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Australia: Leadership is a sober business, it takes more than a bloke with a beer

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Having elected a Prime Minister whose chief qualification was that he seemed a good bloke to have a drink with, the British people are set to lose him because he was, in any weather and overriding all other considerations, a good bloke to have a drink with.

Might the impending demise of Brand Bojo cause a rethink for Brands Scomo and Albo? Not likely. Brand Scomo has done its summer stint at the cricket, claiming somewhat bizarrely that Australia is "taking wickets with the virus". To increase awareness of Brand Albo, the campaign office of the leader of the federal opposition is circulating "Team Albo Kits" for volunteer workers. The kit includes Albo beer coasters. The rugby league scarves have been laundered and the beer taps charged for a May bloke-off to end all bloke-offs, just when, on the other side of the world, alco-populism has run its course.

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The slow-motion bicycle crash of Boris Johnson's leadership could be a sobering lesson. Before politics, Johnson made a career as a columnist and personal brand. Johnson saw the branding opportunities in self-caricature: the hair (never underestimate the power of populist hair, pace Trump, Hawke, Reagan, Hanson et al.); the wobbly bike riding; the gaffes; the comical attempts at sport. Rather than smooth himself out, Johnson highlighted his personal eccentricities to widen his name recognition and spread the idea that, despite the blue-blood background, this was a man of the people, a nationalist, a maverick straight-talker who knew who he was and when it was his shout.

The chasm between celebrity campaigner and prime minister - between running and being in office - opened up beneath Johnson as the COVID pandemic began. The lab-visiting instant expert who spruiked "herd immunity" promptly caught the virus and oversaw a period in which an advanced Western nation with a sophisticated healthcare system suffered a shocking rate of infection and death. Under Johnson, Britain's pandemic has been ghastly: 153,000 deaths at a per capita rate in line with most of South America and Eastern Europe. The sincerity of Johnson's concern for the British population was amplified by the actions of his staff, partying and violating lockdown rules so flagrantly that they might well have been shoving it in their constituents' faces. Now Johnson is facing the end, having lied about his personal involvement in these violations. Millions of British people got exactly what they voted for.

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As with most international fashion, Australia follows with eyes wide shut. For every Bojo there is a Scomo, and for every Scomo an Albo. Each of our major party leaders is regularly photographed having a beer without ever quite giving the impression that he is someone you would want to be having one with. It doesn't matter. This is as much about branding as the Prime Minister's born-again schooner-in-hand support for the Cronulla Sharks. Off the wagon and on the bandwagon.


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In a campaign year, Australians can brace themselves for a season of irresponsible use of alcohol. Being a man of the people is a qualification for high and low office alike. Here's a game: you have to drink a beer every time in the next four months you see Scott Morrison, Anthony Albanese, Barnaby Joyce, Craig Kelly or Clive Palmer drinking a beer. Or don't.

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The Australian prototype is supposed to be Bob Hawke, who spent decades watering that particular plant, but as usual this is a misreading of history. Hawke took alco-populism so seriously as a union leader that he was a recovering alcoholic and off the booze by the time he ran for the Labor leadership and prime ministership in 1983. His drinking antics resumed after his retirement in 1991. As he would have known, the serious drinker has not yet been born who relishes his time being wasted by someone who is running for office. As he found, actually being in office is adult business.

The bloke-with-beer trope worked for some, not others, but nearly all gave it a crack anyway. It was inherently biased against intelligent people (none of Paul Keating, Kevin Rudd or Malcolm Turnbull drank beer convincingly in public); and forget about a highly intelligent woman (Julia Gillard was barred from the back bar). Tony Abbott utilised it successfully from opposition, where he remained even while in government.

Blokes trying to out-bloke other blokes is tiresome enough in itself, but you would think someone would tell them that an overwrought nation two years into a pandemic are neither the time nor the place. At first glance, the present should suit a social-democratic party campaigning from opposition. We are in a period when, as The West Wing's Josh Lyman put it, we don't need "a national daddy, someone to be tough and strong and defend the country" and take it into a war; what these times require is a mummy, "someone to give them jobs and health care, the policy equivalent of a matzo ball soup". A pandemic in which the responses have been so botched by the incumbent should play into the hands of a party perceived as the national mummy; unless it's decided to go out and try to out-drink daddy.

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The excesses and disdain for the electorate in the Johnson government are not, of course, the same as a candidate chugging a beer for a photo opportunity. But they stem from a common source and lead to a common result. The source is an infantilising of the public and the result is mutual disrespect. A political class that believes voters are dumb enough to be taken in by all that beery faux-folksiness is a political class that places no weight on our intelligence, only on our gullibility. The glimpse behind the Johnson façade is redolent of all those other scandals of public life where the specifics don't change, but the underlying contempt is a constant: when they let their mask down, they take us for mugs.

Beyond that, I would argue, Australians do have an unquenched thirst, but it is a thirst for no longer being treated like idiots. As Johnson has found to his detriment, campaigns are for fooling around but a bad habit to get into for the sober business of governing. Better a team of competent grinders than flamboyant fools.

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