You keep yourself nice, you shake the right hands. You spend decades cultivating the good opinion of punters of every political stripe. And then you go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like ‘At least there was some civility dealing with those guys.’ The you being Joe Biden, the then being last week at a New York City fundraiser, the guys in question being a couple of good ol’ boy segregationists of the 1970’s.
It’s too early to know if Mr Biden’s latest gaffe will compromise his bid for the Democratic nomination as much as Mitt Romney’s Republican nomination campaign was compromised by his mentioning, on CNN, that he was ‘not concerned about the very poor’ – a statement which, in addition to not dove-tailing terribly well with his Mormon Elder credentials, may have been what prompted me to notice that ‘Mitt Romney’ is an anagram of ‘not my remit’. But Joe Biden (whose name, I’ve just realised, is an anagram of ‘I need job’) is not the only politician in the news right now who has a proclivity for what the novelist Joyce Carey termed tumbril remarks. Boris Johnson’s tendency to get both feet and most of his legs in his mouth while mic’d up is almost certainly the reason he decided not to participate in the opening round of ‘It’s a Number 10 Knockout’. And while his late-night barny with his girlfriend certainly made the front pages of most British dailies, it was a walk in the PR park compared to his comparison, last year, of women who wear burqas to letter boxes. Or his unscripted recitation, while visiting a Burmese temple in his capacity as British Foreign Secretary, of Rudyard Kipling’s ode to empire The Road to Mandalay.
Australian politicians have made their fair share of self-immolating faux pas, of course, but they tend to be less nuanced. Only the most generous biographer would suggest that one of our most-respected Prime Ministers ‘mis-spoke’ when he described Australia as ‘the arse end of the world’, or that the founder of our fourth largest party was being ironic when she asked a reporter what ‘xenophobic’ meant.
But once in a while one of them does or says something which gives us a glimpse into a mindset or agenda which is cause for more than laughter. The recent stand-off between CFMEU leader John Retka and ACTU chief Sally McManus has been described by some journalists like the clash of two MMA fighters; Mr Setka’s ample frame and impressive tattoo collection being weighed up against Ms McManus’s martial arts prowess and legendary pain threshold.
But for me the most compelling thing about Ms McManus’s contribution to this conundrum was something she said the day after Anthony Albanese called for Mr Setka’s dismissal. When she opined, during a press conference, that Mr Setka should resign even though, having talked to people who were in the room with Mr Setka at the time he’s alleged to have made the offending remarks, she believed him to be entirely innocent of Albo’s allegations. As she made this point more than once, and underlined it with the assertion that ‘nothing is bigger than the union’ it may be worth considering it in a different context. Pending the decision of the Victorian Court of Appeal, even the Pope, an arguably more powerful head of an indisputably larger and more influential organisation, has yet to dispossess George Pell of his cardinal’s robes, and if he is acquitted, which is starting to look not inconceivable, he will presumably retain them (although they might well confiscate the alb). In upholding the rights of the individual over the reputation of the organisation, the modern Catholic Church, for all its arcane values and questionable governance, is at least trying to be consistent with certain keystone democratic values. The subversion and sacrifice of the rights of the individual for the greater good of the movement, on the other hand, is a founding principle of a much younger, but some would say equally anachronistic, tradition.
Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Subscribe – Try a month free