WHICH HAVE been the great Australian political actors? Bob Hawke most personified the ethos: lived hard, played hard, needed public adoration, happier on stage than off. Blubbed easily in front of the camera but not, one imagined, in intimate settings.
Paul Keating was a different sort of performer. The camera loved him and he reciprocated. Relaxed, but arms crossed. Could convincingly argue that up was down and black was white and could display charm, but craved no great love affair with the Australian people.
John Howard in his later years was a very fine actor, understated and disciplined. Quiet anger and indignation on behalf of middle Australia was his forte, but he was good for the one part only. Perhaps the James Stewart of Australian politics: the conservative, stoic Everyman. Except he looked more like Ben Kingsley.
Peter Costello was like Mel Gibson: burnt up the camera lens but too often chewed the scenery. All that mugging and eye-rolling.
Now we hear that opposition leader Tony Abbott has considered, and rejected, acting lessons. This is actually different from those examples above. Politicians take them (and apparently quite a few do) not so they can “pretend,” but the opposite, so they can relax in interviews and find a space to reveal more of themselves. Then they can be “in the moment.” Some can do it naturally, others have to learn.
Two senior ministers who could benefit from acting classes are treasurer Wayne Swan and climate change minister Penny Wong. Both obviously approach interviews with dread, seeing them as events to be survived without blundering. Consequently they stifle themselves, are too scared to engage and simply recite their lines and deflect any opportunity to expand. There’s no personality and no connection. It’s no coincidence that the government has communication problems in these two areas. Families minister Jenny Macklin is another who looks like she’d rather be dentist-side.
But Abbott? He has probably given more interviews over nearly two decades in public life than any political contemporary, and is always up for a chat. More than any other, his personality is on show. Does this guy need help coming out of his shell?
Last month’s health debate with the prime minister was apparently a catalyst for this thinking. But many of Abbott’s problems were of judgement. The two jokes about Kevin Rudd being boring, and the now famous laugh, were obviously premeditated. We can imagine the thinking: polls show Australians are starting to see the PM as all waffle and no action, and Tony was going to call the emperor’s clothes. There, in front of everyone, on behalf of Mr and Mrs Battler he would publicly flay the pompous git with straight-talking and ridicule. Cue a red-faced, tongue-tied and defeated Rudd. Folks in living rooms would chuckle. Good on you Tony.
But it doesn’t work like that and instead Rudd came across as a nerdy, bureaucratic PM interested in policy, while Abbott appeared callow and angry.
At times he looked like he’d come to a different event: he bobbed and weaved and scowled. As he himself said beforehand, he was “toey.”
So maybe Tony is too much “in the moment” and the training would have enabled him to reach down and find and bring out a gentler – dare we say “feminine” – side. That is a more ambitious project than simply revealing your normal personality.
And maybe there simply isn’t a gentle Tony there. Or if there is, would the country have been ready for it? It might be like trying to imagine Robert De Niro playing a flouncing queen: don’t make us go there, please, we know this guy too well.
Good call on the coaching, Tony. Your judgement was right there. •