In appearing on the cover of GQ magazine, Greens leader Richard Di Natale is playing an old game. He is using a carefully contrived media presentation to send a strong message about an attribute of “Political Richard” that he wants voters to see and understand.
It does not imply that this is the whole of him or even a large part of him. It is an image showing the facet of his political persona that he calculates is important to project at this time.
It is a well-tried ploy.
When Julia Gillard, as prime minister, was accused in 2010 of lacking femininity, she appeared on the cover of that most iconic of publications directed at the respectable middle of Australian womanhood – the Australian Women’s Weekly.
And how was she presented? As winsomely feminine: cheekily flirtatious smile, engaging eyes, hair in a carefree fly-away style, the quintessence of seriously attractive womanhood. The message was clear: she has to be tough to do this gig, but underneath is a real woman to be admired by women and perhaps even desired by men.
GQ describes itself as:
… the definitive men’s magazine with style advice, tips, sexy women, entertainment and culture news.
In April last year, Malcolm Turnbull made an appearance on its cover, magnificently turned out in a blue-and-white striped shirt with white Oxford collar, rust-orange and white tie, and rich blue jacket. The steady gaze, mouth set in a firm line, left hand clenched across his midriff, suggested a man poised to take charge.
This was a portrait of power. And indeed the magazine labelled this as “The Power Issue”. The message was equally clear: this man is ready. He has a grip.
Di Natale has borrowed a page from this playbook. Having taken over leadership of the Greens from the somewhat ideologically rigid Christine Milne after she resigned the position ten months ago, Di Natale has made a virtue of presenting himself as the face of a newly pragmatic Greens party.
He has explicitly described himself as “not an ideologue”, saying that if the policies are right, the politics will follow.
Emblematic of this is that the Greens have supported the Coalition government’s legislation to amend the voting laws so as to wipe out microparties in the Senate. In the GQ interview Di Natale goes so far as to say that while an alliance with the Liberals generally would be most unlikely, he would “never say never”.
So here he is on the cover of GQ in a black turtleneck top, sharp charcoal-and-grey check trousers, fashionable black-rimmed glasses, the epitome of contemporary man’s sartorial severity.
For this he has been lampooned on social media, being photoshopped into the Wiggles and into a James Bond pose. A (passable) likeness to the late boss of Apple, Steve Jobs, has also been pointed out.
Who cares? The message from the image is clear: you don’t have to wear a hair shirt to be a Green. You can wear a Hugo Boss turtleneck. You can embrace the capitalist economy and be a Green. You can be a consumer at the luxury end of the market and still be a Green.
In other words, being a Green doesn’t mean forsaking an aspirational or middle-class lifestyle. You don’t have to get around in tree-hugging pullovers and anoraks.
It is a bold attempt to break the stereotype of the Greens as a fringe party that puts trees and animals ahead of human comfort and is out of touch with the world most people are interested in inhabiting.
It does not necessarily mean a break from Greens’ values, although this is where the risk lies, and where the media strategy will need to be managed over the medium term.
Ideological purists will want to add up the miles travelled by that fancy European clothing in finding its way onto Di Natale’s person. They will also question whether consumerism, especially at the luxury end of the market, is not in conflict with ideals of self-sufficiency and simplicity, which were the implicit messages conveyed by Di Natale’s predecessors – Bob Brown and Milne.
However, as Gough Whitlam famously said, only the impotent are pure. Di Natale’s is a message to the young(ish) progressive middle of Australian politics, where pragmatism and idealism mix.
His media strategists would be delighted at the exposure it has got on social media. That is where large segments of the target population gets its news and information, and they would calculate that a little harmless ridicule is a price worth paying.