But some facts are more important than others. The more central a policy is and the more important a fact, the more it is reasonable to expect the leader of a political party to recall it. Albanese should have known the unemployment rate and the official interest rate: these are not arcane facts but absolutely central economic indicators. Moreover, Labor had traditionally been concerned with lowering unemployment, so it’s not a good look for their leader to be unable to recall the unemployment rate. It’s not unreasonable to expect leaders to know facts like that, though slips and brain fades can happen to anyone and one-off gaffes should be forgotten.
Is Bandt’s response adequate? Elections should be contests of ideas and the ability to recall details of policies and random facts may be quite irrelevant to those ideas. The journalist who challenged Bandt to name the WPI argued that since the Greens were critical of the low rate of wage growth in Australia, he’d better know the rate of wage growth.  But the WPI is fairly arcane, and someone can know that wage growth has been very slow in Australia for the entire term of the previous government and that it is much lower than inflation without knowing the WPI.
We’d probably be better off if journalists asked more creative questions, requiring politicians to show they understood not random facts but the ways in which policies might be implemented and the costs and benefits of their proposals. Journalists can google the details as well as anyone else.
Of course, it’s one thing to know these facts, and quite another to design a policy response to them; for the latter task, you do need to know arcane facts. But policy design should be done by teams of people, not individuals. A serious political party should certainly draw on the expertise of people who know the WPI. Policy design on wages should draw on the expertise of economists (and perhaps people in other disciplines too, such as sociologists). Policy is, ultimately, political, and the goals and the decisions must be made by politicians but in consultation with the experts. Bandt presumably asked his team how best to boost workers’ wages without increasing inflation unacceptably. His team presumably advised him about the costs and benefits of various proposals. Some members of that team had better know the WPI, but it is pure theatre to ask him to recall it.
In the early days of the Australian election, Anthony Albanese (then the opposition leader) stumbled several times, failing to recall the official interest rate and the unemployment rate and, later, details of one his own major policies.  Many commentators thought these ‘gaffes’ would harm him; it’s impossible to tell whether they did but they certainly didn’t wound him fatally: he’s now the prime minister. Despite the narrative around Miliband and the sandwich, it’s impossible to tell whether the electorate really cares about these errors and ‘gotcha’ moments. But when should we care? When is it appropriate to expect politicians to be able to answer detailed questions about policies and everyday life and when is it pointless theatre?
‘Google it, mate’ is a reasonable response when facts are at all arcane. Similarly, it’s fine for one politician to be unaware of the details of a policy outside their own portfolio. But Google-recall has its limits. While outsourcing information to Google is fine – or even better – for many purposes, thinking requires the manipulation of information and that information must be actually available for manipulation. Groups of people can deliberate together without replicating the same information across minds, but some facts had better be available to those in leadership positions.
I don’t think asking politicians to name the price of bread or petrol is anything but theatre. No amount of memorized facts will bring Rishi Sunak closer to understanding what it’s really like living on minimum wage or on Universal Credit. It is important to him to understand these things, but random facts won’t help. If anything, they replace empathy with memory tricks.
There’s just been an election in Australia. In elections nowadays, politicians attempt to portray themselves as one of us, or at least as someone who is in touch with ‘us’ (whoever ‘we’ are). Hence the (apparently disastrous) pictures of Ed Miliband eating a bacon sandwich. Increasingly, journalists see testing politicians to see whether they’re really one of us as part of their jobs, even outside election campaigns. Hence Rishi Sunak being asked on TV about the cost of bread, or Dominic Raab claiming he’s not out of touch because he knows the cost of unleaded petrol.
Written by Neil Levy
Also during the Australian election campaign, Adam Bandt (the leader of the Australian Greens) was asked by a journalist for the current WPI (wage price index). “Google it, mate”, he replied. Bandt expanded by saying that elections should be contests of ideas, not gotcha moments. Again, the response didn’t do him any harm: the Greens have increased their share of seats in the lower house of parliament.

Similar Posts