We may well be a long way out from the next federal election, relegating opinion polls to mere curiosities, but this week’s drop in public approval for Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has still gotta hurt.
It takes a certain something to have a lower approval rating than Mr Unpopular himself, with one poll suggesting only 40% approve of Shorten’s performance compared with 45% for Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
Theories abound as to the cause: Shorten’s close connection to the union movement, the colour of his tie, the set of his jib or the unfortunate alternative translation of his initials have all been suggested.
The real reason may be that Shorten has not yet found his genuine voice as the new(ish) leader of the opposition. Australians are notoriously sensitive to authenticity: their finely tuned bullshit meters can identify a fake from 50 paces, be it a newsreader, a prodigal sports star, or a salesperson (although they do seem to make an exception for the Easy Off Bam Man).
As was recently noted on Twitter by the astute @netnurse2 after seeing footage of Shorten at a rally, he’s “better with a megaphone than a microphone”. That’s because Shorten was using his genuine voice, that of the union activist who had a bit of mongrel and a lot of passion.
Shorten’s lost that authentic voice since becoming leader of the opposition. Now he adopts a sing-song cadence in parliament and press conferences eerily similar to that of the Stepford PM that we saw during the 2010 federal election before she shrugged off her minders and unleashed The Real Julia™.
Not coincidentally the impromptu speech now known as Gillard’s ‘misogyny speech’ struck a chord with voters because of its authenticity and passion as well as its important subject matter.
Genuineness was the edge that Anthony Albanese had over Shorten during the competition for leadership of the Labor Party. Grassroots Labor voters (and not a few onlookers) felt a vital connection with Albo’s no frills demeanour and style, which beamed authenticity compared with the restrained, statesmanlike approach that Shorten adopted for the campaign.
Having proved that it takes more than authenticity and passion to get the numbers in the ALP party room, Shorten has since struggled to convert this moderate persona into a nevertheless tenacious opposition leader. It would appear that so far his attempts have not rung true with the Australian people.
Abbott is having a similar problem, with his attempts at appearing moderate and considered often coming across to voters as hesitance, obdurance and deviousness.
Meantime, other politicians with genuine voices are showing Abbott and Shorten how it’s done. There’s Nick Xenophon, the wacky self-promoter with an unshakeable quest to curb the excesses of the gaming industry, and Andrew Wilkie, the former military man and whistleblower. Liberal backbencher Sharman Stone fits the bill, risking the wrath of her leader and making an unambiguously career-limiting move by standing up and honestly speaking out on behalf of the SPC Ardmona workers in her electorate.
Then there’s Bill Glasson, the failed Liberal candidate in Kevin Rudd’s former seat of Griffith (admittedly not an actual politician) whose authenticity and consequent strong personal following had a least a part to play in the uncommon swing towards the government in the by-election. The successful candidate, Labor’s Terri Butler, has also demonstrated in a short space of time that she’s the real deal with a straight-talking and warm but grounded style.
Finally there’s Clive Palmer and Cathy McGowan, bench buddies in the federal parliament and break-the-mold politicians who’ve captured the attention of Australians ever since they declared their respective candidacies in 2013. Both MPs derive their genuine voices from being fearless, forthright and in touch with what ‘real’ people think.
Granted, none of these genuine voices are threatened or potentially constrained by the responsibilities that come with having a leadership role in a major party. But then again, this didn’t stop Bob Hawke, Paul Keating or even John Howard from being seen as genuine.
It may be true, to further mangle the old adage, that if you can fake authenticity, you’ve got it made. But this doesn’t apply to our politicians. The price of political fakeness in Australia is high. And our voters are not shy about extracting that price, either through unnecessarily early opinion polls or the ballot box on polling day.
Who do you think has or had a genuine voice in politics?
Watch The Hoopla’s Jane Waterhouse discuss the issue with the Studio 10 panel:
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MORE ARTICLES BY PAULA MATTHEWSON
*Paula Matthewson has worked in and around federal politics for nearly 25 years, variously as a media adviser and lobbyist but now as a freelance writer. She’s been tweeting and blogging about politics, the media and social media since 2009, and in 2013 founded the popular group blog AusOpinion. She blogs at Drag0nista’s Blog and tweets as @Drag0nista.