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The politics of silence and the art of avoiding gotcha questions

July 7th, 2014

2014-07-06_nothingYou can love him or, more likely, hate him but there’s one thing you have to admit about Scott Morrison – he is one of that rare breed of politician who realises that when you are doing something that many people find unpopular the best thing to say is nothing. Just imagine how much stronger the controversy would be if he was feeding the daily media appetite for details of every little aspect of his operation sovereign borders. It would be headlines every day to the exclusion of anything else the government is doing and while “stop the boats” might be a broadly popular policy with the masses it is not the only, or even the major, message that will determine this government’s future.

Stopping the boats might be approved by many but publicising the sending of people back to a country where they face torture or worse will worry at least some of those supporters. There are limits even for those with xenophobia so silence about the downsides of the Coalition’s policies is politically sensible for as long as you can get away with it.

For how much longer that will be the case is not something I am sure about. The beating to death of that man interned on Manus Island will have troubled some of the government’s supporters. The disappearance of any of the boatload sent back to Sri Lanka this week will add to the uneasiness. For while many Australians might have hard hears when it comes to boat people trying to reach this country, we are not a totally heartless people.

And while on this subject of political silence, I refer you to an interesting column on a different aspect of the subject by John Rentoul in London’s The Independent. 

George Osborne’s refusal to answer the question “What is seven times eight?” shows how clever he is. He was being interviewed by a group of children on television when Sam Raddings asked if he was good at maths. He replied that he had taken maths at A-level, which I had forgotten, although it is in Janan Ganesh’s excellent biography of him (he got straight As in maths, history and politics). Raddings then asked his follow-up question with the ruthlessness of a junior Andrew Neil.
“I’ve made it a rule in life not to answer a load of maths questions,” said the Chancellor. An answer that will be deployed by many pupils taking a maths test in the next few days. But it is actually the right answer. Asking questions to try to catch a politician out is an old media game, and if children ask the questions it doesn’t make it any better.

Osborne knows, because he is a politics obsessive, that Stephen Byers, when he was schools minister, was asked the same question and gave the wrong answer, saying 54 rather than 56. Byers is only human. Seven times eight is one of the harder questions in the times table, along with 12×8, 8×12 and 12×11 – the order makes a difference, apparently – but not as hard as 6×8 or 8×6, which one study identified as the most likely to trip people up. But it looked bad, just as it didn’t look good that Byers, who was later transport secretary, could not drive.

Osborne might not remember, because it is irrelevant to his calculation, that Gordon Brown, when he was chancellor, was once asked, “What’s 13 squared?” He repeated the question to buy time, but said “169” without further hesitation. I was impressed, but I doubt if anyone else was.

And that is the point. No one cares if you get the answer right. It is a story only if you get it wrong and, crucially, more of a story than if you rather obviously dodge the question. Osborne probably knew well enough that the answer was 56, but there is always a risk when you “know” the answer that a synapse has got crossed in the intraparietal sulcus and you will do a Byers on live television.

Which is a long way of saying that Osborne is good at politics.


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