“Boring is Inexcusable”

“Boring is Inexcusable”

Can politics be funny? It is if you’re Rowan Dean, political satirsit for the Australian Financial Review and editor of The Spectator Australia. Rowan is an expert in peeling away the politician’s spin, revealing what they’re really trying to say whilst leaving us in fits of laughter. Read on for his take on the dumping of Tony, what we can expect from Malcolm, why you can’t lie in advertising, Britain under Margaret Thatcher, dancing with Princess Diana and why ‘boring’ is inexcusable.
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Mon Droit: In your book Beyond Satire, you write of the Gillard government, ‘I couldn’t imagine how farcical the whole schmozzal would become.’ Does the same apply to the Liberal government?
Rowan Dean: Absolutely, no question about it. I wasn’t so much surprised because it was obvious from last Christmas that Malcolm Turnbull and others were agitating for this to happen. Once that begins, it can only end with one of them stepping down. I was extremely disappointed because I think that in doing this the Liberal Party have trashed more than one of their core brand values; stability, loyalty. It’s not one of those things you can try and repair, it’s gone. They’ll have to find other values to replace that.
MD: Is it a political backflip since they campaigned on stability?
RD: It was a massive backflip from Turnbull, particularly in light of that speech he made about Kevin Rudd. The hypocrisy of Turnbull in light of that speech is just off the scale. Those who voted for Turnbull put their own self-interest first; they would argue it’s the self-interest of the nation because they believe that this ensures the re-election of the coalition government. That’s a valid argument, but it relies on the assumption that Abbott would not have been re-elected. I think Abbott would have been re-elected, so I don’t think that argument holds.
MD: You were a Q&A panellist on the night of the spill. You said that Malcolm Turnbull’s challenger speech was a disgrace. Do you still hold to these views?
RD: Well, the main reason for the emotional part of it is that if you accept the argument that Abbott was given time to improve his polling figures and to put the Liberal Party back on a firm footing, the only possible way of testing that was the Canning by-election. So without the Canning by-election. Without that, you had to rely on the opinion polls to rely on whether he’d met that six month test or not. But every politi cian says that the opinion polls count for nothing compared to an actual vote. So why, five days before a true test of Abbott, would you do the spill? The only conclusion is that they believed Canning would be won well and settle the leadership issue once and for all. The reason I say it was disgraceful is because they did not give Tony Abbott the chance to pass the test that was set for him.
MD:Not everyone agreed with the Spectator’s hard line against the coup. One reader wrote ‘It’s high time Rowan Dean accepted the view of a large section of the Australian voting public and accept and support the leadership.’ Should we support Turnbull?
RD: I think we should support the actions of the government if they are aligned to what we thought we voted for. Ultimately the test of Turnbull will be the policies he sticks to or doesn’t stick to. Much of the criticism of Abbott was personality driven; the left didn’t like him, it didn’t matter what he did. It would be unfair for Tunrbull to be criticised because people don’t like him. The judgement from conservatives should be: is he doing what this government was voted in to do? If he does do that, he should be praised.
MD: Your satire of Turnbull always criticises his communication skills. Why do you paint it as ‘waffling’?
RD: There’s a point to that; if you look at the waffle, he is trying to have it both ways. The reason it’s waffle is because he says ‘well, a yet b, c yet d.’ That allows the listener to hear what they want to hear; both sides think Turnbull is with them. The waffle is a technique to avoid committing; it’s only once he has to commit that the troubles will start.
MD: Why did the left-wing media hate Abbott so much?
RD: He stuck to his points and he was often right, particularly on the boats. The issue of stopping the boats throughout the last four years of Labor; I cannot tell you the hours and hours of lecturing I got whilst sitting on chat shows, from people saying ‘You have no idea, it’s impossible to stop the boats, they can’t be stopped.’ It was all nonsense. I remember having this argument with Peter Van Onselen who said to me ‘So what you’re saying is that the mere fact that Tony Abbott is in control will stop the boats?’ I said yes. The reason is psychology. Once that first boat is turned around, the people smugglers will think ‘Crikey, we’re up against a guy who means business, there’s no point.’
MD: You said on the night of the spill ‘It’s not about salesmanship; it’s about having the right policies.’ Isn’t that counter-intuitive from a former advertising man?
RD: Advertising gets a bad rap. When I started my advertising career in the UK, the common saying in creative advertising was that it needed to be legal, decent, honest and truthful. There was no point in trying to advertise something with a lie.
A good salesman is about selling a product, regardless of whether it’s any good, convincing people to part with money. But advertising is about lengthy long term persuasion to a point of view, and you’ll be found out if you have lied. The consumer will never come near you again. Turnbull is a salesman, because he said he could sell the product better than anyone else. Well, maybe. But not if you change the product. So is Turnbull the salesman, or is he going to change the nature of the product?

Thatcher was inspirational. I actually remember, as a messenger boy, carrying parcels through Leicester Square, piled high with rubbish, avoiding rats running around my feet. That was 1979 London. That was the tail end of a decade of Labour rule, where Labour and the unions had destroyed that country. At the time, Thatcher was a hero.

MD: Who is the Spectator’s audience?
RD: Predominantly conservatives, but not exclusively. People who are interested in politics, culture and the arts, and have a sense of humour. If you don’t have a sense of humour, it’s not the magazine for you. If you’re politically correct, it’s not the magazine for you. If you’re interest in ideas that are off-beat or fresh, then it’s for you. The readers are everything from 19 years old to 90. It’s provocative, insightful and engaging. All journalism should be that but it isn’t; there’s now so much political correctness; that’s just boring. Boring is inexcusable.

MD: You dropped out of ANU when you were 19 and moved to London. What was that like?
RD: I thought I had to go and get on with my life; it was an impatience to get doing things. I was lucky to be stone broke in London, in desperate need of a job, and getting a job as a messenger boy in an advertising agency. That was in the Thatcher period; the famous period. It was a fantastic period. Thatcher was inspirational. I actually remember, as a messenger boy, carrying parcels through Leicester Square, piled high with rubbish, avoiding rats running around my feet. That was 1979 London. Our street we lived in was the same. And that was the tail end of a decade of Labour rule, where Labour and the unions had destroyed that country. At the time, Thatcher was a hero. I remember sitting in the cinema and there was a fantastic ad that came on and it was a long queue. Nothing in London in those days worked; queues were everywhere and everything was a hassle. The ad was about that; it wasn’t a queue for the cinema, it was a queue for welfare, a queue for unemployment. It was the ad that ushered in the Thatcher victory. It tied my two interests together; advertising and politics. Thatcher used advertising very effectively. It was the single simple message that had an absolute kernel of truth behind it because people could see it; you could walk out of that cinema and see the rubbish and the rats and the queues; you knew the place wasn’t working. The advertising was true and it worked. How Britain came out of that period compared to the rest of Europe was phenomenal.


MD: As a satirist, what is your role in the national debate?
RD: The point of satire is to make a point. Jokes for the sake of jokes don’t work. Just like advertising, it has to have a truth behind it. I will be told on Twitter endlessly how desperately unfunny, pathetic, useless, should never have been born and all the rest, every time my column comes out on Saturday. To some people my column is very funny; to others it is just turgent drivel. But both are right, because if you don’t accept the premise behind what I’m writing, then it would be boring and baffling.
MD: Is satire important in engaging people in politics?
RD: Absolutely. The British and the French have a long history of it. Until it gets nasty and vicious, it’s one of the things that makes politics highly enjoyable. You want to laugh at political leaders, but the satirist’s job is to peel back the spin, to show what they’re really mean and why they’re doing it. The motivation behind politicians is the fascinating thing. You put yourself inside Turnbull’s head or Rudd’s head – Rudd’s head is a great place to be in!
MD: Do you think your satire can undermine the importance of the debate?
RD: No. The Left have been so successful in suggesting that debate must operate within certain parameters; so here are your parameters, now go away and have your free speech within them. Garbage. You should look at things from whatever angle you can and we don’t get that enough.

I cannot tell you the hours and hours of lecturing I got whilst sitting on chat shows, from people saying ‘You have no idea, it’s impossible to stop the boats, they can’t be stopped.’ It was all nonsense.

MD: Do you think young people contribute meaningfully to politics, or do they lack the life experience required?
RD: In terms of politics, their ability to bring ideas and talent to the table, I think the idea that’s being pushed by Turnbull so he could get Wyatt Roy into his ministry; the idea that you can have youthful kids as cabinet ministers is nonsense. The idea that you could be in cabinet without serious experience of either life or business or running an organisation is flawed.
MD: Nick Cater and Paul Kelly have pointed out that the divide in our politics transcends Labor/Liberals; it’s now a divide between the cultural progressives and the cultural conservatives; do you agree?
RD: I do. But I think the real difference is between the dreamers and the pragmatists. The dreamers, who are often very well educated, believe that this kind of utopia is achievable if we all just wish and hope enough. The pragmatists, because they actually work in small business, as tradies, in the real world earning money, where they have to fight for every job and compete with someone who’s cheaper or has a cleverer idea; they know you have to work hard and be pragmatic in order to deliver results. Dreamers don’t deliver results. So weirdly the shift has come about where there is this huge class of people who live in a fantasy world devoid of ever having got their hands dirty, doing a job; creating wealth.
MD: Did you really once dance with Princess Diana?
RD: Yes I did, she was delightful. But then Charles stood on my wife’s foot and called me some names; but I’m still a monarchist; what’s going on?

(An edited form of this image originally appeared as the front cover for The Spectator Australia in September 2015).

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