Federal Politics


Being 'out of touch' cuts both ways, and has its advantages

Of the many barbs in the political tool box, one of the most powerful - and frequently used - is the suggestion that a politician is ''out of touch''.

It's shorthand for: ''This MP doesn't know or care about you. He/she has more in common with Marie Antoinette than with regular folk.''

No one's immune from an OOT branding.

For example, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott is out of touch because he lives on the Audi-laden north shore of Sydney and Labor is out of touch because it introduced a carbon tax that will hurt mums, dads and their small businesses.

The Greens? They bang on about the fruffle-nosed donkey, while other people are trying to deal with real issues. Like mums, dads and their small businesses. But the biggie when it comes to out-of-touchness is Julia Gillard - not just due to the carbon tax - but because she's not married and doesn't have kids (and therefore couldn't possibly understand).

This week, Abbott insisted that his comment about Labor needing a ''bit more'' experience in the child department was not about the Prime Minister. He was talking about himself, given he has a lot of experience with kids. Whether or not Abbott was having a specific dig at Gillard, it doesn't change the fact that the Opposition Leader often tries to paint himself as more in touch with the electorate because he has a wife and three daughters.


As he defiantly said on Wednesday: ''I'm never going to apologise for being a dad and having a family.''

But is Abbott, the family and churchgoing man, the model of your typical Aussie?

And Gillard, the atheist, with a boyfriend in The Lodge, somehow niche?

The 2011 census found that while most families (44.6 per cent) involve couples with children, couples without children make up a hefty 37.8 per cent.

According to 2010 research by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, couples sans kids are also billed as the fastest growing type of family, projected to overtake couples with children by 2031.

But it would be a mistake to think that Australian voters were all about ''families'': the fastest growing household type is actually people who live by themselves.

When it comes to marriage, while it is still a very popular thing to do - 49 per cent of Australians over 15 have said ''I do'' - 41.3 per cent are not married, with just under 10 per cent in de facto relationships (like Julia and Tim).

Church-wise, when the census asked about religious affiliation, ''Catholic'' was the most common response (25.3 per cent), closely followed by ''no religion'' (22.3 per cent).

So, on paper it looks like Gillard and Abbott both have a lot in common with a lot of their fellow Australians.

But should we really be equating direct experience with expertise?

If that's the case, then both leaders are also ''out of touch'' with the fifth of the population that speaks a language other than English at home; the 34 per cent of polled Australians who believe in unidentified flying objects; or the 2.2 million people who live in Western Australia.

We need to get over the idea that, if politicians are not exactly like us and then do things we don't like or that don't sit with our own beliefs and lifestyle, they are ''out of touch''.

For one thing, it is impossible to be ''in touch'' with all the many walks and stripes of Australian life. For another, it is ridiculous to suggest that just because you don't have direct experience of something - be it kids, rainforest management or the UN Security Council - then you can't take advice or make sensible decisions about it.

Perhaps we place a little too much emphasis on in-touchness anyway. After all, being out of touch can have its advantages.

Part of being a good politician is to be able to think big - to see issues on an electorate, state or country-wide scale. And to see the connections between different communities, not just zero in on one particular group. Indeed, sometimes it's better not to have direct personal involvement in an issue, which might prevent you from understanding other points of view.

When jumping up and down about MPs being out of touch, we also forget how much we value the extraordinary (read: out of touch) achievements and experiences that some of them bring to Parliament.

Abbott's Oxford education is not generally seen as a minus. Nor is Malcolm Turnbull's stellar (eg, worked for Kerry Packer) curriculum vitae. Or Bob Carr's name-droppable connections around the world.

Besides, each time a politician is damned as being out of touch with Australia, you have to wonder how much Australia understands the pressures on and the reality of said MP?

How much do we really care about them?

Because, if we're that keen on touching, then surely it should cut both ways.

Judith Ireland is a Canberra Times journalist.