Published on September 1st, 20160
Is Conor McGregor Tony Abbott?
Irish mixed martial artist Conor McGregor has returned to the high peaks of stardom and notoriety following his ‘rematch’ win over opponent Nate Diaz. While many don’t usually turn to McGregor as a source of insight on current affairs, it was his recent comment in the lead up to the fight that caught my eye:
I am just trying to do my job and fight here. I am paid to fight. I am not yet paid to promote. I have become lost in the game of promotion and forgot about the art of fighting. There comes a time when you need to stop handing out flyers and get back to the damn shop. 50 world tours, 200 press conferences, 1 million interviews, 2 million photo shoots, and at the end of it all I’m left looking down the barrel of a lens, staring defeat in the face, thinking of nothing but my incorrect fight preparation.
McGregor’s exaggerations – ‘millions’ of photo shoots and interviews – were clearly angered embellishments to the excessive promotional demands of his federation. Yet it’s his core complaint – hype at the expense of action – that has become a tired feature of many professional arenas, especially Western politics. The incessant demand for news and sensation is shaping and undermining not just the provincial concerns of fight preparation but modern governance itself.
In 2013 conservative Australian prime minister Tony Abbott came to government with a sound commitment to ‘get politics off the front page’, have ‘an adult conversation’ with the Australian people and fulfil an unwritten desire to move away from the demands of a restless news cycle. Abbott, like McGregor, sought space to practice his art. ‘I asked for some leeway,’ lamented McGregor. ‘I did not shut down all media requests. I simply wanted a slight adjustment.’
McGregor could’ve been speaking for Abbott. He, too, sought a ‘slight adjustment’ from having to sensationalise every aspect of his prime ministership. By not feeding the natural gaps presented by a 24-hour news cycle he laid waste to the turbulence of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years, stopped illegal boat arrivals to Australia, started seriously paying down debt, put an end to wasteful government programs and restored a relative lack of prestige to the executive arm of Australia’s Commonwealth.
But Abbott, both as a person and a prime minister, is exactly what a modern commentary arena appears uneasy with – steady, consistent and reliable. ‘The times,’ as Australian commentator Dave Burchell says, ‘do call for froth.’ Indeed, today is the age of the Obama and the Trump, not the Coolidge or the Truman.
And it’s clear who generally wins in this new media landscape. Viral footage of President Obama eating a burger, for example, or making funny speeches and dancing, has overshadowed many of the shortcomings and failures of his eight year Presidency.
Modesty and stability, therefore, are not hot right now. And there is a predicable doom for individuals or governments that pursue these traits. Indeed, as two examples from the Abbott government show, small infractions can rapidly mutate for national governments keen to take politics off the front page. The first was awarding a knighthood to Prince Phillip or what some call Abbott’s ‘knightmare week’ – a routine and completely justifiable act within the realm of Australia’s national symbols (many more awards have been given for much less). The second is where a microphone captured Abbott joking with two senior ministers, lightly and without malice, about rising waters in the South Pacific.
Granted, these weren’t stellar moments. And Abbott has been candid about his time in power. ‘We have been a government of men and women,’ he reflected, ‘not a government of gods walking upon the earth.’ Yet the curious reaction to these two incidents, and other relatively mild encroachments, seemed grossly at odds with the actions themselves.
These examples, perhaps, say more about the sensitivity and the symbolism attached to modern public discussion. But sensitivity and symbolism ultimately loop back to that now consistent need for sensationalism, which leaves not just Irish fighters like Conor McGregor worse off but our state of public affairs. ‘The nature of politics has changed in the past decade,’ reflected Abbott during his final press conference as prime minister in 2015. ‘We have more polls and more commentary than ever before. Mostly sour, bitter, character assassination. Poll-driven panic has produced a revolving-door prime ministership which can’t be good for our country. And a febrile media culture has developed that rewards treachery.’
Not long ago Australia benefitted from leaders like John Howard, Paul Keating and Bob Hawke – strong reformers from both sides of the aisle who were given time and space to pursue their agendas without the constant need to always capture headlines. Nostalgia aside, none could be granted such room in the hyper-kaleidoscopic arena of today’s public discussion.
Ultimately, despite the trends that Abbott identifies, real challenges still require real solutions. ‘Froth’, for example, won’t return a national budget to surplus, deploy troops overseas or give people a deep sense of confidence in their government. And, given the list of growing national challenges, it’s tragic that our media landscape now tilts toward producing less-substantive leaders at a time when our problems are clearly difficult and complex.
So is Conor McGregor Tony Abbott? The overlaps, it seems, are too great to ignore. Abbott just tried to do his job, sought minor adjustments, got dragged into the game of promotion and tried constantly ‘to stop handing out flyers and get back to the damn shop.’ It’s difficult to determine where exactly we’d be worse off if McGregor were to do less promotion. The same, it seems, can be said for a former Australian prime minister, especially when we only stand to lose the sharper edges of character assassination, poll-drive panic and revolving door leadership.
About the Author: Sean Jacobs is currently a policy adviser in Brisbane, Australia. He has served at all levels of the Australian government, primarily in the areas of national security policy and planning, and began his career working in international development in the South Pacific. He holds a BA (International Relations) from Griffith University and a Postgraduate Certificate in Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism from Macquarie University.