Julia Gillard tears and Tony Abbott’s limited speaking explained

 In Learning from Luminaries, Politicians

The emotion, waver in the voice and tears of Julia Gillard this week, were real. The episode with the Australian flag given to her by the helicopter pilots and the Jordan Rice matter touched her deeply. Her performance must be viewed with the backdrop and context of one of her first Queensland floods, media performances, and with the realities of politics.

Gillard’s political minders would have seen the condolence speech as a way to repair Gillard’s woodenness and tone deafness in her first Queensland floods press conference – where she came across, through her emotional tone, more like she was giving a litany of budget cuts versus expressing unvarnished, human compassion for the monumental losses of people. For whatever reason, Gillard was putting on spin in that performance, and presented almost like she was playacting because she was unsure how she should come across. (In Gillard’s defence, this was an unprecedented event that would have shaken the most steady-handed leader). She should have forgotten all spin and made a direct statement of concern, from one human being to another group of other human beings.

Because of the harsh criticism Gillard received for her Queensland performance, which would have given her a significant emotional hit, she was well-primed to let the emotion of empathy emerge in the condolence speech.  As well, the emotional content of the speech primed her to show emotion. My view on why Gillard mishandled the Queensland performance was that her emotions at that time, were ‘too deeply corked’. That is, on the tough path to becoming Prime Minister, she couldn’t have her emotions too close to the surface. If they emerged she might be viewed as not up to the job of PM.  In the Queensland’s press conference I believe Gillard’s emotional empathy was rising up to the surface so she could let it out – but because of its depth, it didn’t reach the surface in time. With the condolence speech the emotions were close to the surface and ready to be tapped.

The condolence speech had some cheesiness in it. For example, ‘. . .won’t travel the hard journey alone’. The speech would have come across as more genuine if she hadn’t used a speech writer, and had written the speech herself.


Concerning Tony Abbott’s ‘sh*t happens’ remark, my deconstruction is this: In the clip of Abbott’s interaction with the military commanders in the field, his face showed concern and seriousness consistent with someone listening to the story of how a soldier died. But it was a shallow expression – one of someone not taking in the gravity of losing the life of a soldier. It seemed that Abbott had equal concern that he was conveying a ‘tough guy image’ to the military men. The ‘sh*t happens’ remark was a match for this shallow, facial expression. The glibness of the remark was consistent with a ‘tough guy’ interaction banter.

This interaction demonstrates that Abbott doesn’t have many tone setting options for how he delivers his spoken messages.  He also has a large gap in his awareness of how he is perceived and how he is coming across. (I don’t believe he would have given a passing thought at the time (camera rolling or not) of how the soldier’s family would perceive the remark.)

The field interaction revealed Abbott in his default, blokey, fair dinkum mode, much like he was having a yarn with his mates at his Manly surf club. Abbott revels in his blokiness, always eager to get into action, to pick up some object, to cook a sausage etc. He is less comfortable when the situation calls for a tone outside this blokey one. He doesn’t have the capacity to take the higher view or the inspirational plane. He’s afraid of doing this so he retreats to blokiness.

Gillard can be wooden but in his own way so too is Abbott. He only has two, or so tone settings to convey his thoughts, which leaves him speechless – such as in the Channel 7, Mark Riley interview. He did indeed want to punch Riley, and that long silence happened because he didn’t have any verbal options to call on.

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