‘At Home With Julia’ exposes obsession with personality over policy

Julia Gillard is portrayed sympathetically in the new ABC satire. ABC Television publicity

Does the ABC’s new hit series At Home With Julia demonstrate an unreconstructed sexism in Australian political satire? Should we be cringing at our cultural immaturity again?

If the 2010 Election (or subsequent negotiations) had turned out a little differently, is there any chance we’d be enjoying a program called “At Home With Tony”? Probably yes.

At Home With Tony?

I can certainly see the comic potential of a mock Tony Abbott trying to play the father from My Three Sons to an increasingly independent wife Margaret and three daughters, one of whom has called him a “lame, gay churchy loser”. The family life of the Catholic Abbotts struggling with the patriarchal heritage is quaint enough for comedy, just as is Gillard and Tim Mathieson’s unmarried and childless status. Both are just odd enough to be funny without being outrageous.

Several senior politicians are open about being in long-term homosexual relationships, but it would be satirical provocation of a completely different order entirely if they were depicted as comic romantic tension in a TV series.

I’m certainly not inclined to go down the path of fleshing that idea out, not even to name some obvious names. This imagined program would run an extreme risk both of being personally hurtful and of exciting destructive passions. It really would be risky satire.

What’s acceptable satire?

Don’t get me wrong. Sexism is a similar sort of evil to homophobia. People should not be derided for who and what they are, though satire’s job is to test and occasionally transgress those boundaries.

It’s just that At Home With Julia isn’t very transgressive. It doesn’t seem to me to be attacking Gillard because she is a woman, or Mathieson because he is a man; or Bill Shorten because he is a terrier, for that matter. The program attacks Gillard through her being a woman, but only incidentally and rather gently.

Tony Abbott’s archaic blokiness is similarly a vector for ridicule, every time a cartoonist draws him with chest carpet and red speedos.

Role reversal

Julia Gillard, as played by Amanda Bishop, comes across as a woman doing her best. YouTube/NewOnABCTV

At Home with Julia’s first episode finds humour in the still slightly odd domestic situation of a couple where the wife has the career and the man keeps the home.

This “man bites dog” situation was little more than a pretext for sympathetic comedy, however. Tim shopping for Australian produce in an aggressively globalised Canberra supermarket, Julia having to invite the three country independents home for dinner on a planned “date night” with Tim: it’s only one gentle role reversal away from I Dream of Jeannie.

The program is less like commedia dell’ arte with political material than acerbic political satire.

Its gentle ridicule of the PM will not satisfy anyone on the Convoy of No Confidence that rolled into Canberra a couple of weeks back, calling Gillard a liar and a witch.

They won’t be writing letters of complaint to the ABC about the show demeaning the office of Prime Minister. If they can watch it without exploding, they’ll conclude that it is another part of the elites’ plot to foist bad government and bad morality onto the nation.

A sympathetic view

This would not be an entirely absurd view. At Home With Julia mostly humanises the PM, and filled me (at least a little) with sympathy for the impossible situation she finds herself in.

Trying to please Bob Katter and Bob Brown, having to listen politely to Paul Keating telling her how he’d be running the country, surrounded by prying journalists, working long days where every moment seems to be controlled by others: the lot of a PM with a hung parliament is clearly not a happy one.

Personality over policy

What the program and its imagined secret counterpart “At Home With Tony” really point to is the emptiness of policy or even political content in our public life.

Our leading politicians are presented not as proponents of ideas or programs, but as rather crappy celebrities in a Big Brother house called democracy.

It’s personality politics where the decision is boiled down to a visceral choice between “like” and “don’t like”.

And it seems probable to me that those campaign geniuses who brought us the last election’s battle between “moving forward” and “real action” will already be plotting how to get their product picked up in sympathetic satirical programs.

I can hear it now: “So much more edgy and real than that soft photo shoot for Women’s Weekly!” Will David Flint be thundering from the Australian about the ABC’s satire bias, its refusal to give Abbott equal satirical air time?

There is a thin cynicism in Australian politics at present that reduces government to a numbers game where some players win and others lose.

The open question for the next three episodes of At Home With Julia is whether the program merely reflects this fact and plays along with laughter of recognition, or rises to a greater challenge. Can the series expose the deeper problems of our tawdry celebrity politics and evoke the destructive but cleansing laughter of ridicule?

At Home With Julia airs on ABC1 tonight at 9.30pm.