At Home with the fake Julia

This article first appeared at On Line Opinion. A variation was featured on The Vine.

Julia Gillard’s latest performance on ABC may affect her performance at the next election

Julia Gillard is threatening to become the leading comedian on Australian television. The only problem is, she’s supposed to be leading the nation.

With her Newspoll approval rating sinking to 23%, At Home with Julia – the ABC’s most recent satirical offering – may not be the worst piece of publicity for our Prime Minister.

But I speak for all Australians when I say that I’d prefer not to watch my PM engage in foreplay. Nor do I want to see her brushing her teeth, perving on gardeners, or parading around The Lodge in her pyjamas.

Of course the Honorable Julia Gillard is not the person to which I refer to. In her place is actress Amanda Bishop. Accompanying her is Phil Lloyd (better known to us as Myles Barlow), portraying the PM’s boyfriend Tim Mathieson. Together this duo is the feature act in the national broadcaster’s highly controversial new sitcom.

As both a fan of irreverent Australian comedy and a proponent for intellectual political debate I’m caught in two minds about this four part series.

On one hand, the program is nothing short of hilarious. Bishop has caricatured Gillard to a tee. The dialogue is witty, the gags are topical, and the support cast is full of genuine Australian talent. Lloyd’s portrayal of ‘Tom’ Mathieson, meanwhile, is magnificent. The writers should be applauded for converting Australia’s most elusive public figure into a pathetic – yet loveable – loser.

At the same time, this is our Prime Minister we’re talking about. Ms. Gillard – more commonly known as Julia – is the woman representing our nation to the rest of the world. To provide a crude overview of her job criteria, she’s responsible for passing reforms, considering the diverse interests of this nation’s constituents, and offering leadership in times of crisis. Hands down, she has the most important – and duly the most scrutinised – job in the country.

You may argue that she’s doing a poor job of it, but that doesn’t change the fact that she deserves respect.

Remember, we – as a nation – voted her in last August. It may have been a protracted and convoluted process, but we voted her in nonetheless. Her position as a democratically elected Prime Minister is legitimate.

Judging by the level of media lampooning to which she’s been subject, however, you’d be forgiven for thinking she was a Middle Eastern dictator.

Of course, her position of power does not make her immune from public criticism. It’s vital for our democracy that we keep the top rung accountable for their actions.

Yet there is a fine line between democratic debate and tastelessness. On first impressions, At Home looks to be pushing that line.

Australians won’t be tuning in to At Home because they want to support Australian arts. They’ll be tuning in to watch our Prime Minister engage in the mundane and ridiculous. In short, they’ll be tuning in to laugh at her.

You may argue that the audience is smart enough to recognise that they’re not watching the real Ms. Gillard. But at a subconscious level, At Home will no doubt affect the perceptions of Australian voters.

After all, Bishop looks like Gillard, speaks like Gillard, and negotiates the media like Gillard. Bishop encapsulates everything the Australian population knows about and expects from Gillard. It doesn’t matter that one’s an actor and the other is a politician. They may as well be the same person.

In the same way that we liked the Joe Hockey of Sunrise or laughed with the Tony Burke of Yes We Canberra, we will adjust our opinions of Gillard according to her fantasy portrayal on At Home. In the examples of Hockey and Burke, public policy was irrelevant to their television performances. Likewise, contentious political issues will most likely be avoided by At Home, if we are to trust the ABC’s commitment to remain non-partisan.

I fear At Home will nonetheless leave many Australians with a twisted perception of Australia’s political landscape. Our newspapers and commercial television stations are already making their best efforts to remove the politics from politics. At Home is only going to add to the noise.

I’m all for political satire and democratic free speech. But when I go to the polling booth in 2012, I want to be for voting for a leader, not a comedian.