"The questions about them are questions of character."
Redolent of a bygone era of wood-panelled manners and polished-brass probity, the character question still carries a heavy weight of judgment.
In November 2020, the black cloud fuming over the political futures of two Morrison government ministers, Christian Porter and Alan Tudge, has been whipped up by "questions of character", as Sydney Morning Herald political correspondent David Crowe observed in the wake of a Four Corners program that highlighted allegations of the dismally misogynist culture in Parliament House.
Character counts. In politics, it is the ultimate measure of approval and ascendancy, or an inescapable verdict of rejection. In the 1998 election, prime minister John Howard slyly wondered aloud if opposition leader Kim Beazley had the "ticker" for the top job.
Howard provided a gratuitous character assessment of his opponent that turned perceptions of leadership capacity in the prime minister's favour.
In the noisy theatre of Canberra politics, questions of character may not loom as an obvious measure of credibility. There's a premium placed on political marketing skills.
Character roleplaying can help; the blokey type works for some male political leaders. But playing the feelgood knockabout only succeeds if people think you really are that person. Cheering at the footy or wrapping yourself in the team scarf may look convincing, or expose you as a desperate wannabe. It's a character judgment.
Political marketing must have roots in authenticity. How do you judge the promise of a better future from the talking head on the screen? It's a question of trusting face value, tied to an assessment of personal conduct.
When Australia federated in 1901, the newspapers were filled with character assessments of the nation's future leaders. "A primary consideration in the choice now before the country should be the character of the men who aspire to make its laws ... whose personal qualities command [the electors] entire respect and confidence," the Adelaide Advertiser declared in March 1901, as the first federal election approached.
Alfred Deakin passed the federation character test. A compelling public speaker, Deakin dominated Parliament and public meetings, serving three times as prime minister in the post-federation decade.
His ascendancy was a function of the quality of his character. The Women's Suffrage campaigner Rose Scott was a harsh judge of male character, and not least in politicians. Yet in 1903 she told Deakin that he was the man "we want to run the country", because he was "in earnest", and "if true and earnest men are at the helm, the country cannot suffer".
Few women have had the opportunity to prosper in political leadership, and they have often endured harsher judgments than their male counterparts. At times Labor prime minister Julia Gillard and Liberal opposition leader Tony Abbott seemed locked in bitter character conflict - sometimes open, sometimes exercised as a nasty shadow game, until Gillard called out Abbott in her "misogyny" speech of October 2012.
Gillard's performance at the despatch box reflected true strength of character, although she could not prevail over the double front assaults on her leadership - and her political character - by both Abbott and her Labor nemesis, Kevin Rudd.
Negative public judgment about the broken carbon tax promise also degraded the character stock she strove to build in the minds of the people when she assumed the Labor leadership in 2010.
It wasn't long before prime minister Tony Abbott also made a disastrous miscalculation, and traded away a large sum of his own character stock with a blithe dismissal in the 2013 federal election campaign: "No cuts to education, no cuts to health ... and no cuts to the ABC or SBS." That shamelessly broken promise, exposed by the financial axe taken to government services in the 2014 budget, fed straight into a negative verdict on Abbott's political character. His leadership never recovered.
The Morrison government is being reminded that character is the rare earth of political commodities; elusive and vital, it powers all else.
- Dr Mark Hearn is a senior lecturer in the Department of History and Archaeology at Macquarie University.