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Moments of madness from our polyester politicians

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Aussie voters are quick to decry the age of the robotic politician and plead for a dose of personality. But when our leaders step out from behind their carefully manicured facades, it leaves a bad taste in our collective mouth.

Sometimes it’s disarming, like when Bob Hawke wept on television over his daughter’s drug addiction. Or when the raw emotion of the Queensland flood disaster overcame Premier Anna Bligh at a press conference. They provided a rare glimpse of the human being beneath a carefully crafted suit of media armour and the public response was positive.

But more often, we find it unsettling, even irksome, when leaders say exactly what they think – and overreach.

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In the past week we have seen two such moments: Clive Palmer’s astounding tirade against “Chinese bastards” and “mongrels” and Joe Hockey’s suggestion that increases to the fuel excise wouldn’t hurt the poor because they don’t drive cars.

These were not examples of ‘foot-in-mouth’ disease.

Clive Palmer Addresses National Press Club
Palmer United Party leader Clive Palmer.

The former took place on live TV during a panel discussion. Mr Palmer surely noticed the astounded reactions and wincing, but ploughed ahead anyway.

If he’d have stopped at “bastards”, it could have been written off as a brain fade, but he raised his voice above the audience’s gasps of horror and continued, adding “mongrels” to the list of insults and accusing the Chinese of wanting to take over the Australia.

Palmer has ‘twerked’, spat the dummy, yelled at Senate staff, announced plans to build a replica Titanic and littered a successful golf resort with dinosaurs. We laughed along at his antics, but it wasn’t until he let rip with his personal animosities that we got a peak behind the mask. It was a rare serious moment from the larger-than-life PUP leader that sparked condemnation from his political colleagues.

Joe Hockey, on the other hand, did seem to care about the fallout from his comments regarding the poor.

A glimpse into the mind of Mr Hockey or Mr Palmer is like a glimpse at them in the gym showers – it’s just them in their natural state, but we’d probably wish we hadn’t seen it.

Firstly, he tried to defend them by producing Australian Bureau of Statistics data to support his assertion. When that approach failed, and his colleagues began distancing themselves from his remarks, he caved in and apologised.

Tony Abbott
Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

“I am sorry about the interpretation,” he said, three days after the fact. “I am sorry about the words.”

Some politicians survive these moments and go on to flourish, but for others, it hobbles their leadership aspirations and places them on the path to political purgatory.

A glimpse into the mind of Mr Hockey or Mr Palmer is like a glimpse at them in the gym showers – it’s just them in their natural state, but we’d probably wish we hadn’t seen it.

If they’re looking for tips on how to move forward, they could do worse than to follow the lead of Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

When it comes to escaping the political ramifications of these ‘moments of madness’, Mr Abbott is the Harry Houdini of the Australian parliament.

His most well-known escape act is perhaps his ‘gospel truth’ interview with then 7.30 host Kerry O’Brien.

Then leader of the opposition, Mr Abbott told the ABC host that during the “heat of verbal combat” politicians aren’t always truthful, and only “carefully prepared, scripted remarks” should be taken as “gospel truth”.

At the time, this didn’t go down well.

Yet he survived. And as far as political achievements go, one would have to say becoming PM is right up there.

Former PM Julia Gillard was constantly criticised for her rehearsed, scripted manner. In fact she copped so much flak about it, she made a point of telling the public she would unleash “the real Julia Gillard”. And unleash she did – at Tony Abbott.

The result was her now famous “I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man” speech.

We saw “the real Julia” then: cracking voice, incensed with rage, wagging finger, warts and all.  And on the whole, the public reacted positively.

It was the real Julia that knifed her leader mid-term and unequivocally stated “there would be no carbon tax under a government I lead” that the public wasn’t so keen on.

It’s rare that a moment like this goes down well with voters.

It’s decency we crave. Personality, on the other hand, should be kept under lock and key.

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