A political WAGS tale
The visibility of Australian political partners in previous elections has largely been limited to a cursory podium-left guest appearance at a campaign launch or a glossy magazine photo spread that perhaps involved a Labrador.
Come election time, leaders’ wives have traditionally been wheeled out like ceremonial oxen. They were marketing props offered up to the electorate to assure voters that however brusque the candidate may seem, their devoted, polka-dot sporting frau’s visceral devotion would attest to their deep, inner, hitherto unseen, sensitivity.
But since Australia last went to the polls, there has been a sizable shift in the role which politicians’ partners assume in the wider political narrative.
During the UK election earlier this year, the real story was not Gordon Brown’s microphone mishap nor Nick Clegg’s sudden bursting into the mainstream - it was their wives.
Dubbed the “WAG election” by The Times, the leaders’ wives came to be tabloid figures: their every move splashed across front pages on a daily basis.
Mrs David Cameron and Mrs Gordon Brown led the way in the nascence of the political WAG, and with each H&M-shod step they have left their be-suited better-halves in their populist wake.
A media hungry for something sexier than hospital funding cuts to write about threw itself into the fray, reporting on their every move.
Samantha Cameron morphed into SamCam, her every sartorial turn was snapped by a rapacious paparazzi. Sarah Brown clocked up more than one million followers on Twitter and hung out at Glastonbury with Naomi Campbell.
In a matter of months, the political wife was no longer a pastel, tent-clad woman permanently wearing rictus grin who opened school fetes, but was more likely to be a tertiary-educated, professional, woman outwardly eager to hit the hustings.
In Washington, Vogue cover girl Michelle Obama’s choice of sneakers creates a press frenzy, while France’s Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and Germany’s Bettina Wulff have also become celebrity press fodder as “First Lady Fever” spreads across Europe.
Any titbit about their clothes, diets, ex-boyfriends and choice in handbags is devoured by the press with the same breathless excitement as any A-List Hollywood celebrity could dare to dream of.
This week the issue of the level of participation that Australian political partners play has been called into question.
Margie Abbott hit the road to try and assure the female voters that, despite his socially conservative ideas, her husband was a charmer whom they could trust not to legislate women back to the kitchen. She popped up in Perth and then Queensland, but as fast as Margie appeared, she disappeared.
Meanwhile the Prime Minister has shrugged off the suggestion that Tim Mathieson might enter the electioneering fray, saying, “He is not a Labor Party official, he is not a candidate or a minister, so you won’t see him out on the campaign trail in that sense but obviously he will be (supporting me).”
Though the lesson from the UK and the US is that the doting wife doctrine might be an increasingly moribund concept, the Australian political narrative is yet to embrace the WAG-style power partner hauled out as electoral weaponry.
Shoving Mathieson into the spotlight (perhaps signing him up for a Twitter account and getting him to appear on Sunrise in a coral-coloured shirt with the sleeves rolled up?) might inject some verve and charisma into this insipidly stodgy campaign which thus far has all the thrill of a repeat episode of The Bill and a warm glass of Moscato.
But would his support genuinely be useful in terms of building electoral capital? Would watching Tim and Margie lovingly talk-up their partners on morning television or press the flesh in suburban supermarkets induce anything beyond the vaguest twinges of curiosity?
Celebrified political spouses humanize their partners, offering voters a sense of the private individual rather than the public figure, but they are little beyond admirably coiffed policy distractions.
I’m all for leaving Mathieson at home wielding the blow-dryer and not having him doing the rounds of CWA afternoon teas and Scout hall meetings spruiking the party line.
As Sally Bercow, the wife of the British Speaker John Bercow, put it in the Guardian: “Don’t feel guilty – your partner is entirely capable of getting elected on their own.”
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