Winning some, losing more: the price conservatives pay to “double down”

May 18, 2024
Blackjack Image: istock/RealDealPhoto

Doubling down is a term used to describe a high-risk manoeuvre that blackjack players make when they decide to double their potential losses to receive just one card from the deck. In conservative politics it’s a move typically made to send a signal to political associates and supporters that despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, all is well.

Professor Renee Leon succeeded Kathryn Campbell as Secretary in the Department of Human Services in 2017. Campbell had allegedly colluded with Scott Morrison when he was Australia’s Social Services Minister in 2015, allowing him to falsely lead Cabinet to believe that legal advice was not necessary to push for an automated income averaging system that authorised the raising of more than 800,000 social security debt notices. Around half of the debts raised were in error, some by a lot, with the burden of proof falling on the recipients of the debt notices under the legislation pioneered by Morrison and Campbell. The widespread anguish caused by the appearance of debt collectors at the door and the 2300 deaths recorded of debt notice recipients, gave rise to what became known as Robodebt.

When the Federal Court decision in the Amato case declared Robodebt illegal in November 2019, Professor Leon gave sworn evidence to the Robodebt Royal Commission that she advised then Minister Stuart Robert to issue a statement of apology and take steps to remedy the wrongs it had caused. Up until that point both Leon and Robert had defended Robodebt against increasing evidence presented in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and reported in the media that the legislation on which it was founded was fundamentally flawed. Robert gave evidence to the Commission that he persisted in defending the scheme when he knew it was wrong because the Westminster System required him to do that. Leon gave evidence that Robert rejected her advice, and immediately insisted he would instead double down on the legitimacy of the legislation and the debts being demanded under it. Robert meekly changed that approach when Attorney General Christian Porter advised him that the Amato decision prevailed.

Doubling down is a knee-jerk response that certain powerful political figures increasingly adopt when adversity presents itself, and they love the brand that they see associating themselves with winning against the odds. Doubling down is a term used to describe a high-risk manoeuvre that blackjack players make when they decide to double their potential losses to receive just one card from the deck. In conservative politics it’s a move typically made to send a signal to political associates and supporters that despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, all is well.

Doubling down is a way to demonstrate that the hairy chested conservative man engaging in the practice is doing so to display that he is also a man who should be admired for his macho ticker. He may or may not be an official member of the ‘big swinging dicks’ club on the conservative side of the parliamentary wing, but his predilection for taking heroic risks is an attribute that a mere woman could not fully appreciate, though she might give herself the freedom to admire the boyish chutzpah associated with the practice. Hence Stuart Robert’s haughty comeback to Renee Leon compared to his docile acquiescence to Christian Porter.

John Howard set the tone for doubling down in politics that has taken root in Australian conservative circles since. The most notable exercise of the manoeuvre was his refusal to allow 433 unwell asylum seekers rescued in the waters around Christmas Island by the captain of a Norwegian freighter, Tampa, to unload his human cargo on the Australian mainland. In a stand that violated time-honoured maritime traditions around sea rescues, Howard’s resolute act against the Tampa, which less kind observers described as a callous stunt, arguably won him the 2001 election against Kim Beazley. Beazley’s pitiful surrender was ample demonstration of the very want of ticker in Howard’s adversary, and helped legitimise the tactic.

While Howard ticker might have won the 2001 election, his penchant for doubling down contributed to his loss against Kevin Rudd in 2007. That election was dominated by WorkChoices, Howard’s signature industrial relations legislation that became law in 2005. WorkChoices gave unprecedented power to employers, signalled among other things by the erosion of unfair dismissal avenues open to workers in small businesses.

While ordinary legal mortals advising the Coalition were arguing the toss around whether the threshold number for a small business was to be 10, 15 or 20 employees, Howard was credited with an audacious macho masterstroke that put the number into another zone at 101 employees, greatly increasing the number of Australian workers who would be ineligible to seek remedy for unfair dismissal.

There is rarely certainty about the issues that win or lose elections, but it’s widely accepted that where Tampa may have won the 2001 election, WorkChoices over-reach lost it for Howard in 2007. Led by Greg Combet, the unfair dismissal provision within WorkChoices became a focus of the union campaign in 2007. Combet prevailed, Rudd was elected and WorkChoices was swiftly repealed.

While Howard might have led the conservative inclination to double down in Australian politics, which still motivates many aspiring Coalition politicians to this day, ground zero for doubling down is the Republican Party in America, and its most daring exponent is no other than the 2024 Republican nominee for President, Donald Trump. The practice led Trump to face two impeachments during his term in office and has continued since with his election interference lies and his troubled history with women.

Former journalist E Jean Carroll took Trump to court twice over him having raped her during 1995 in a New York department store. Instead of fighting two civil defamation cases brought by Carroll in 2020 and 2023 on a simple consent defence, Trump doubled down, as he has done with all sexual harassment and rape allegations against him, by insisting he has never met Carroll let alone raped her, and that her claim is a “hoax” and a “con job”. Besides, she wasn’t his “type”, meaning she was regarded as not meeting his crude standards relating to female beauty. To date the courts have not given him credit for that story, which has cost him US$82 million and counting, as he continues to deny publicly that he has ever met Carroll and lodges expensive appeals, with each appeal accompanied by calls to his long-suffering donors to help fight the “witch hunt” against him.

Having learned nothing from the E Jean Carroll experience, Trump is insisting on denials to a criminal court in Manhattan that he had a relationship with either Karen MacDougal or Stormy Daniels in the period around 2006. Unsurprisingly, there is a mountain of evidence to the contrary, and surprisingly, it’s clear he does not really need to run with such extreme denials in order to defend the charges against him. His unfortunate lawyers are constantly playing to two conflicting audiences: one is the jury that might convict their client; the other is the client himself who watches their every move in case they are tempted to sound conciliatory in order to appeal to the jury rather than belligerent in order to appeal to Trump.

Meanwhile in Australia, the justice system is reeling from an aborted criminal case and a defamation trial around a Liberal Party female staffer, Brittany Higgins, alleging she was raped in 2019 by a Liberal Party male staffer, Bruce Lehrmann. In both trials, Lehrmann decided to double down by not arguing a consent defence and instead insisting that his lawyers persist with a highly unlikely story that he had no contact with an inebriated Higgins when he took her back to the alleged scene of the crime at Parliament House in the early hours after a long night out drinking.

Like Trump, Lehrmann had no need to adopt such a defence, with the likelihood of success with a consent defence being much better than evens. But as a young conservative he may well have thought it was on-brand to double down rather than fight a high-profile winnable case on a common consent defence. If telling a big lie and getting away with it, is a rite of passage for an aspiring and ambitious conservative, Lehrmann was on the road to bringing in some glittering prizes. But like a blackjack player on a bad night, he took the high-risk road, called for an expensive card, and comprehensively lost. The judge in his defamation case found he abused the court’s processes and instructed his lawyers to pursue a costly case based on a false premise that he knew was false.

Most senior conservative leaders backed Lehrmann against his junior female counterpart through both trials, confirming the enthusiasm for doubling down against the odds is fully alive at the Coalition’s core. A vocal conservative strategist, Tony Barry, has suggested that Peter Dutton’s Liberal Party is betting the house on an expensive blackjack card with his nuclear energy policy, calling it the “longest suicide note in Australian political history”. Perhaps writing suicide notes without actually suiciding is just another way to stay on brand. It might lead to another big loss, but that’s the price of standing as a resolute male in an increasingly female world gone irredeemably woke.

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