It was about a quarter past eight on a Wednesday evening when I opened Twitter for a quick scan of recent events. As it is wont to do, Twitter (or at least the section of it devoted to Australian politics) was having a bit of a meltdown. Tony Abbott had just been interviewed by Leigh Sales on the ABC's 7:30, and from all accounts it had not gone well for the Prime Minister-in-waiting.
Sales had apparently 'destroyed' Abbott in what was, depending on your preferred metaphor, a 'car crash,' a 'smackdown,' a 'train wreck,' a 'live evisceration.' One tweeter – a lawyer with what appears to be a worryingly short memory – said he had 'never seen a public loss of credibility so severe.'
Now I am fairly accustomed to the Twitter world's penchant for hyperbole, but I still thought that this interview must have been significant. Perhaps Abbott had lost his cool and lashed out. Perhaps he had accidentally revealed a secret Coalition plan to abolish Medicare or privatise the ABC. Surely this interview involved significantly more than the standard Abbott platitudes about boats and taxes that are so successful in riling up lefties the country over.
So it was with considerable anticipation that I clicked play on the ABC website later that night. Right from the beginning it was clear that Sales was in a mood to challenge Abbott, suggesting he had been 'loose with the truth' with regard to the effects of Labor's carbon and mining taxes. But after 12 and a half minutes, my conclusion was that there was nothing particularly remarkable about the interview. Sure, it wasn't Abbott's greatest performance. It was full of meaningless slogans, deliberate distortion of facts and wilful evasion of difficult questions. But should we have been shocked? This is Tony Abbott we're talking about, a man who in a May 2010 interview with Kerry O'Brien on the same program essentially admitted that he lies as a rhetorical tactic.
What then, was going on with the completely disproportionate Twitter reaction? As freelance journalist Stephen Feneley has pointed out, the only remarkable thing about the interview was that some of Abbott's more outrageous statements were challenged by Sales, something alarmingly few journalists have been able to bring themselves to do. Labor supporters were therefore thrilled to see him being held to account. But still, smackdown? Live evisceration?
Some commentators, such as Liberal Party pollster Mark Textor and former Liberal adviser and Australian columnist Chris Kenny, have argued that a defining feature of Twitter is its detachment from reality and hence, from the political mainstream. But to me, this was not necessarily about Twitter. This was about people whose political biases led them to see what they wanted to see, rather than what was actually there. And who, after all, doesn't prefer fantasy over reality sometimes?
In the fantasy, Abbott was torn to shreds through the sterling journalistic work of Sales, and Australians would now finally see through his shallow and negative tactics. In the reality, it was just another political interview, watched by few and swaying the voting intentions of even less.
The increasing fragmentation of our politics has been discussed by political theorists for some time. We don't engage with those that we disagree with, but rather dismiss them as immoral and illegitimate. We stay cosily within our ideological comfort zones, associating only with those who reinforce our worldview. But when we begin to see things only in the way we would like them to be, and ignore the fact that others will see things differently, we have taken a further step towards political dysfunction.
When we mistake our own biases for the wider political reality, we run the risk of losing any sense of perspective about the diverse and pluralist nature of modern politics. We all form our own interpretations of events, but to ignore the myriad ways in which others see things leaves us unequipped to understand democratic politics in a meaningful way. Hence the widely repeated phrase in left wing circles during the Howard years after yet another depressing election result: 'How could this happen? I don't know anyone who voted Liberal.'
But of course fantasy politics is not confined to the left. It is this same sort of confusion that can lead a deeply ideological yet utterly shallow thinker such as Chris Kenny to claim Julia Gillard's press conference in which she responded to a smear campaign against her as somehow vindicating the Australian's reporting, despite her clear and deliberate condemnation of the newspaper, and its 'false and defamatory claims.'
And it is also why thousands of Labor supporters can shake their heads and wonder how anyone could bring themselves to vote for Tony Abbott after having seen his performance on 7:30. The answer is that they probably saw a completely different performance.
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