Montefiore: The art of playing the underdog in SA’s election kennel

As South Australia heads towards a state election this month, Sir Monty poses the ultimate political question — why does everyone want to play the underdog?

Sir Monty has dedicated a lifetime to observing the spectacle of political contests and although he is not yet 100, it seems like a century has passed since the coming of voting age led to his being lured into a cardboard-partitioned booth with nothing but a blunt pencil and a couple of voting slips on which to doodle while there. When his concentration focused, it would almost always come down to a consideration of which candidate had given the best impression of being the underdog.

Australians have always taken pity on the underdog, which explains why, in most election lead-ups, many claim to be ‘the one’. Moreover, none of them wants to be identified as show dogs or, most risky of all, lap dogs. The title, apparently, signifies character: the battler struggling against great odds, pursuing truth, justice and the Australian way against a conspiratorial incumbent cabal.

Generations of candidates therefore have practised what the Americans long ago described as the art of underdoggery. This can run for generations in political dynasties, with serial underdoggery practices, in some very convincing dramatic performances in public places, a key feature of the genealogy.

If one continues to take the underdog bait as one votes in subsequent elections it formally makes one an underdogger. It would appear that many Australian voters like a bit of underdogging, in the privacy of the cardboard booth, but when they leave it and emerge into the bright Antipodean sun, many continue pretending to their colleagues that they would never vote for a bunch of hyenas who never keep promises and run with the pack regardless of a bankruptcy of meaningful policies.

This leads to acclamation all round on the way to the pub, despite a sneaking feeling that everyone fresh out of the booth has just done that very thing. These voters are thus secret underdoggers, in a voting culture where secrecy stitches together the social fabric of Australian voting — until the day after the election when everyone sobers up and works out what went on in the booths. Underdogs also enjoy a habit of secrecy, too. Many don’t reveal their true policies until after they’ve won. Most often it’s about their party’s unrevealed platform to tax motherhood, levy happiness and ban pleasure.

Sir Monty observes that not every candidate can competently do underdog. It’s a highly demanding dramatic art, requiring consummate skill. One slip on the hustings can be fatal. Key to the characterisation is the hangdog look, which must appear to be genuine at all times, reducing jokes and laughs to a minimum. Otherwise it risks accidental digital capture of high-jinx activities in a private space somewhere, leading to YouTube or Facebook revelations that prove the underdog candidate is just as wacky, zany and crazy as the rest of them — prancing poodles, jawbone jackals and wily, greybeard wolves-in-suits, all seeking a long-term slumber spot at the parliamentary fireplace.

Hangdog has been described as a ‘cringing, abject demeanour’, sometimes also with a ‘contemptible sneaky aspect’. The first descriptor, of course, must dominate the performance, while the latter must never be seen. Such ‘split-personality performance’ is a vital apprenticeship skill, important to a long-term parliamentary career because the necessary schizoid features are crucial to becoming a minister.

Several other characteristics of the underdog also are crucial. On the hustings, critical attention should be paid to avoid being perceived as dogmatic — making imperious remarks without balancing them with clear evidence and rational argument. Neither should one be seen to be the veritable dogmatist, propounding arguments forcefully or in a doctrinaire manner, even if the audience is behaving like a litter of ill-bred western-suburbs runts of the bitzer kind, not worth the attention of a fly snap on a hot day.

Finally, there’s the ultimate challenge, on which a positive election result may well depend. While a candidate needs to act their handicapped part with deep conviction, they should never be perceived to be ‘lying doggo’ — playing dead merely to capture and redirect preferences. This takes great skill, because that may be precisely the aim. While the underdog must limp along as if they had just lost a vicious, shopping dogfight in front of the cameras, during the heat of a campaign they must be able to demonstrate that they remain fuelled by grit and determination in a Churchillian kind of way.

They also must demonstrate that they had not been preselected as a result of the party’s last-minute desperation because it could find no-one better. For if an electorate senses that ‘the underdog candidate’ is merely an opportunistic mutt, then it’s doggone. And even if they may be dog-tired by that stage, they’re suddenly dog meat, and the doggerel on their political epitaph won’t be worth reading. Such is the marathon challenge of a parliamentary tilt, even if the winner falls over the line leading by nothing more than a nose.

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