First published by The Hoopla, 2 March 2015

The endless Liberal leadership speculation was punctuated last week when Julie Bishop responded to a Today show interview question with an emoji face. And Mike Baird looked like he was auditioning for Jimmy Kimmel Live!, not for another stint as NSW premier, when he released a youtube video of himself reading mean tweets.

Bishop and Baird provided rare moments of light relief in an otherwise heavy week of wars on terrorism, human rights commissioners and raspberries. But it’s impossible to imagine their antics will be remembered years from now – at least not in the same way that Gough Whitlam’s sense of humour was endlessly celebrated last year.

The tributes that followed Whitlam’s death invariably mentioned his famous wit: if he ever met god, he “would treat him as an equal”, he once said. Many women would have appreciated the winning, if possibly old-fashioned, sentiment behind his observation about his marriage to Margaret Dovey: she was his “best appointment.”

Paul Keating, too, was renowned for his clever lines – he described debating John Hewson as “like being flogged with a warm lettuce”.

Amanda Vanstone

The Labor side can’t claim a monopoly on the gags though. Who could forget Amanda Vanstone’s 1991 retort to senator Bob Collins, when he commented on her not-insubstantial backside.

“It’s better to be big in the backside than to have bulldust for brains,” she shot back.

Trying to think of contemporary political wits to match the likes of Whitlam, Keating or Vanstone isn’t easy. And while blatant misogyny might still be running free – recall Bill Heffernan describing Julia Gillard as deliberately barren – genuinely funny political witticism that skirts the edge of nicety and beyond seems to be a thing of the past.

James Carleton, the editor of a new compilation of Whitlam bon mots – titled, of course, The Wit of Whitlam – singles out Labor icon, ex-shearer and Hawke government special minister of state, Mick Young, for a particularly crude remark.

“Young said upon meeting the daughter of former Prime Minister John Gorton, a man who was facially disfigured as a result of an RAAF accident during WWII: ‘I didn’t know plane crashes were hereditary!’”

Young’s caustic joke – which hit its mark by saying something everyone else perhaps thought, but which was until then unspeakable – would struggle to get past today’s politically correct checkpoints. But Carleton wonders if something’s been lost in the process.

“Some might say that the absence of such boorishness from modern politics is a good thing. Others may venture that politics in the 60s, 70s and even 80s enabled an authentic truth to be displayed – for good or ill – and that politics today, with its confected pre-conceived focus-grouped sound bites, is the worse for its absence.”

In an era of 24/7 media scrutiny, where every comment and policy is minutely audience tested, jokes must pass the good taste test. It’s hard to imagine anyone in parliament today getting away with Whitlam’s retort when Sir Winton Turnbull called out in parliament “I am a country member”. Gough interjected “I remember”.

The gags are still with us, but they mostly come without a bite, and minus the bitter, but unforgettable, aftertaste. Some just aren’t funny. When the then opposition leader Kevin Rudd appeared on Rove McManus’ show just before the 2007 election, he was rumoured to have endlessly workshopped with his advisors an answer to McManus’ standing question to guests: “Who would you turn gay for?”

“There is only one person for me, my wife Therese,” Rudd replied. Disappointment ricocheted around the nation.

“Is she a man?” McManus inquired, attempting to squeeze a laugh out of the moment.

Things don’t always go well when comedians enter political territory either. When Russell Brand released his book Revolution, his effort was met with groans and mirthful derision not seen since one-hit-wonder Craig Emerson released his No Whyalla wipe-out video.

There are many good arguments for comedians to leave the politics to the politicians, just as there are many good arguments for politicians to leave the comedy to the professional comedians – and not to a team of tired advisors looking desperately for another way to make the headlines.

But I’m prepared to make an exception for Julie Bishop. She’s one of the few politicians who comes across as a natural comic. Fans of physical comedy across the country must be secretly hoping Bishop manages to wrest the Liberal leadership from the blokes this week. Just imagine the endlessly hilarious possibilities that a nation led by a human emoji presents.

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