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The political value of humour and wit

“Look he’s winding up the watch of his wit. By and by it will strike.”

Sebastian, The Tempest, Act 2 Scene 1

Australian politics is in a humourless, witless rut. If Sebastian had been observing any house of parliament in Australia recently, it is unlikely he would have had cause to get so excited. I expect, instead, that he would be sitting, head in hands, lamenting the bureaucratic babble and formulaic sentences that spew forth from the mouths of our current leaders, utterly devoid of any elements that could be considered even remotely witty. Of course it is not conscionable to suggest that the current batch of Australian politicians is completely devoid of wits. However, there is usually a prefix accompaniment to the characterisation. Similarly, there are several personifications of political jokes. What is missing are crisp lines, delivered with impeccable timing, that leave an opponent mouth agape and the rest of the house keeled over. They have instead been replaced by self aggrandisement and downright cynicism.

The Australian houses of parliament have not always been such barren places. There was a time when witticisms came fast and thick and the chamber was full of that most endearing of Australian characters; the larrikin. Political opponents Fred Daly and Jim Killen were highly regarded for their legendary wits which they effectively used to trump opponents. More recently one of the best proponents of wit was former Prime Minister Paul Keating. He had a seemingly endless imagination which conjured up such great characterisations as, “he is simply a shiver looking for a spine to run up” and “[t]he thing about poor old (former Federal Government Treasurer) Costello is he is all tip and no iceberg.” Keating was not short of an acerbic comeback either, once describing an attack by an opponent as “like being flogged with a warm lettuce.” The poor opponent never could match Keating's ability to twist words and went on to lose what was termed an 'unloseable' election.

to dismiss humour as frivolous and superfluous greatly underestimates its value in helping a politician endear her or himself to her or his constituents

These comments are looked upon with even greater fondness now as the Australian political observer searches for signs of humour amongst the desiccated bodies which occupy the seats in the various houses of parliament. About the funniest thing to emanate from any Australian politician recently was a fart and, as if to underline the seriousness that has overtaken our current crop, it was swiftly followed by a press release in which the politician apologised for the shame he had caused his party and his family, said he would seek counselling for his problems and vowed not to repeat this most reprehensible act.

It is easy to dismiss humour as frivolous and even superfluous when discussing politics. However, to do so greatly underestimates its value in helping a politician endear her or himself to her or his constituents. Given the speed with which we now consume the volume of news the internet has allowed us to be bombarded with, and our related tendency to consume that news in small bites, the value of a well delivered and memorable witticism seems even greater than ever to the politician looking to gain in the polls. A good lawyer conducting a cross-examination knows that if they can discredit a witness with as few questions as possible that their case will be significantly assisted. Conversely a bad lawyer does not know that their labouring of a point and any concessions they win only allows that witness to explain away problems they may have made for themselves. Analogously, a politician who can discredit an opposing argument with one perfectly timed and well delivered line is almost always going to be a more highly regarded politician than one who is full of more hot air than the others. Australia's current crop of politicians and indeed politicians worldwide, seemingly hungrier than ever for popularity, would do well to consider the great value of humour and wit. As a punter in the current climate, I would settle for a well practised off-the-cuff remark as a sign that not all hope is lost.

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  • Michael Elphick,

    Always good to see references made to former Australian PM Paul Keating. His lines were so memorable his premiership was turned into a musical. Unfortunately I must agree with the writer, those days of colour and comedy on the floor of the national assembly seem to be gone. All we are really left with is a black humor. Ministers and members stumbling around in a parliamentary farce. Thanks Patrick for reviving memories of better days!

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