RICHARD WHITINGTON. What will Weatherill, Emerson and the willy-wag-tails teach the wombats?

Nov 11, 2019

Here we have two wombats, Lofty and Rorty. They’re stranded on the median strip in the middle of a busy freeway, on their way home from a meeting where, against most expectations, they were outflanked in their bid to take over the Association of Australian Native Animals (AANA).

Bamboozled, bewildered and befuddled, divided and indecisive about how to waddle to safety through the roaring traffic, Lofty and Rorty are bombarded by noisy advice  from a flock of mostly well-intentioned willy-wag-tails swirling around and above them, trying to suggest a way out of trouble.

Disappointment and confusion aren’t new to these two. It’s 12 years since they won more than 40 per cent of the vote at the AANA elections. In the last three polls, all of which they lost, they struggled to attract one in three punters, and posted the lowest primary vote for the wombats in their entire history.

The willy-wag-tails are dishing up a range of disparate, conflicting, sometimes worthy, occasionally malicious and stupid suggestions. These birds feature big in Australian aboriginal culture as bearers of bad news or stealers of secrets. They need to be treated with some scepticism. Some would even like to see them silenced or censored!

Night settles and the traffic on the freeway abates, but the wombats still aren’t up to making a dash for it. The willy-wag-tails join them on the median strip for a forensic examination of the wombats’ political malaise. Other animals wander in, to contribute, including imports, like rabbits, foxes and even Indian mynah birds.

One of the willy-wag-tails says: “If you’ve fallen on bad times, the only way out is to start with basic principles; and as few of them as possible. Whether you’re an individual, a sports club, a charity, a business, a political movement, or a wombat – simplicity and brutal honesty are your best hope of survival.”

He continues: “Having failed in your advocacy this time around, be careful not to give the impression that you’re merely searching for something new to believe in.

“Give unwavering priority to fundamental values, like protecting the vulnerable, the voiceless and the disenfranchised from the powerful and entitled. Stick up for those who are less in command of their own destiny than those who are.

“Don’t be bullied and conned out of the idea that government spending and ownership of assets produces social and economic benefits; that there is a time and place for debt and deficits; that government has an obligation to moderate the unchecked excesses of the “haves” and minimise the inequities wrought on the “have nots”.

Lofty likes this. His spirits are lifted.

He wants his mob to clearly distinguish themselves from its opponents. There’s a tendency in the bush to let nature take its course, with animals rewarded and incentivised for being capable of self-sufficiency, unfettered by regulation or the burdensome cost of redistributing opportunities to the animals who can’t create their own chances in life.

At this point, a blue tongue lizard emerges. These guys are hard-core “back-room” in the scheme of AANA politics. Spotting a gap in the traffic, he’s joined the throng in the middle of the freeway.

“Never forget,” he says, “that your supporters are just as selfish and self-interested as you are. And probably just as stupid. If you believe in stuff that’s complex to explain, walk away from it as being “too hard to sell”. Ditching policies which didn’t work at the last election might call into question your commitment to the ideas you put up next time, but nobody remembers. All the polling verifies this.”

Rorty is nodding in furious agreement.

“We can change things once we’ve won power,” Rorty says. “Don’t jeopardise victory by explaining in advance what we’re going to do in government; it only scares people off!”

Lofty responds: “That’s what some people are saying about our most recent campaign: it said more about our fear of losing, than demonstrating why we were worthy of winning.”

“Well, yeah,” says Rorty, “but we also need to assign some order of importance to the “contemporary” issues which seem to have overtaken the joint. We’re being portrayed as a coalition of the judgmental, an alliance of the intolerant, a stitched-together patchwork of single-issue zealots: inter-species procreation rights, the anti fox-baiters, persecution of cane toads, ill-treatment of race horses, legalisation of animals other than koalas to get stoned on eucalyptus leaves, even the business about whether we should have a kookaburra or that lion in the zoo as our king.”

Rorty continues: “We need to ask our supporters which of those issues they’d rank, alone, above the objective of a society committed to a more equal distribution of wealth, opportunity and justice.”

Lofty seems uncomfortable. Personally, he’s very strongly against fox baiting. But he tries to bring his focus back to the basics.

“It is the job of political leaders to engender trust, affection, even a little excitement: to articulate principles, consistently, fearlessly, to whatever audience they’re addressing – inner city Labradoodles, outer suburban Rottweilers, far flung Queensland dingoes and Western Australia quokkas, recent arrivals, like rabbits and mynah birds, or those who regard themselves as old-timers in this country, like us and the kangaroos.”

At this point a crow drops in, all strutting, eyes darting in every direction, flicking the throat feathers this way and that. They don’t call crows “wily” for nothing.

“I was just passing overhead, and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. You sound like a bunch of humans! Haven’t you caught up with what happened to the ALP? Same sort of stuff, same sort of questions.”

Even the willy-wag-tails quietened down as the crow continued.

“The humans have a splintered nation: by region, by generation, and certainly even within broad socio-economic groups.

Some of the so-called “wealthy” and well-off care about things other than their own wealth while similar people will vote, predictably, to protect only their own immediate financial security.”

“Seems the ALP mis-read or ignored the nuanced differences between various “classes” and regions of Australia. They did a real poor job of presenting to the people of regional Queensland a long-term plan for what might replace their mining-dependent livelihoods. Three out of four Queenslander didn’t “Vote 1” for Labor.”

The blue tongue lizard gasped.

The crow went on: “The dilemma for Labor? Abandon its commitment to a sustainable environmental future and an intact Barrier Reef, so Queenslanders will be assured, forever, of jobs in the finite-resources sector? And see how that goes down in seats near the centre of the Southern capitals.

“Or,” he opined, “explain to its inner suburban constituency that phasing out mining in Queensland simply can’t happen overnight?”

“Not to mention explaining to people whose livelihoods are in the finite resources sector, that there’ll be jobs for their kids in the infinite resources sector, like sun and wind, and globally competitive industries like IT and tourism.”

This is getting a bit deep for the wombats. They’re playing catch up with the rapid evolution of the political landscape and the bush telegraph through which it’s discussed, and campaigns are run.

Rorty took the chance to toss one in: “And they shouldn’t have bagged the big end of town; I heard that really cost them.”

“The problem, Rorty,” the crow responded, “was that they didn’t bag the big end of town. They targeted individual mums and dads – rich as they might be – when they could have reaped just as much revenue from corporations – especially foreign ones – who are dodging more tax than all the franking credit dudes combined.

“They were handed the ammunition by the very Royal Commission they fought hard to set up, and an endless succession of wage-theft cases. Somehow, they missed that opportunity.

“Instead, they frightened the tail feathers off a bunch of articulate and competent old people, each of whom have about 10 progeny who retailed the horror Labor proposed.”

The crow was on a roll….

“And talking about ‘wage earners’ doesn’t necessarily resonate with self-employed people, in very similar economic brackets, who see themselves as “small business” and regard themselves as markedly different and better off than those in conventional jobs.”

The pragmatic blue-tongue lizard chimed in: “Whether you’re a parliamentary leader, a national or state secretary, a campaign director, a staffer – your only responsibility is to maximise the chances of your party winning government. Three years is a reasonable time to devote to the task and secure a result.

“If your policy frightens the daylights out of people – tradies or trendies – your burden is to explain why it shouldn’t, why what you’re advocating is in everyone’s long term self-interest, particularly for future generations, and for your credibility in world forums.

“It’s your job to understand the nuances and subtleties as they emerge and develop responses to them. And to figure how to deal with your own Leader’s sometimes uninspiring and wooden public persona and delivery. That Shorten bloke saved his best speech to last, when he conceded defeat on election night.”

By now, the pink light of dawn was emerging. The traffic was quiet enough for even the wombats to make a dash to their home side of the freeway.

The crow had a bit of a peck around on the grass, muttering to himself: “I wonder if they know  it is the anniversary of that Whitlam fella being sacked by the Queen of human Australia? What did he do to get elected, at only his second shot, after his mob had lost nine straight….?”

An old koala had stuck around (they’d built a suspension bridge over the freeway for him). Looking at what was left of the messed-up turf on the median strip, he asked the crow if he’d be back for another chat, observing ironically that they’d hardly scratched the surface.

“We haven’t really dealt with climate change, yet…. let alone Albo.”

Richard Whitington was a publicist for the Australia Party from 1969 to 1974, a member of Gough Whitlam’s staff from 1974 to 1977, and worked at the ALP’s advertising agency, Forbes Macfie Hansen from 1977 to 1981. After a subsequent career in advertising, corporate communications and executive recruitment, he retired earlier this year to do some freelance writing. Website:

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