The questions that count

TRENDS: Celebrity Pollies – Where Egos Collide

Mar 26, 2012

In flagging a tilt for the Senate, Australia’s most famous global subversive Julian Assange joins the ranks of one of our most exotic political specimens – the celebrity candidate.

In an era when the professional political hack is roundly derided as part of the problem, the famous individual acts as both an antidote of the perils and a reinforcement of the virtues of politics as usual.

By chance, this week’s Essential Report <link to:> was checking in on attitudes to Wikileaks and Assange before the idea of his candidature was floated, so we have some fresh numbers to start to gauge his chances of success.

Q. The online organisation Wikileaks, which is headed by the Australian Julian Assange, has released diplomatic material leaked to it by an American source.  It has also provided this material to other media which have also published information about the leaks. Do you approve or disapprove of Wikileaks and media outlets releasing this material?



20 Dec 2010


Vote Labor

Vote Lib/Nat

Vote Greens

Total approve






Total disapprove






Don’t know







A few things are clear from these findings:

–        The criminal charges Assange is facing has done nothing to change attitudes towards Wikileaks, which have been steady at 53 per cent since the diplomatic cables were first published.

–        Support for Wikileaks is higher amongst younger voters (61 per cent of under-35s approve)

–        And the biggest support base for Assange is the Greens (80 per cent), creating the danger that in a Senate race he could cannibalise their vote.

On the evidence of these numbers Assange has a strong platform to launch a bid, having undertaken a project that has majority public support.

But the numbers also have a warning that name recognition does not always equate to engagement. When asked about the level of support that Assange has received from the Australian Government over possible extradition to Sweden on sexual assault charges and the US on charges relating to the release of US diplomatic cables, the public is largely disengaged.




Vote Labor

Vote Lib/Nat

Vote Greens

Government have provided appropriate support





Government have not provided appropriate support





Don’t know






What this suggests is that for all the notoriety, there is little detailed engagement, making Assange a classic celebrity candidate who is better known than understood.

Australian political history is littered with the broken egos of once-loved household names who have achieved office on the back of their name-recognition; only to realise they have become just another politician. There are also some who failed to translate their notoriety into votes, falling at the ballot box. And there are a handful of have converted fame into an effective political career.

So what can Assange learn from the experiences of fellow celebrities as he prepares to campaign from the comfort of the British turret where he remains under house arrest?

Celebrity candidates fit into four broad categories:

  • Celeb journo candidates – after making their name covering politics, celeb journo candidates convince themselves they could do better themselves. They often discover the steps are easier outside the dance. Those who succeed tend to master the sound bite rather than the policy brief. Examples: Maxine McKew, Pru Goward, Mary Delahunty, Clare Martin, Bob Carr.


  • Celeb Rock God candidates – used to the love of diehard fans and encore calls, rock god celebs tend to be drafted off the back of lyrics that invoke a better world. Great for political rallies and fundraising gigs, some struggle when the music stops, Examples: Peter Garrett; Angry Anderson, Jon Butler, Lindy Morrison and from the US the late, great Sonny Bono.


  • Celeb Jock Candidates – having succeeded in a forum that requires hours of training, often with one’s head underwater, celeb jock candidates attempt to harness the love for their physical victories into votes. They are often surprised that qualities that lead to national leadership in sport do not translate to public policy.  Examples:  Justin Madden, John Alexander, Dawn Fraser, Pat Farmer with a special mention to Mal Meninga for the shortest ever political career.


  • Crazy Celeb Candidates – these include a range of public exhibitionists from satirical campaigners like Austen Tayshus, to adult movie stars like Illona Staller to public outlaws like Barry Johnston, who ran against Don Chipp in 1972 whilst in hiding for resisting the draft. They tend to get great headlines, but seldom win the ballot.


Sadly for Assange, he is most conveniently grouped in the final category. While there is solid support for Wikileaks action in publishing government leaks, any word association game featuring ‘Julian Assange’ would be pretty likely to throw up ‘oddball’.

If Wikileaks goes through with its flagged foray into Australian politics – with not just Assange’s Senate tilt but a second candidate to run against Julia Gillard – the dynamics will be interesting.

While some celebrity candidates run for office believing bench space in parliament would give them a platform to make the world a better place, others approach the political process as a ready-made PR opportunity.

While Wikileaks has a clear political agenda based on breaking down control of information, its agenda is essentially anti-government. No wonder it’s a winner. But what if Team Wikileaks actually won?

It’s hard to imagine a successful Senator Assange would spend his days quietly attending committee meetings. Or maybe, when confined to an attic in London, facing the prospect of jail in both Sweden and the US, even a seat in the Australian Senate seems like a good place to be.

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