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The Mistake of the PM’s Staffer: The Myth of the “Demo”

January 28, 2012

I don’t know Tony Hodges. I can’t declare that tipping off a third party about Abbott’s attendance was an innocent mistake. I simply don’t know. If he is a victim, I feel very sorry for him. We all make mistakes as young people and should be allowed to live them down. There have been sillier stunts (if that’s what it was) executed by Young Liberals in State and Federal politics and, even when directed at me, I thought that it would be unfair to judge the perpetrators for life.

But let me just drive home this point: if he or anyone in the Tent Embassy crowd thought that a “demo” would hurt Abbott – set him back, injure him politically – they are naive. Totally out of touch.

Here’s the truth of it. Demonstrations hurt the demonstrators. On the electronic media they sound extreme, bitter, angry. The faces of the protestors are contorted with what looks like hatred. There are always exhibitionists drawn to the action doing and saying crazy things. As I argued below, if it’s a Left wing cause the anarchists and Trotskyists turn out just itching to produce a clash with the Cossacks and provoke violence. They want it to be the start of the revolution. But to the Mums and Dads at home, in 90 percent of cases, the demonstrators lose their argument as the TV screens blare their shouts and hyperbole and show the amateur placards and the ragbag provocateurs.

What I’m saying is that directing a demonstration towards Abbott was gifting Abbott with a PR win. Just by talking conversationally to the cameras he was going to look good in contrast to shouting, swearing, hysterical extremists. TV is a cool medium. The person shouting in your lounge room is the one who’s out of place. Recall the 1993 Federal election when John Hewson did a daily outdoor rally? Placards, extremists of the Right, shouts…and him forced to yell into a microphone. Reduced to a seven second segment on the news bulletins it looked plain awful. He looked the extremist Keating was trying to paint him.

How on earth did anyone imagine that Abbott could lose in a show down with an angry mob?

If that was what someone contemplated it was a disturbing error of judgment. If that’s what Tony Hodges had in mind he should not have been running press for the PM. (He should, however, be given the opportunity to learn from the error).

As Premier I never saw a demonstration that didn’t hurt the side that mounted it. And I was never persuaded by a noisy crowd with a few placards. A carefully mounted case with killer facts was a different proposition.

  1. January 28, 2012 6:18 pm

    Interesting thanks Bob,
    Weird reading it a couple of minutes after watching it on the ABC News! Syncronised review and viewing.
    Keep up the great articles, thanks

  2. Kim permalink
    January 28, 2012 6:26 pm

    Then what do you make of Union demonstrations like work choices?

    • Bob Carr permalink
      January 28, 2012 6:42 pm

      Didn’t shift a vote. But the ACTU’s ad campaign did.

  3. Darcy Byrne permalink
    January 28, 2012 6:35 pm

    Fair points, although I can think of a little Indian lawyer and a black preacher from Georgia who would disagree with the proposition that all demos are counter productive

    • Bob Carr permalink
      January 28, 2012 6:44 pm

      Of course, no democratic alternatives in colonial India or the American south.

      • January 28, 2012 7:26 pm

        Oh Colonial Australia is different? As in we were “given” the right to vote oin 1967 after a lot of protests? What I think you are saying is , the politicians will do what they like whether we demonstrate or not

      • Bob Carr permalink
        January 28, 2012 7:44 pm

        Don’t remember demonstrations leading to the 1967 referendum at all.

      • January 29, 2012 11:20 pm

        1967 was about including aborigines in the census. They already had the vote. Read what the Australian Electoral Commission says on the topic:

  4. January 28, 2012 6:45 pm

    The Office of the Prime Minister leaked in a way which almost caused grief for both the Prime Minister and Tony Abbott. That experienced staffer Tom Hodges was permitted to resign and preserve his entitlements, and perhaps reign in any consideration of criminal charges. I do not see a stupid mistake Bob. I see a calculated move to score some obscure political points. A dangerous bit of crowd manipulation which certainly endangered the lives of the two heightist political leaders in Australia. Edward James

  5. Latkis permalink
    January 28, 2012 7:06 pm

    This story alludes to a wider problem in my view – that Gillard’s staff (yes, as a whole) are seriously out of their depth. It has happened to all Labor leaders since Keating left office.

  6. Nate permalink
    January 28, 2012 7:08 pm

    Isn’t the right to protest enshrined in democratic principles, Bob?

    • Bob Carr permalink
      January 28, 2012 7:42 pm

      Er, yes. My argument is about effectiveness of demonstrations.

  7. Stuart Prendergast permalink
    January 28, 2012 7:13 pm

    The SLAM rally in Melbourne is an example of a protest that worked the way a protest should. It was a show of numbers and organisational tact.

  8. Arthur Mankey permalink
    January 28, 2012 7:38 pm

    Hodges was always a lightweight. What was he thinking dressed up like he’d just walked off the set of Miami Vice with his Armani, Raybans,designer stubble & smirk with the PM on Australia day? Seriously, this is the Labor Party?

    • January 28, 2012 10:10 pm

      I must agree, it really saddens me as someone who has been a Ministerial Driver for over 30 years, both federal & State (NSW) to see people I regard as 12 year olds now working as press secs’ to both sides of politics, be they State, or Federal.

      They have all grown up on a diet of ‘West Wing’, ‘L.A Law’, and other crap T.V shows that lead them to believe they are all players in the big picture.. I think the only T.V show to actually nail this one is “The Thick of it”..

      Sadly most Politicans lose their own moral compass that steered them into Politics in the first place by listening to these young ‘Tossers’ instead of going with their own gut feeling of how to address the issue at hand, both on T.V & on radio with the grubs that run these outlets.

      It’s not rocket science!! Bob I always thought you were a ‘Straight Shooter’ & still do, however, some of you successors both state & Federal have forgotten the old adage of KISS keep it simple stupid!! forget the spin; don’t listen to the 12 Yr. old policy advisor or press sec. who was in Yr. 9 when you Bob came into office in 1995!! It’s all a game to them, they are not mature enough IMHO to really know why they support the particular political party that they work for, it’s as if the past history that brought us to this point in time is all irellevant (forgive spelling!)

      There now, I feel better for having got that off my chest as I continue my journey into the realms of ‘Grumpy Old Man’ to whom the Light on The Hill is still beckoning.

      • Christina permalink
        January 29, 2012 4:03 pm

        I am upset with the entire story. Where is the Labor party many followed and thought it spoke for the people? It is no more. The coalition looks ever more in touch and professional..and this latest sad tale only consumed Gillard’s already weak credibility. What we are seeing is Labor’s demise or it’s consignment to political wilderness…due largely to a mob that has no regard for the very people it seeks to serve, a wish by Labor to become the greens, and finally a disgraceful moral attitude that makes the shining light on the hill look like the red light on the hill.

      • Lynda Newnam permalink
        February 10, 2012 5:11 pm

        Peter I agree “In the Thick of It” nails it. You could also throw in
        “The Hollow Men”. There was obviously no regard for the National Emergency Medal recipients who had gone above and beyond during the Victorian Bushfires and Queensland Floods. It was supposed to be their event and a time to recognise the communities of emergency volunteers and workers they were representing. We should have seen images of them on TV and in the print media not children trashing the Australian Flag.
        Don’t agree on “West Wing”. I thought it was trying to promote ‘public service’.

  9. John Carroll permalink
    January 28, 2012 8:22 pm

    ‘As Premier I never saw a demonstration that didn’t hurt the side that mounted it. And I was never persuaded by a noisy crowd with a few placards. A carefully mounted case with killer facts was a different proposition.’

    killer facts! now there is an interesting notion. Is a fact true? Is the truth a fact? Do the public want the facts or do politicians think ther prefer a happy blissful perception?

  10. David Stockman permalink
    January 28, 2012 8:58 pm

    What are your thoughts then on Occupy Wall Street? Much of the rhetoric from President Obama in the SOTU address seemed to be around themes of fairness which were completely off the radar one year ago.

    I think also you’re forgetting the East Timor independence and Vietnam War demonstrations. Or is part of your message that today’s media is less tolerant to hear the arguments of protestors?

    Often demonstrations start out as concerns for fringe elements, but can quickly build broader public attention.

    • Bob Carr permalink
      January 29, 2012 7:09 am

      One of the myths of contemporary history is that demonstrations against the Vietnam War were effective. They were a reflection of changed attitudes to the war, they didn’t drive it. What counted was the big vote against the President in New Hampshire in early 1968. The kids who door knocked for Eugene McCarthy did more to bring Johnson down than any number of hippie demonstrators. But, back to this case, do you really think that burning the Australian flag and rioting at that restaurant build sympathy for Aborigines?

  11. January 28, 2012 9:46 pm

    “And I was never persuaded by a noisy crowd with a few placards. A carefully mounted case with killer facts was a different proposition.” That is assuming those who want to make their case are engaged in the polticial sphere in an articulate and empowered way. When groups of people feel disempowered to the point where they find that making their case has ended in futility and are frustrated then their only alterantive seems to be demonstrating. As I recall the Cossacks were defeated and the revoloution rolled on. Whether that historic moment was good or bad could not be known by the revoloutionaries. The effectiveness however was self evident. In any case the real issue is not effectiveness of demos but the underlying cause. Nobody it seems is talking about that elephant in the room.

    • Bob Carr permalink
      January 29, 2012 7:04 am

      ABSOLUTELY! Nobody’s talking about the cause because of the dopiness of the demo! I rest my case.

  12. C Hutzpah permalink
    January 28, 2012 10:33 pm

    Let’s cut to the facts: it’s Tony (not Tom, as the opening para indicates) Hodges, and he’s about 26/27-years-old. He’s a kid essentially, having grown up in Canberra, gone to school locally, been a part of Labor locally, and never worked a day in his life in the media although he works in the press office with journalists. He’s a lightweight in the PMPO who does the early morning clips shift; goes out to do the reccy of a visit in advance (as he was doing at The Lobby), and occasionally walks the Press Gallery when Sean Kelly is too busy/lazy. He thought on his own this would be a good idea to get one or two indigenous representatives down to the restaurant to front Abbott. It was a bad idea although with other mates with whom he went to school locally (Mawson Primary, Melrose HS) and who also work in the ALP locally, he is connected to the ACT Government and therefore his call to an ACT Government minister. It’s something staffers from all political parties do from time to time, and most often it works, some times it does not but rarely does it end up so pear shaped as it did here. I’d like to know this: did the CPP team advise the PMO not to proceed with the event, and were they over ruled? Were they over ruled because the PM was particularly keen to pay tribute to the emergency workers and their families, many who had travelled a long way for the event? Just asking. And finally: give Tony a break. He’s lost his job, learned a very valuable but difficult lesson, and Pyne, Brandis and Abbott should just lay off now and leave the kid alone.

  13. January 29, 2012 10:15 am

    @Bob Carr permalink*
    January 29, 2012 7:04 am

    ABSOLUTELY! Nobody’s talking about the cause because of the dopiness of the demo! I rest my case.

    Well they are now thanks to that “dopey demo.” So in one way, as perverse as it may seem to those who like to control the message and how it is delivered it has been effective. The issue is firmly back on the table now, and if it isn’t in the Prime Ministers mind by now then she is as out of touch as the rest of the polticial elite. Once all the blaming and poltical point scoring is over it might be sensible for someone to get up and say “Hang on listen, OK things got out of hand but the central issue still and always has been Aboriginal Land rights and the way the Native title process has been perverted and stymied by the vested intersts of mining, farming and forestry at the expense of Aborigines…again.” Until someone gets up and says that and actually does something positive to alleviate the frustration and anger felt by these people then expect more of the same. Ditto those who remain active in the Occupy movement. The 99% will not go away!
    saying “sorry” to Aborigines is fine, but actions speak louder than words.

    • January 31, 2012 11:35 pm

      Sorry, did you say “the 99% will not go away”?

      I was walking down Martin Place last Saturday, and I assure you it was not the 99% that remained camped outside the RBA, but one solitary and rather sad looking fellow. He stood guard over what remains of the unsanitary slum, together with a whole table of documents, some of which he tried unsuccessfully to offload to RBA security, a street sweeper, and the nearby homeless.

  14. Tim Dymond permalink
    January 29, 2012 12:04 pm

    Bob, I think you are neglecting the mobilising and morale lifting role of demos in the Your Rights at Work campaign. Demos by themselves may not shift votes, but they can motivate passive supporters to become activists. YRAW worked because activists across Australia did grassroots campaigning such as one-to-one conversations, door-knocking, election day campaigning etc. In marginal seats that kind of activism makes a difference.

    • Bob Carr permalink
      January 29, 2012 12:14 pm

      Those activities do work if the cause is there, as it was. But not aggressive demonstrations which only make the activists look angry and unreasonable and threatening.

  15. January 29, 2012 12:16 pm

    Also being the grubby Howardesque poltician that he is Tony Abbott and his conga line will try and make as m uch mileage out of this as possible. So better to atatck them than the protetsors me thinks. Afetr all they are resposnible for the social division in this nation at this point in history. In their constant permisssive, dog whstling way they have given legitimacy to racism and its attendant violence. This kind of thing has precedents in places like 1930s Germany and Italy.

  16. Sarah permalink
    January 29, 2012 4:16 pm

    I get the following from this article & your comments.

    1. The messages from demos are irrelevant. What matters is how they’re seen on tv. If true, that’s an awful commentary on the state of our democracy & not anything remotely to be applauded. As most participants in demos are perfectly reasonable, as I suspect you know, yet TV cameras will always hone in on the most sensational.

    2. Leave politics to the experts, esp those with money & connections (eg your reference to expensive Workchoices ad campaign). That is indicative of the passionless managerialism that is killing the ALP. And again, an awful comment on our democracy if true. Ie – look, you can change policy like Clubs Australia if you’ve got lots of moolah! If you don’t, well don’t bother protesting coz you’ll put people off by how you’re portrayed on tv. And certainly dont imagine that an elected pollie could deign to even consider why people are motivated enough to demonstrate (as you candidly admitted about yourself).

    Your comment completely neglects how demos can work with other political actions, or can spark emotions which gel later on, rather than cause immediate change. They are also important for lifting or galvanising the morale of demonstrators in congregating with like minded people. It’s not only about changing govt policy tomorrow.

  17. Suzie Freebury permalink
    January 29, 2012 5:46 pm

    It was the sight of young indigenous children spitting on and cheering our burning Australian flag that was most appalling. What chance do they or we have to achieve harmony if this behaviour is what is being engendered and encouraged by their elders.

  18. January 30, 2012 11:45 am

    By the way, here is a story from the New York Times from Jan 29. It certainly indicates very useful political impact of the OWS movement:

  19. January 31, 2012 10:08 am

    Mr Dodson defended the Aboriginal tent embassy in Canberra, which was the source of the protests on Thursday that led to a security scare involving Ms Gillard and the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott.

    ”It would be simplistic … to condemn outright the behaviour of protesters associated with the tent embassy last week, without considering the sense of oppression that some of our people still feel toward our governments on a whole range of matters,” he said.

    ”I will always condemn bad manners and unnecessarily aggressive behaviour by whomever. But I will always defend people’s rights to assert their political position and try to look to the heart of why people feel so oppressed that they feel violent confrontation is the only recourse to the resolution of their position,” he said.

    Read more:

  20. John permalink
    February 14, 2012 8:52 am

    To protest is our democratic right, but to resort to violence while protesting, is wrong.


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