Celebrity Staffers

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Tony Blair’s Chief Spin Doctors, Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson, Were More Recognizable than Some Cabinet Ministers

When Peta Credlin became a news story onto herself this week the American comparisons ran thick and fast. Like Therese Rein barnstorming support for Kevin Rudd, this was adjudged another example of Australians copying off the Americans and many old hats were disapproving. I for one don’t really mind if Tony Abbott’s chief of staff is becoming a public figure, I think we’re deluding ourselves if we don’t think senior players in the Prime Minister’s office aren’t more influential in shaping policy than say a backbench senator, but I do take issue with the American bashing.

Australians know America is the most powerful nation in the world so we like to flatter ourselves that we have a certain subtlety and nuance that they lack. America, so the caricature goes, is so powerful that it t has become wasteful, it doesn’t look after itself and use its potential efficiently because it doesn’t need to. As such we see Americans as loutish, decadent, tasteless, wasteful and ostentatious. Aside from our infatuation with Barrack Obama we tend to portray American politics as Hollywood: glamorous, big budget and dramatic but a bit fluffy and insubstantial. Even though we are very cynical about our politicians we convince ourselves that they are, by and large, more substantial figures, less glamorous but more rational, stoic and sensible. This perception particularly fits neatly around the post Keating era where Americans proceeded to elect three young, handsome, effortlessly charming men into the oval office whereas Australia opted for eleven years of the balding, bespectacled, gnome like John Howard then three of the uber nerd Kevin Rudd.

I don’t care for this elitist sneering at the United States, I think if you want to see ugly, hubristic fluff then tune into question time where grownups are few and far between. (For the record I think the question time players that acquit themselves reasonably well are Stephen Smith and Greg Hunt)In the 2012 election campaign Mitt Romney and Barrack Obama showed a subtlety and tact which hitherto neither Julia Gillard nor Tony Abbott have shown, and that includes both their time in government and opposition. Yet this delusion of superiority which we feel in regards to the United States is not only unattractive but now it seems to be impairing our critical faculties as well. Which American political staffer is Peta Credlin or John Mctern supposed to be modeled on? I entreat myself I have a better knowledge of American politics than the common or garden Australian and I could only name one major staffer, Rahm Emanuel, who after serving as Obama’s chief of staff went on to become the mayor of Chicago. Who else is there?  Try to remember that Leo Mcgarry and Josh Lyman are fictional characters.

None of this is to say that Australians dreamed up this idea of the celebrity staffers ourselves.  One politician was very fond of cultivating an aura of running a sleek, state of the art political machine headed up by genius political strategists. In fact the connection should be more obvious given that Julia Gillard hired one of his high profile former advisers. I allude of course to one Tony Blair of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. New Labour, as Blair dubbed his government, was all about the staff. In no small part I suspect this was about unraveling the perception that Labour was a radical socialist party, beholden to the unions. By having Alistair Campbell and Peter Mandelson in the spotlight the image of Labour being run by ideologues was replaced by the image of Labour being run by professionals. On the whole it was an effective project; Labour seemed to assume the mantle of the natural party of government because it was perceived as being governed by competence rather than emotion, evidence rather than instinct and professionalism rather than ideology.

The extent to which the British Labour party has embraced this fondness for the celebrity staffers was demonstrated most clearly, and perhaps excessively by Gordon Brown who decided the way to save his drifting government was to bring back Peter Mandelson, who had been the Trade Commissioner to Europe for four years, not only to Westminster but to appoint him as First Secretary of State (deputy Prime Minister). Brown went a step further in 2010 when he employed Alistair Campbell as a member of his staff, despite the fact that Campbell had never worked for Brown before. Campbell was a journalist before Tony Blair personally chose him as his press secretary in 1994, he served as a member of Blair’s staff for a decade thereafter. He was not a fixture of the Labour party operation before or after Blair’s leadership, he had never worked for another politician but none of this mattered to Brown. What did matter to Brown was that Campbell was a high profile political operative with a strong reputation. He was a capable advocate in print and in front of television cameras and so he was ideal in shoring up the perception that Brown’s government had the best people running it.

Campbell and Mandelson have subsequently squabbled over who was the third most significant player in the Blair/Brown governments. Never mind that Jack Straw and Alastair Darling were cabinet ministers for the whole duration, or that John Prescott was deputy Prime Minister for ten years, it is the two spin doctors who were ranked third and fourth in Blair’s government. This was not by accident, this was a deliberate attempt to cultivate a perception that power had been transferred out of the hands of the radical party ideologues and into the hands of the urbane modern professionals. It is something Tony Blair embraced to an infinitely greater extent than any of his American colleagues and if the rise of figures like Peta Credlin, John Mctern, Alistair Jordan, Andrew Charlton and Lachlan Harris as celebrities is an idea borrowed from anywhere it was more likely borrowed from the highly successful New Labour government in the UK, rather than a fictional drama starring Martin Sheen.

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