The Chaser’s Charles Firth tells The Sentinel about his live show exploring the genius of political spin – and the Prime Minister who’s mastered it. Interview by deputy editor Richie Black.
“I can say this is the best show ever played in Canberra,” says Charles Firth, speaking about his new stage show, Spin.
For the record, he’s joking. That isn’t to say it wasn’t good – and it did indeed play in Canberra the night before our interview (and is coming to Sydney soon).
We know he’s joking because he told us – but also because no show in Canberra can top the epic Sturm und Drang of Barnaby Joyce addressing a Dorothy Dixer in the house after a liquid lunch.
And if Firth had actually meant it, he’d probably be a politician. Hyperbole is, after all, a crucial weapon in the pollie’s armament.
Which brings us to Scott Morrison, who provided the first inspiration for the show.
“It was about six months ago and there was this dawning recognition that Scott Morrison was about to run an election on the basis of his record,” says Firth, before chuckling – one suspects, with grudging admiration. After all, as a comedian and one of the founders of The Chaser, he’s used to laughing at the darkness.
“And then Morrison was going to claim credit for the last three years of [the Covid-19 response] for himself, having divested all responsibility to the states … he was going to turn around and just go, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll just take all that credit.’
“It was just so galling. In some ways this show is like ‘the great remembering project’ – let’s just remember the last three years before we cast our votes.”
Let’s not forget that Morrison is no outlier; he’s actually the apotheosis of modern Australian politics – where ‘spin’ is often the alternative to actually doing anything.
And – let’s face it – for a lot of people, it doesn’t seem to matter. The Facebook comments under a picture of ScoMo whipping up a fish curry for Jen and the girls attest to this.
Meanwhile, for those to whom it does matter, it’s effective in a different way.
“A lot of it is to do with things like evasion, avoidance, distraction,” says Firth, “Done well, in the hands of Scott Morrison – who is a master of the craft.
“Nobody will notice until it’s too late. That’s why every time there’s a national crisis he cooks a Massaman curry.
“Everyone gets outraged about cooking the curry and – job done. They’re talking about curry and not about the crisis.”
That ScoMo and his curries had a hand in the genesis of the show may be hard to swallow. After all, the words ‘Morrison’ and ‘inspiration’ would sit in the same sentence as uneasily as ‘Clive Palmer’ and ‘health advice’.
However, the way Morrison makes himself the focal point – generating discourse that narcissistically frames the political narrative around himself – is key to his particular genius.
As a case in point, Firth uses Morrison’s notorious response to the Women’s March 4 Justice, where he said protesters were lucky not “to be met with bullets”.
“He was essentially at that point covering up [an alleged] rape,” says Firth, “All the evidence was that he knew about it, 50 metres from his office; there were text messages that have now been leaked that essentially prove that to be the case. And then he got up in parliament and said, ‘Well, at least we didn’t shoot you.’
“It was appalling – but it was actually a piece of mass distraction; it actually took the conversation away from the cover-up that was going on inside Parliament House and put it onto this fairly abstract thing.”
This kind of analysis of the deeply cynical nature of the politics forms the basis of Spin, which is currently touring the country and will reach Sydney’s Enmore Theatre on Wednesday, 4 May.
Firth is joined by fellow seers James Schloeffel (from The Shovel) and Mark Humphries (ABC’s 7.30) on stage for an hour-long exploration of nefarious and obligatory political technique (i.e. bullshit).
In the midst of an election campaign, it’s a balm for those of us presented with the option of either crying or laughing, and would prefer the latter.
Their expertise includes demonstrating how political spin can be applied to everyday scenarios.
For investigative purposes, this interviewer offered a (purely hypothetical) question in which someone, faced with a bout of diarrhoea, had to extrapolate themselves urgently from a date.
“Put it back on them,” Firth advises. “Morrison is good at that, he just blames the victim – say, ‘I’m a very busy man, I’m very important and have got other, better places to be at the moment. But it’s been lovely seeing you.’”
What about how to turn down an invitation from someone you don’t like to, say, a christening? “Run a bit of a scare campaign,” Firth says, “‘Do you really want your baby inducted into this cult?”
When spin turns bad
By contrast, Morrison’s opponents seem manifestly terrible at it, which is why they are probably doomed to lose.
Anthony Albanese’s infamous – as in, discussed ad nauseum – political “gaffe” in Launceston, when he couldn’t remember the national unemployment figure, was already awful because it was manifestly a failure to spin.
But he actually compounded the error by letting the media’s superficiality and lack of rigour – what spin feeds on – work to his own disadvantage.
“The whole rule of making a gaffe is to never do it crisply,” says Firth, “That’s why it was so devastating because [Albo] made it so crisp, it was a soundbite of a gaffe. He even went to the extent of helping everyone by repeating the question. [The news reports] didn’t even have to have a pickup of what the question was – he did that job for them.”
Unlike Albo, the right-wing capacity for outrage, hypocrisy and performative rage makes spin almost second nature to them.
Even apparent evolutionary throwbacks like former Prime Minister Tony Abbott tapped into the art of contemporary spin.
For example, in contrast with Albo’s made-for-TV-moment, Abbott realised the best way to approach a mistake was to be as drawn out as possible – something he generally achieved with alacrity (while often blindsiding us with some abstract weirdness).
“Abbott used to literally take 90 seconds to say the gaffe,” explains Firth. “He just kept going on and on and on – when it came to throwing to the soundbite, it’d actually be really boring.”
Mind the elephant
Labor, with their sincerity and po-faced, clumsy desire to address the issues – particularly ones that aren’t really in their wheelhouse – are often at a clueless disadvantage.
Whereas Morrison can frame the debate on his terms, even while demonstrating to some people why they hate him, Labor steps into their opponent’s territory.
“When Labor starts talking about the military or economic responsibility,” Firth says, “those are issues that inevitably lead people toward voting Liberal. They’re always going to lose – no matter how good your point is. Whoever has the advantage in that space tends to win.”
In recent weeks, even the Greens seem to have got the edge on Labor. When Adam Bandt was presented with a similarly facile “gotcha” question from the press, he advised the journo to consult Google.
Bandt may have presented us with a postmodern, knowing take that confounded spin – but it was spin nonetheless.
“They would’ve workshopped that,” Firth says, “They would’ve said, ‘What happens when you get thrown this sort of thing?’
“That’s what spin should be: not accepting the premise of the question – especially the premise of a completely stupid ‘gotcha’ question – to reframe the debate about what you want to talk about.
“Not all spin has to be harmful – it might have a positive political agenda you want to prosecute.”
You spin me right round
Okay, there may be positives – but the malign influence of American politics has nevertheless had a big impact.
“I think Australian political dialogue has been greatly influenced by Trump’s success,” says Firth. “His whole philosophy was to keep piling on the [political] disasters till everyone got tired of them.
“You have this sort of maelstrom of chaos which is actually completely anathema to proper accountability.”
With this sort of insight, you naturally wonder if Charles Firth has any aspirations for actively bringing his own brand of chaos to the political sphere. After all, Ukraine has set a precedent for a comedian becoming political leader.
“I’m going for the real power position in Australian society and that’s Governor-General and I’d like to announce my candidacy right here. Not interacting with anyone directly for three-and-a-half years – that’s my favourite thing to do.
“In fact, if I could become king of Australia that’d be even better.”
He’s joking again, probably. We’re 99% sure. But in a post-Trump political world where spin is finding ludicrous ways to distract, con and suck the energy out of real debate, you never know …
Spin is being spun for one night only in Sydney on Wednesday, 4 May, 2022 at the Enmore Theatre, Newtown. For tickets and further details, visit https://chaser.com.au/spin.
- Bravehearts urges Australians to support their their mammoth marathon to help fight child abuse
- Australia’s vow to support Afghan refugees
- Cool intentions: how Sweltering Cities aims to cool urban communities
- Election 2022: a tale of political disenchantment
- Meet the woman vying to be Australia’s first transgender parliamentarian
- Life, death and religion explored in Wallworth’s new show