Optics the currency of politics

No matter which way you slice it, politics can be a superficial beast.

Cynics will tell you that, for politicians, the way things look is often more important than the outcomes that are achieved.

This is partly why people have flocked in droves to minor parties, as the populist tide of anti-establishment rhetoric continues to rise.

And it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of viewing every cairn planted in Australia’s political ladscape through this lens.

The Coalition just handed out a $730 million funding package for the Mersey Community Hospital?

Again, cynics will tell you it’s to shore up the Liberals’ ailing public support in Braddon rather than improve the quality of life for North-West citizens.

Labor just committed to winding back the Fair Work Commission’s ruling on penalty rates?

That could be labelled an opportunistic move aimed at winning over young people.

It should go without saying that this school of thought is fruitless - a cop-out.

But it’s also why politics can be such a dangerous game.

If something appears bad to the public, it can spell a politician’s – or, indeed, a government’s – downfall.

You might say that optics are the currency of politics.

When Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a man who once led the Australian Republican Movement to a failed referendum, met with the Queen this week, it’s fair to say the optics weren’t great.

“Even republicans like myself can be, and in my case are, very strong Elizabethans,” he declared after the meeting.

He stopped short of announcing he’d become a monarchist, instead extolling the virtues of Queen Elizabeth II on a personal level.

Hence, if he’s a fan of this Queen, he’s an Elizabethan.

Nonetheless, this episode highlighted the problem with Mr Turnbull’s prime ministership; it’s defined by its contradictions.

One minute, he’s ousting a conservative prime minister and positioning himself as a moderate alternative, the next he’s demonstrating he’s still captive to the right of the party by tightening citizenship laws and advocating for a plebiscite on same-sex marriage.

On the one hand, he’s outlining his vision for Snowy Hydro 2.0 and predicting that Tasmania could become the renewable energy battery of the nation, and on the other he’s waxing rhapsodic about the potential of carbon capture and storage coal-fired power stations.

Frankly, none of this is a good look.

And if it’s not a good look, you can bet that the voters will make him pay for it.

Meanwhile, federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten is licking his lips.

Somehow, he survived the horrendous optics of the Royal Commission into trade union governance and corruption, which saw him take the stand to defend his record as the former president of the Australian Workers Union.

Neither does he appear to have taken a big hit in the polls after being the face of an allegedly racist TV advertisement in which he proclaimed Labor would ‘Employ Australians First’.

Just as we saw in the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years, as long as a former prime minister is sniping at the incumbent from the sidelines, the Opposition will always have the upper hand.