schtick, while others recognise him as a conniving monster—he gets to control what we’re thinking about. And in a world of limited attention spans, the shiny tinfoil just needs to preoccupy us until the next sideshow. And while we’re busy spending energies on the PM’s ukulele—a craftily made-to-be-memed episode if ever there was one—we’re not using our platforms to recite his every failing. And just as that scallywag Johnson is quite content to set the bar low in the hope of stumbling over it, Morrison too makes mileage from getting us to focus on the substantially less hostile terrain of the cringey.
If we’re appraising these stunts as vote-changers, then no, they won’t move the needle. But as tools of personal branding and as means to both distract and dominate the news cycle such stunts absolutely work. If they didn’t, we simply wouldn’t keep having to endure them. Or mock them. Or write about them.
Lauren Rosewarne is an Associate Professor in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne. Her latest book is Why We Remake: The Politics, Economics and Emotions of Film and TV Remakes (Routledge).