At first blush Grant Wood’s painting American Gothic simply depicts a stoic mid-western farming couple.
Looking more closely you see the house looks like a church; a feeling reinforced by the cross and its shadow in the gothic upper window. That just confirms what appears to be the guiding idea: these are god-fearing folk, representatives of what Sarah Palin might call “the real America”. And they are joined to Heaven by the house’s roofline.
But they are separated by a pitchfork. That could be read as a symbol of their work ethic until you notice it is mirrored on the man’s overalls. That makes this painting disturbing. Is Wood suggesting that Satan lurks at the heart of middle-America?
Religion defines America in a way that makes it a very foreign land to Australian eyes. That, and the nature of its political system, means its elections are often consumed by arguments over “character”, narrowly defined by conservative notions of morality.
Australian politicians have to pass a character test but it is less overt and of a different nature. Like Wood’s painting you have to stare awhile to see it but, once you do, many political arguments boil down to competence and conviction.
People want their representatives to have empathy and be effective. They also want politicians to be relevant and in the absence of knowing everything about them, values are a useful predictive tool.
The political race in Great Britain is an example of this at work. Labour had been odds on to lose the election with prime minister Gordon Brown looking very shop soiled. But he is well known and, as the poll looms, people are realising they don’t have much of an idea what Tory leader David Cameron stands for. The gap between the two major parties has narrowed to five percentage points.
The Rudd Government’s attack on Tony Abbott is aimed at showing that he doesn’t have the character, or the temperament, to be prime minister. He is cast as an extreme conservative, threatening, dangerous and unpredictable. In a word, he’s a risk.
The assault stepped up on Wednesday when a press conference called for a single minister morphed without warning into a penta-presser, with five ministers ostensibly wheeled out to savage Coalition obstructionism in the Senate.
It was actually a bare-knuckled attack on Mr Abbott’s character. Each minister dutifully trotted out the key message, that he is a nay-saying wrecker.
“Tony Abbott is just going to oppose everything,” Families Minister Jenny Macklin said.
“It’s about time the public understood the lengths Tony Abbott will go simply to oppose for opposition’s sake”, echoed Health Minister Nicola Roxon
“Tony Abbott’s vandalism in the Senate is a threat to Australia’s economic recovery,” was Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner’s plot summary.
Perhaps the obstructionist tag will jolt the electorate but, so far, all the Government’s efforts to tarnish the Opposition Leader have failed. Despite the armoury turned against him, Mr Abbott’s star has been rising.
It’s possible that the early attack on his well-known conservatism was ill judged. Maybe it simply reminded people that the Opposition Leader is a man with clear, strong values.
They might not agree with him, but they know what to expect. The lesson for the Government is that it’s probably not a good idea to hold the familiar in contempt.
While the spotlight was shining, Mr Abbott used it to promote himself as a man of action: blunt, lean, hungry and brim full of conviction.
He set up a values contest with the Prime Minister and scored some points. Kevin Rudd helped by abandoning the field on climate change, something he has described as the greatest economic and moral challenge of our time. If you really believed that, would you relegate it when the going got tough?
Given what he had to work with, Mr Abbott exceeded all expectations in reviving the Coalition’s fortunes but he might have stumbled this week.
On one level, his decision to unveil a 26-week paid parental leave plan funded by a tax on big business is a very positive sign. It means Mr Abbott now believes he can win the election, because he has stopped just courting his base and is reaching out to the middle ground.
It’s also clear that Mr Abbott believed he had to send a loud message to women that he was committed to parental leave and just backing the Government scheme wouldn’t have cut through.
But the decision is high risk because it raises questions about whether he is as good as his word.
After campaigning successfully against the emissions trading scheme as “a great big tax”, he unveiled… a great big tax.
He said his election promises wouldn’t include any new taxes and one of his first does.
He routinely mocks Kevin Rudd for being a one-man band and then flies solo with an ill-defined policy. He promised to consult his colleagues and then he didn’t.
In short, his recent behaviour seemed designed to prove some of Labor’s charges against him.
And the timing didn’t seem to make a lot of strategic sense. The Government was bleeding across a number of fronts and there are many unanswered questions about its hospital plan. So why light a cigarette in the Coalition trenches now?
Mr Abbott got his headline but it’s not clear he came out ahead.
When I look at American Gothic, I wonder what goes on when the disturbing couple steps inside the creepy house. And, as this week ends, I wonder how Mr Abbott is assessing his performance behind closed doors.
Chris Uhlmann is the 7.30 Report’s Political Editor.