GASP: Friends like Howard

Pals, family, gather round – it's the last leg of the election and both contenders are banking on their nearest, dearest and dearly departed to make them look better.

In politics, as in life, entourages are important. Who you roll with says a lot about who you are, what you stand for and what kind of leader you will be.

In recent elections, the entourage has become an ATM of credibility, liberally dispensing cultural capital to those candidates who need it most. And the chief currency in the economy of credibility is family.

Kevin Rudd has long held up his family values as a stark contrast to the childless Julia Gillard, while for years in opposition Tony Abbott has relied on his wife and three daughters as evidence he can distinguish women from men.

While the prime minister has put his sons to work in campaign headquarters – those Labor volunteers are hard to find! – his daughter Jessica has taken on the split role of campaign spokeswoman and political commentator on a variety programs and social media.

Meanwhile, at the Coalition launch on the weekend, two of the Opposition leader’s daughters – Frances and Bridget – took an even more central role. The pair introduced their ‘netball dad’, making special note of the fact that their father listens (i.e. has ears) and mixes with all kinds of people – even the young, the infirm and the homosexual.

Please, take a moment to bow at the nobility.

Abbott’s third daughter Louise – a central figure in Abbott’s 2010 campaign – wasn’t at the launch. Years of being used as evidence of her father’s genetic credibility has finally taken its toll on her, so she’s upped and left for a European summer.

Media reports suggest the opposition leader will charter a private jet to return her to Australia on September 6, so that she can avoid being locked out when he closes the borders on September 8.

The ‘rescue’ is being vehemently opposed by Julie Bishop who, not content with being ‘crazy Aunty Julie’, has set her sights on being the third Abbott daughter.

Graph for GASP: Friends like Howard

“Louise who?” the deputy opposition leader chortled with her surrogate family at the party’s official launch.

It’s not just daughters though – sisters are equally useful as political pawns. One of the few wedge issues of the campaign, same-sex marriage is as much a contest between our leaders’ siblings as it is between them.

Abbott stands by his opposition to marriage equality, but hopes the prominence of his homosexual sister Christine Forster – and her insistence that his view is shifting – will appeal to inner-city Liberals and scorned Malcolm Turnbull supporters.

On the other hand, Rudd has very publicly back-flipped on this issue, becoming the first prime minister to openly support same-sex marriage. But, so as not to alienate the traditional Labor party members, unionists and his Catholic brethren, Rudd has quietly tapped older sister Loree Rudd.

Take it away Loree:

“I think that there should be a law (in Australia) protecting children from the propaganda of homosexuality as normal. They're trying to build their family life and structure in Russia and people in the West don't seem to understand our family life and structures are breaking down.”

That was the prime minister’s sister responding to events in Russia, where leader Vladimir Putin’s hardline approach to homosexuality has drawn international condemnation.

It’s easy to see where Kevin gets his knack for foreign affairs from.

To be fair though, you can’t pick your family, and if you’re able to score a few votes off them – hey, we’ve all done worse for less.

On the other hand there is choosing one’s associations – the entourages we assemble of our own volition.

Not content with installing Margaret Thatcher as a political inspiration, Abbott this week tapped another former leader for endorsement – this time one a lot closer to home.

If a year is a long time in politics, six years affords discredited former leaders the chance of a karmic rebirth, a relapse into cricket-induced megalomania and then a comeback as some kind of deity.

Enter the king: John Howard.

After six years of self-interest, selfies and self-sabotage, the Coalition believes the electorate wants some tough love. They think we’ve been hankering for some Howard. Or at least, Abbott-dressed-up-as-Howard.

The former prime minister has been a powerful spectre throughout this campaign, though not always to the benefit of the Coalition. Labor has readily used two of Howard’s key initiatives – the GST and WorkChoices – in scare campaigns, and the nation seems to have collectively forgotten that Howard was only the second prime minister in Australian history (and the first since 1929) to lose his seat at a federal election.

Undeterred, the Coalition, in invoking Howard, is subverting the Harry Potter approach of ‘he who must not be named’ and instead implementing a fastidious regime of ‘he who must be named like he is creator of the earth’.

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Even Rudd got swept up in a bit of nostalgia. During a conversation on reddit (has he mentioned he, like, totes gets the internet?) Rudd said that for all his achievements, he still can’t drink a beer as fast as ‘Hawkie’.

And who said campaigns were vacuous?

But Rudd also couldn’t hide a twinge of nostalgia for his former foe, donning a frighteningly Howard-esque tracksuit for a highly questionable Instagram op.

Graph for GASP: Friends like Howard

Highlighting his effusiveness for social media, not to mention a respect for the sanctity of international relations, the caption of Rudd’s photo read: “Spoke to President Obama about mass murders in Syria. Human tragedy can't continue. KRudd”

Nothing says human tragedy like tracksuits on Twitter, ain’t that right Kev?

One-line wonders

“He thought that netball was just a different form of rugby.” – Frances Abbott introduces her father at the Coalition campaign launch and confirms suppositories and repositories are not the only things the opposition leader can’t distinguish between.

“I am really glad my brother, Nick, is out there with Dad doing it. I often phone him and check that Dad has eaten lunch.” – First daughter Jessica Rudd’s comments to The Australian Women’s Weekly remind us that nothing says ‘competent leader’ like forgetting to eat.

“But then there’s bad tempered Kevin, who uses four letter expletives to describe his own staff and Chinese officials. You see, there’s arrogant Kevin; there’s abusive Kevin. He reminds me of the Incredible Hulk.” – So that’s… ill-tempered, arrogant, abusive and Hulk. Three more personalities and Julie Bishop will have her very own set of seven Kevin Rudd dwarves.

Tweet of the week

Graph for GASP: Friends like Howard

The last gasp

A key criticism Tony Abbott has levelled at the government this campaign is that it is inflicting on Australia not only a fiscal deficit but a trust deficit. However there’s been a curious deficit on his own side of the divide: the Truss deficit.

While Abbott hit the campaign trail with Julie Bishop and Joe Hockey, Warren Truss, leader of The Nationals and the man likely to be deputy prime minister come September 8, has been conspicuously absent.

Truss’ penultimate speaking engagement at the Coalition’s official launch last weekend and his address to the National Club this week have elevated his visibility, but he’s still ‘Mr Nowhere’, especially when compared to Labor’s proposed deputy PM, ‘Mr everywhere’, also known as Anthony Albanese.

Why might the Coalition be keeping Truss out of the limelight? They have been keen to paint themselves as a picture of stability compared to the chaos of Labor, and Truss’ presence exposes them to scrutiny on this strategy. After all, the Nationals are opposed to the generosity of Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme; there is insistent speculation that the trade portfolio will fall out of the party’s hands for the first time in 53 years under Abbott; and Barnaby Joyce has publicly called on whoever the treasurer is after the ballot to block Archer Daniel Midlands’ pursuit of GrainCorp.

Abbott has ruled out informally presiding over a hung parliament, but fundamental opposition within his own ‘hung’ party could very well test him the way the 43rd parliament tested Julia Gillard.

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