Tipping Point?

The comment thread to my previous post Can Pauline Sue Tony Abbott? has thrown up some fascinating discussion. It also seems to have reached a consensus of sorts, well summarised by Dave Ricardo: “I agree that what Abbott did was just grubby business as usual politics. But that being the case, the attack on Abbott is also grubby business as usual politics.”

Is the entire Hanson/Abbott fiasco any more than just another 15 minute media feeding frenzy, a circus for the masses with no broader political significance? I think that depends on several factors. It’s certainly true at this stage of the game that Labor has succeeded in deflecting the anger of disgruntled former One Nation supporters (and maybe the much larger group of generally alienated voters) onto silver spoon bovver boy Tony Abbott. The trick for Labor will be whether they’re able to smear the mud more widely to besmirch Howard as well. I suspect that the combination of Howard’s great political skills and experience and Simon the Unlikeable’s ineptness will provide the answer in the immediate term.

However, maybe there’s more to it than that.

Even without directly tying Howard into the “Get Pauline” saga, this whole episode could conceivably contribute to a swelling disenchantment with the Coalition that ultimately has government-changing electoral consequences. Malcolm Gladwell’s pop sociology “tipping point” concept might provide a useful frame of reference here. We’ve had a succession of instances of government “sleaze” in recent times, from Children Overboard, Howard lying over Manildra, Ruddock receiving donations from dodgy Asian businessmen, Ironbar Tuckey’s attempt to “fix” his son’s traffic ticket, and now the Abbott/Hanson affair.

None of these things in themselves have government-changing significance, but cumulatively it might be different provided that certain preconditions exist. A review in Publishers’ Weekly explains Gladwell’s “theory” like this:

The premise of this facile piece of pop sociology has built-in appeal: little changes can have big effects; when small numbers of people start behaving differently, that behavior can ripple outward until a critical mass or “tipping point” is reached, changing the world. Gladwell’s thesis that ideas, products, messages and behaviors “spread just like viruses do” remains a metaphor as he follows the growth of “word-of-mouth epidemics” triggered with the help of three pivotal types. These are Connectors, sociable personalities who bring people together; Mavens, who like to pass along knowledge; and Salesmen, adept at persuading the unenlightened.

Bloggers, on this view, are both Mavens and Salesmen (as well as fire-alarms). So are radio shockjocks like John Laws and Alan Jones. To the extent that they convey a strong message of sleaze and decay over a period of time, a “tipping point” might be reached where a general “time for a change” atmosphere rapidly becomes established and dominant. I don’t see any real sign of it at the moment, however, and the combination of a serious ongoing national security threat from terrorism and the lack of an even vaguely attractive alternative while Simon the Unlikeable remains as ALP leader might well ensure that the “tipping point” is never reached. But it’s a situation that bears watching.

PS – Blogger Dave Pollard also has an interesting discussion of Gladwell’s “tipping point” ideas here.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
This entry was posted in Politics - national. Bookmark the permalink.
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
2024 years ago

Ken, added to the ‘tipping point’ theory should be the ‘relateable point’ hypothesis. You know: a government lies about a major foreign affairs policy issue and nothing happens; same government lies about improper use of a government vehicle, all hell can break lose. Peter Reith is a good example: concerns about lies re his involvement in the waterfront war (at public costs of millions) paled next to the son telecard affair (at cost of less than $50K, if I remember rightly). The danger for the government in this one is that all the One Nationists, and the classes they may be taken to be representative of, will take notice … and prison is perchance a ‘relateable point’.

Dave Ricardo
Dave Ricardo
2024 years ago


I agree, and there is a recent precedent for this effect, albeit in another country. John Major’s Tory Government was beset with a series of sleaze scandals, none very important in itself, but they had a cumulative effect so that the whole Government was seen as sleaze ridden. The whole was greater than the sum of the parts. This played a big role in Labour winning in ’97.

Tony Blair was able to successfully portray himself as the ultimate Mr Clean (how times change!) and the contrast with John Major couldn’t have been greater. It’s unlikely that Mr Crean could similarly play the part of Mr Clean. It’s not in his personality, there’s that supportive letter he wrote to Manildra when he was a Minister, and let’s face it , he was a high ranking union official, which in the public mind is grubbiness personified.

But there might be something in it for the ALP nonetheless. The weight of evidence will eventually tarnish the ‘Honest John’ brand irredeemingly.

The big winner though might be Peter the Smirk, even if his father in law was part of the crowed that set up the slush fund to get Hanson. Howard’s halo is slipping, and Abbott could end as permanently damaged goods, as happened to Reith. It matters not one jot how Abbott performs on the 7.30 report. It’s what the Daily Telegraph readers think that will count on this one. And, to them, their heroine has been shafted by Abbott.

And, by the way, let’s dispose of this nonsense that the group who set up the slush fund was cross party, because it included John Wheeldon, a Whitlam Government minister. Wheelson swung to the right wildly after he quit politics. He was even on the Quadrant board for a while. That’s how he became mates with Peter Coleman.

Paul Watson
2024 years ago


While I probably have an over-simplistic view on tipping-points, I blogged yesterday on “calling” this point in the Abbott fracas – it is when the central figure appears to palpably lose faith in the merits of their own ca(u)se. IMO, this happened to Abbott yesterday morning.

Oh, and for those (like Ron M) who regard of Abbott as putting on a good performance for last night’s “7.30 Report”

Tim Stevens
2024 years ago

Small point: I wonder if it would be more accurate to describe the tipping point thesis as cultural anthropology rather than sociology. I say this because one of the few interesting things Gladwell has had to say is why he prefers the anthropological model to the sociological.

And I don’t think bloggers are Mavens (except for a few, like Tim Blair). Mavens don’t just pass along knowledge, they take knowledge buried beneath the surface and bring it into the open – or so says Gladwell. Mavens also change ideas as they adopt them – making then more palatable to broader consumption. So shockjocks would be mavens, but not most bloggers. Gladwell’s pop-cultural anthropology is all a little superficial if you ask me – suitable for columns in the New Yorker, not entire books…