Actions speak loudest

Politics has a habit of taking otherwise worthwhile terms and rendering them somewhere between ironic and meaningless.

Politics has a habit of taking otherwise worthwhile terms and rendering them somewhere between ironic and meaningless. In recent years, "grassroots", "mutual obligation" and "working families" have all morphed beyond their usefulness. And an early contender for most repurposed term of 2013 is "outreach".

It once meant providing services to populations who have traditionally struggled to access those services, whether through improved delivery or through education and awareness. But now, after being put through the political spin cycle, it has come to mean trying to persuade a portion of the electorate that's just not that into you that maybe they should give you another try.

The tricky thing is that most often the reason that voting bloc doesn't like you is because your policies, behaviour, comments and attitudes have all indicated that by any reasonable measure you genuinely don't care about them. That becomes a problem when, despite all of that, you really quite need them for your own political success. Recently, two distinct attempts at outreach here and in the US have shown us how it's both done and not done.

First to the US and the recent Correspondents' Dinner, or "Nerd Prom", where the political elite, media elite and some Hollywood heavyweights rub shoulders in Washington. Each year, the highlight of the televised event is the entertainment portion that involves a comedic keynote speaker and the president ostensibly performing stand-up comedy. George W. Bush once performed with a George W. Bush impersonator who, after unsuccessfully attempting to teach W to correctly pronounce "nuclear proliferation" to devastating comedic effect, left many in the room wondering if they could just swap jobs for a year or two.

This year, President Barack Obama did stand-up. And by "did stand-up" I don't mean told some jokes in that awkward way politicians tell jokes their writers and advisers have decided are safe enough to tell without causing trouble. As a professional stand-up comedian, I can say he did stand-up. The timing was good, the material was topical, it was funny and it took no prisoners (there was nothing safe about saying that to get along better with Republicans he'd even attend a book burning with anti-vaccination, creationist, Tea Party homophobe Michele Bachmann).

But in among the political zingers and the high-concept Steven Spielberg film trailer starring Obama playing Daniel Day-Lewis playing Obama, was one joke many in attendance would do well to remember: "I know Republicans are still sorting out what happened in 2012, but one thing they all agree on is they need to do a better job reaching out to minorities. And look, call me self-centred, but I can think of one minority they could start with. Hello? Think of me as a trial run, you know? See how it goes."

Everybody laughed. But some harder than others. And in a pan of the audience, we could see former Republican speaker and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich appear to mouth the words "that might work".

The GOP recently announced a plan to spend millions on minority outreach in an attempt to sell its party and its message to groups they struggled to enthuse in the recent presidential election. While it had no trouble succeeding with its traditional base of white males, they lost women 55 per cent to 44 per cent, blacks 93 per cent to 6 per cent and Hispanics, the fastest growing voter bloc in the country, 71 per cent to 27 per cent.

But maybe its strategy should have less to do with telling people how much it likes minorities, and more to do with showing them it likes minorities. Maybe part of the reason Republicans have performed so poorly among that electorate has less to do with Obama being the first minority president, and more to do with the fact that their response to the election of the first minority president was to hold a meeting and agree to block his agenda, regardless of what it was. They flat-out refused to work with him.

And the response has gone beyond partisan legislative gridlock. The Obama "birther" phenomenon is a prime example. The persistence with which conservative figures have questioned the validity of the President's birth certificate has been truly remarkable. If you were a minority voter in the US, how long would it be before you asked how many white presidents had been asked to produce documentation to verify their standing to hold office?

Add to this the constant accusations from all corners of the party that Obama is a socialist. Even the most cursory glance at his biography would show that the claim beggars belief: the mixed-race son of a broken marriage who studied hard enough to make it to one of the most prestigious colleges in the world, was the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, became a millionaire from his best-selling books before becoming a senator and in his first term rode an unprecedented wave of public support to become the nation's first African-American president. How would someone who so personifies the realisation of the American Dream possibly be a socialist? He even won a Grammy!

The result is that the GOP has behaved as though it is incapable of accepting the legitimacy of the nation's first minority president. And no amount of "outreach" or Tea Party favourite Rand Paul reading from the poetry of Pablo Neruda (yes, this actually happened) can change that fact.

On our own political landscape, we have seen the same principle play out. Only here, it's happening before the election.

For Tony Abbott, a well-documented "problem with women" saw the ladies in Tony's life come to his defence: Deputy Leader Julie Bishop and chief of staff Peta Credlin both telling Australia how wonderful he was to work with and how supportive he was of women (particularly women working for him). But accusations of misogyny were, at the very least, believable because he has at all times aggressively questioned the legitimacy of Australia's first female prime minister.

The veracity of David Marr's revelations of a university level Tony Abbott punching a wall because he didn't like the outcome of an election was hotly contested. Witnesses gave evidence for the prosecution and defence, but in the court of public opinion it wasn't a stretch to convict. People bought the story because, for the two years since the last federal election, Tony metaphorically punched walls across the country because he didn't like the outcome. It didn't help that in both cases his opponents were women.

In politics it matters surprisingly little what you tell people you're going to do or even what you've already done. No policy ever works out the way it was planned and, hell, no politician is presumed to be good to their word anyway. The Republicans may say they will reach out to minorities, but until their policies and behaviour reflect it, it's just another empty bumper sticker promise.

But unlike the Republicans, Tony has learnt the lesson of appearances. Since the beginning of the year, locking onto a Coalition policy has been about as easy as nailing jelly to the ceiling. Until this week. In the face of public criticism from his own party and big business, the Opposition Leader stuck by his plan to offer a Rolls Royce paid parental leave scheme. Despite the cost on business and criticism that it seriously favours the wealthy over the many, the renowned pugilist was happy to fight for the equality of women.

There were, of course, the usual verbal distractions. Comparing a female executive's paid parental leave to a male executive's holiday pay provided fodder for our program and laughs for our audience. And declaring a desire for "women of that calibre to have families" like he was the host of some weird reproductive version of The Apprentice attracted its fair share of criticism. And rolling of eyes. And of people asking what a woman of that calibre looks like anyway. But it also attracted its fair share of support. Not only from women but feminists. And by any reasonable analysis, that is an effective bit of outreach.

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