All Carnage, No Charisma: Australian Politics Would Be a Terrible TV Series

On "House of Cards" Frank Underwood literally murders people. The closest Australia's second-in-command, Barnaby Joyce, has come to that is threatening to euthanise Johnny Depp's dogs.

by Osman Faruqi
28 April 2016, 4:08am

Illustration by Ben Thomson.

There's something particularly funny about watching shows like House of Cards as an Australian. As much as we can marvel and wince at the brutal political machinations deployed by the Underwoods, the show is even more of fantasy for us than it is for US audiences. Not just because our system of government is different, but also because no one can seriously imagine Australian politicians having the cunning, bravado or Machiavellian insight to pull of anything remotely akin to what we see on these political TV dramas.

Frank Underwood went from vice president to the Oval Office by manipulating geopolitics, winning fraught negotiations with billionaire industrialists, and literally murdering people. Can you imagine Australia's second-in-command, Barnaby Joyce, in a high stakes power struggle with Russia's president or the Chinese premier? The closest Barnaby has come to actual murder is threatening to euthanise Johnny Depp's Yorkshire Terriers.

But to be fair, Barnaby is hardly an exception. Most Australians just don't view our politicians as particularly sharp, cunning characters. And to be fair to most Australians, it's not as though our political class has given the voting public much reason to think otherwise.

Last week, Federal Parliament was prorogued and recalled for a joint-sitting of both houses, a political tactic not used for over a century. Exciting, innovative, disruptive policy-making? Most normal people (ie. people who don't work the bizarre world of media and politics) probably didn't even realise it was happening.

The question of why it failed to capture the public's imagination is tough. On the surface it sounds pretty damn Frank Underwood, right? Breaking all the rules, catching all your opponents off guard, seizing the momentum.

It likely has something to do with the fact that the big, important policy we're being sent to the polls over isn't some sort of landmark health or education reform that affects most people. It's relatively niche: The re-establishment Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).

Half of all Australians don't even know if the ABCC is a good or bad thing, but the government thinks a new bureaucratic organisation with the goal of investigating alleged corruption in the building industry somehow warrants a historic early election.

Every great drama needs its star-crossed lovers. Image via

That's not very exciting. Especially when you compare it to something like the massive, completely insane idea to create universal employment. But this is exactly the problem with Australian politics right now. On all sides, ideas seem to be in short supply. Instead, the focus is uninspiring tactics.

Where House of Cards portrays American politics as a kind of elegant, deadly chess game, #auspol feels more like mud wrestling. Especially when most of parliament's time seems to be spent lobbing Royal Commissions at one another and hoping they stick.

The Abbott Government gave us a Royal Commission into home insulation (seriously) and another one into trade union corruption. In a twist that would be more appropriate in a soap opera than in real actual life it turned out that the bloke running the trade union Royal Commission was also helping the Liberal Party out with political fundraising. He was subsequently cleared of all wrongdoing... by himself.

Now the Labor Party is promising a Royal Commission into banks. And it's hard to fight the urge to rake the banks—with their billion dollar profits and constant corporate corruption scandals—over hot coals. But going for it just before an election, with few details about what would actually be covered, seems cynical. Since when did we lengthy, expensive Royal Commissions become the default political battleground?

On all sides, ideas seem to be in short supply. Instead, the focus is uninspiring tactics.

If Australian politics insists on being as absurd as a TV drama, what we need is a little bit of the West Wing's soaring rhetoric, some Frank Underwood (to remind us that politicians are basically all evil), and maybe a dash of Neighbours for that folksy, relatable charm. Right now what we've got is all a bit too Benny Hill meets Monty Python.

Because changing prime ministers four times in five years is farcical. Breaking parliamentary convention so you can call an early election over a policy basically know one knows about is ludicrously cynical. Announcing Royal Commissions instead of actually proposing new policies is lazy. Wheeling out government ministers to deny the existence of climate change as one of the natural wonders of the world cooks itself to death is actually terrifying.

While we're arguing about inquiries and commissions, the country is facing the stuff of serious drama. Is an election of ideas, featuring some actual competent politics too much to ask for? I guess it just wouldn't make for good enough TV.

Osman is even meaner to politicians on Twitter.

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