What ‘The Killing Season’ Has Shown Us

25 / 06 / 2015

Prodigiously talented Culture Club stalwart Karen Pickering this month faces her fears and takes a fresh look at a topsy turvy time in federal politics many of us would rather forget, reviewing ABC’s The Killing Season. Far from alone (but more eloquently than most) Karen notes the super-macho schoolyard bully style of leadership that continues to hold sway in this country, and the disservice it does us all.

It was with no small amount of trepidation that I sat down to watch The Killing Season, ABC’s three part series on the turmoil of the Rudd Gillard years and a government that absolutely destroyed itself. Maybe it really did feel “too soon”, maybe I just didn’t want to relive the horror of it all – the hopes dashed, the daily disappointments, the savage infighting that took place on the progressive left, and the ultimate realisation that all this had resulted in an Abbott government.

Yes, I take it that seriously. I felt so emotionally invested in this period of history that I pushed through my reluctance and watched the first two episodes (the third screens after the time of writing this piece). I was really thrilled to discover that The Killing Season was written and narrated by Sarah Ferguson and produced by Deborah Masters, both giants of investigative journalism and the narrative documentary form. There was no doubting that this would be brilliant television of the highest quality, and the source material certainly had the air of a Greek tragedy.

But it’s not an epic poem, is it? It’s our reality. The reality of political life in this country and the future of our society depends on the ability of these titanic egos to work together, build consensus and get the job done. It can’t be disputed that the Gillard government was incredibly successful in terms of legislation passed, despite the challenges of governing from a minority in the House. But after watching The Killing Season I feel rather more circumspect about the record of a government that simply could not quell its demons for long enough to be reelected.

Of course, Australian political history is littered with tales of desperate betrayals, devastating falls from grace and shattered dreams, but something I realised while watching The Killing Season is that it’s also infected with a particularly virulent strain of toxic masculinity. Everything from the title, The Killing Season (referencing the colloquial name in Canberra for the last sitting week of Parliament, when political assassinations usually occur), knifing leaders, battles to the death, and blood on the floor, through to talk of gangs, hunting, backstabbing and war games (“war gaming” now a verb meaning preparing for any scenario) reeks of macho posturing and, frankly, it’s little wonder that women struggle to gain traction, credibility and support in a space that is constructed in such an aggressively masculine way. What we have is the equation of manliness (in the narrowest sense) with reliability and the qualities of leadership. After seeing this play out at the State level on a smaller scale, it was inevitable that Julia Gillard would represent the ultimate challenge to this culture.

Because when you consider what really works in Australian politics – what ignites the public imagination and allows a politician to become and remain successful, it is often these expressions of aggressive or toxic masculinity, irrespective of which side of the House they are on. The most potent and recent examples I can think of are Tony Abbott and Paul Keating. These two men could not be more diametrically opposed, politically and ideologically, but they share a bullyboy aspect to their public personae that is highly valued by their supporters and arguably contributed to their electoral success. In the case of Abbott, the Australian public knows that he has a history of physical violence and it did not prevent him being elected Prime Minister. And while I am personally guilty of finding it extremely satisfying to recall Keating’s contemptuous parliamentary performances, there is no question that his aggression and anger at his opponents was political dynamite.

How many times have politicians had a beer and a TAB ticket thrust into their hands for a photo opportunity? In the case of Bob Hawke, his excessive (and record-breaking) drinking was celebrated as a personal triumph by adoring voters. The revelation that Kevin Rudd had once visited a strip club in New York worked in his favour, “humanising” him in the eyes of voters who perhaps thought he was too effete, intellectual, or soft. Greg Combet won hearts and minds as the union hard man, with his straight talk and salty language, and Anthony Albanese’s exhortation that he “fights Tories” delighted his supporters and minted more.

At every level of Australian politics, we see a celebration and vindication of “typically masculine” virtues – ruthlessness, bullying, performances of contempt for the opponent – while “typically feminine” qualities are routinely denigrated and presented as weakness – a balanced approach, a preference for consultation, and considering the emotional in policy responses to political questions. How many female leaders – Joan Kirner, Anna Bligh, Kristina Kenneally – have been criticised by the media and their opponents for being “too emotional” about a particular issue, despite them all providing outstanding service to their parties and constituents? How many people still pillory Bob Hawke for showing emotion over the plight of Chinese dissidents?

At the time of writing, two episodes of The Killing Season have been broadcast and a third episode will air this week, presumably focusing on the particular kinds of abuse and punishment Gillard came in for once Prime Minister – for her failure to recover credibility after “knifing” a sitting PM, but also for something far beyond her control, her gender. We’ve seen a lot of discussion about how this played out in terms of how Gillard was treated by the media and voters, but this glimpse behind the scenes may also explain that the reluctance to accept the authority of a female leader began in the cabinet room and with caucus.

So what does a show like The Killing Season tell us about this political culture and how it might meaningfully be challenged? I’d argue that it provides a document of a time, a place and a set of dynamics that can be seen for what they are – an impediment to our best chances at genuine representation and government with integrity. As long as our political landscape, and houses of parliament, are dominated by this aggressive strain of insecure masculinity, we won’t have the best people in the top job.

You can watch The Killing Season on ABC by clicking here.

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