#Auspol brains trust: The rise of celebrity in politics, will Australia be next?

#Auspol brains trust: The rise of celebrity in politics, will Australia be next?

Former US talkshow host, Oprah Winfrey recently triggered a barrage of mixed feedback when she announced she’d be considering running for President in 2020.

Many encouraged Oprah’s potential candidacy, believing her fame would effectively rival and even eclipse, that of Donald Trump’s. In essence she would give the Democrats’ their best shot at an election win. However, many others have questioned Oprah’s legitimacy as a future global leader, particularly when there are several qualified women in American politics right now. The debate is ongoing.

At any rate, celebrity in American politics is becoming more and more ubiquitous. Reagan, Schwarzenegger, Trump, Oprah, Kanye… the list will surely only expand from here.

But could this same phenomenon happen in Australia? And, moreover, should it happen? We posed this question to a number of prominent women in the #Auspol community. Their views were varied.

  • Cheryl Kernot– @cheryl_kernot– https://twitter.com/cheryl_kernot  Senator & Leader of the Australian Democrats and Labor member for Dickson.  Now an academic and political activist. 

Generally speaking most paid professional leadership jobs require some qualifications & experience. It’s no different for a CEO or an MP or a successful tradesperson. Cultivated “celebrity”, however, simply requires fame or infamy completely unrelated to a particular future profession. It is about image-building, branding, packaging, being “on message”; about manipulation and spin and not necessarily the facts and substance required in good public policy making. Think Donald Trump.

When I was pre-selected for the Senate, the retiring Democrat Senator I was replacing employed me for a year prior to my taking up my position. It was the perfect apprenticeship allowing me to travel to Canberra to learn the legislative ropes. It’s one thing to articulate party policy but a huge learning gap to translate that into parliamentary action. I became familiar with the rhythms of the long days & nights, the formal processes, the tactics of those seeking to oppose or obstruct. I learnt what it was like to be absent from family for 30 weeks. All utterly invaluable.

But we do live in a world where the politico-celebrity-media nexus is strong. Some politicians unwittingly become celebrities & others crave the accessibility & influence they think it brings. It’s a fine line. Paul Keating resolutely declined to appear on most light entertainment television programs, believing that it would demean the office of PM. Maybe he was correct. Maybe today it’s a matter of being rigorously discerning amidst the ever-increasing clamour from the media to “humanise” MPs. I’ve been talked into accepting media invitations I probably shouldn’t have.

Peter Garrett was a rock star celebrity – but one with a long interest in political issues. He made the transition to Parliament and can point to successes there, but only he can say whether he had more success, on his terms, as a political activist. It’s unrepresentative to have a Parliament full of lawyers and many from other backgrounds become successful advocates with time and the expert assistance available in the job. Glen Lazarus is a recent celebrity example of this.

Ronald Reagan, Imran Khan, Rodrigo Duterte, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Silvio Berlisconi, Derryn Hinch, Donald Trump. It’s a mixed bag, but give me an Angela Merkel or a Barack Obama or a Gough Whitlam any day. And there’s always a place for celebrity political activists adding valuable voices.

  • Noely Neate – @yaThinkN – https://twitter.com/YaThinkN – Big fan of Democracy, Equality & advocating for women’s sport. Angry about decimation of the nbn.

Personally I don’t have a problem with ‘celebrity’ in politics IF the purpose of entering politics is for the right reasons.

I understand why the likes of Trump was so attractive to US voters due to professional politicians being held in such low regard and we have a similar situation here in Australia where the ‘trust’ level in politicians and Government seems to be lowering every time this is surveyed, creating an environment where the ‘non’ political candidate could become attractive to Australian voters. I think this anti-establishment marketing style is what helps Pauline Hanson – even when evidence actually points to her being the ultimate political animal.

Call me daggy and old fashioned, I believe anyone in this nation should be encouraged to stand for public office, be they famous or not, the lack of diversity in our Parliament is actually pretty sad as too many come from the same grouping of backgrounds, career Politicians, Business, Lawyers or Unions and I would like to see more variety to better represent us, which is sort of the sentiment that makes the likes of a Trump or Oprah attractive to voters.

Oprah may have fame, though she has also shown herself to be a savvy business person, trailblazer for black women and most importantly in my view, a woman with empathy, very aware of her privilege and worked for the betterment of many causes. All I hope, is that if we do see a rise of celebrity candidate in this nation they are more of the flavour of an Oprah than a Trump.

  • Melanie McCartney– https://twitter.com/CartwheelPrint  My focus is humanitarianism. I think Indigenous knowledge needs to be learned, and colonialism and it’s everlasting damage needs to be acknowledged.

“No, I don’t believe Australia should follow America down the path of having celebrities in politics to represent the people. Celebrity and corporate creep in American politics began with Ronald Reagan, culminating in the election of Donald Trump. The notion that career and financial success equates to political smarts, is also flimsy. Giving grand speeches is one thing, seriously taking on the challenge’s of being a successful politician is another. There are lessons to be learned from the elevation of Trump, more of the same is not the answer. Those wanting Oprah or celebrities to run against Trump, are only further entrenching the idea that the US Presidency, and positions of power, are jobs for famous, rich people.

While corporations have person-hood, or the same rights as humans, they don’t have human form so they use celebrities to be their human face. A recent example of this, are the ‘Less talk, more eat’ ads starring Jeff Goldblum for Menulog. Corporations also use celebrities as a tool of distraction. They don’t want you thinking about the casualisation of their work force, or if they country-hop for cheap labour to produce their goods and services, or even if they avoid paying tax. Main-stream-media today is corporate media.

Exxon has known about climate change since the 1970’s, the fossil fuel industry, assisted by their minions and those set to profiteer from it, have waged a war on science since. Having celebrities for leaders will only compound this. We need more critical thinkers as our leaders and in parliament. This can include civilians, for it is not a democracy if a small percentage of the elite are running the country.”

  • Denise Shrivell – @deniseshrivell – is the founder of MediaScope & Peggy’s List as well as a rising political activist.

The election of Donald Trump is the ultimate macabre consequence of the ‘celebritisation’ of politics. The remedy to this is not to then immediately follow by electing his equally if not more famous counterpoint – albeit with quite opposite views to Trump. Having said this, we’d all be sleeping more soundly with Oprah as President instead of Trump.

Bringing this back to Australia, our political landscape would benefit greatly from people with more diverse backgrounds, experiences and views. Currently the Liberal Party predominately feeds from staffers and the big business backed Institute of Public Affairs, while ALP feeds from staffers and Unions. However the easy route of celebrity, as they’d come with a relatively effortless to build voter base, is not the solution to this. Once this floodgate is open I fear where it may take us and again we have a living example to draw from with Trump.

Though, I do believe high profiled people including celebrities can and should lift their voice to speak about issues which they care about and where they have a beyond mainstream media knowledge.  High profile people like celebrities can use their inherent audience to grab attention quickly, rally large groups & inspire on issues of substance.  It’s this I’d like to see more of in Australia. As an example we recently saw Australian tennis player Pat Cash speak of his first hand experiences around indigenous issues and Australia Day.

As we saw with the massive crowd numbers at the recent US Womens March – where many celebrities spoke (Halsey’s speech was particularly powerful) while they may inspire – at the end of the day it’s up to each of us to make informed political decisions and stand up and fight for the change we want!


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