The 2013 Madeleine Award (part I): Abbott’s ‘oops moment’ and more
20 Jan 2014|

PM Tony Abbott ahead of the PM's XI match against England, January 2014.

Roll out the red carpet and chill the champagne! A truly minor annual moment has arrived: the Madeleine Award for the use of symbol, stunt, prop, gesture or jest in international affairs. This’ll be the fifth judging ceremony for this prize, named after Madeleine Albright in honour of her penchant for sending diplomatic messages via the brooches on her lapel.

The former US Secretary of State and Ambassador to the UN wore a golden brooch of a coiled snake to talk to the Iraqis, crabs and turtle brooches to symbolise the slow pace of Middle East talks, a huge wasp to needle Yasser Arafat, and a sun pin to support South Korea’s sunshine policy. Her favourite mistake was wearing a monkey brooch to a meeting with Vladimir Putin that caused the then Russian President to go ape.

To show what’s at stake with this little-sort award, here’s the honour roll of previous winners:

  • 2009: an island nation holding a cabinet meeting beneath the waves as a climate change stunt;
  • 2010: a brilliant bluff by a US diplomat that helped clinch a peace deal;
  • 2011: the extraordinary Franco-German double act at the heart of the Euro crisis; and
  • 2012: the use of small bears in international relations—hundreds of teddy bears parachuting into Minsk to call for free speech in Belarus, and Australia handing out hundreds of chocolate bears at the UN General Assembly as a sweet way to win the vote for a seat on the Security Council.

The list of ‘worthy’ winners demonstrates how the award draws inspiration from the Madeleine Albright approach to international affairs: ever serious about serious things, but always sharp and unafraid to veer toward the slap that has a touch of slapstick.

To illustrate this spirit, we reach for a piece from The Economist a couple of years ago, at the pointy end of a review of a book on the history of internationalism:

On the sidelines of the recent Democratic National Convention that nominated Barack Obama to seek a second term, one symposium saw a clutch of American grandees take questions from invited foreign politicians. A man from Bahrain asked about the Arab spring. A woman from the Afghan parliament voiced fears about democracy in her homeland. Then came a more querulous intervention. A Belgian member of the European Parliament demanded to know why the European Union had not yet been mentioned. From the stage, Madeleine Albright, a former secretary of state, suggested that the world was waiting for Europe to pull its weight. The room erupted in scornful applause, delighted by the put-down.

Gone are the days when representatives of transnational clubs such as the EU enjoyed special regard in foreign-policy circles, simply by embodying a form of governance that rose above the selfishness of the nation state. 

And there speaks the Madeleine spirit: serious stuff can be illuminated by light moments and big points can sometimes be sharpened by slipping in the slapstick.

In the way of Awards, the minor prizes proliferate. This year, the first honour is the OOPS!, celebrating an OOPS!-I-wish-I-hadn’t-said-that inadvertent blunder. A certain amount of Oz provincial pride has marked this award over the years:

  • Australia’s Foreign Minister getting his KMT and Communist history a little mixed during a China visit;
  • Oz protocol translating Vaclav Havel’s request to see some Oz rock as a reference to The Rock; and
  • NSW Police giving a code name to an Obama state visit that was immediately vetoed by the US Embassy on the grounds that it was a slang term for an African-American who wouldn’t work.

This year we continue the Oz flavour in awarding the OOPS! Step forward Prime Minister Tony Abbott for that wonderful moment in the election campaign when he meant to avow that he was not the repository of all wisdom. Unfortunately—or fortunately for the OOPS! —what actually emerged from the leader’s lips was: ‘the suppository of all wisdom!’

We can only concur with ABC’s Insiders that this was the prize oddball moment in Oz politics of 2013.

The Abbott quote is worthy of a full run:

No one, no matter how smart, no matter how well educated, no matter however experienced, is the suppository of all wisdom.

This is Madeleine-winning wisdom.

The next prize for pictures or images has a more complicated moniker: the Diana Directive on the Utility and Force of Photographs. The title comes via Tony Blair who cited the Princess of Wales: ‘As Diana used to say, the picture is what counts.’

Many a minder or advance person has made or sunk a career on that simple bit of advice—the picture defines the story. (Politicians in trouble, avoid Exit signs and stand in front of the flag.) Blair’s biography recounts Diana’s understanding, both emotional and analytical, of the demands of the media age:

I had a conversation with her once about the utility and force of photographs and how they could be best used, which showed a mind that was not only intuitive but also had a really good process of reasoning. She had the thing totally worked out. Occasionally she would phone and say such-and-such a picture was rubbish or what could be done better, and though not, as I say, at all party political, she had a complete sense of what we were trying to achieve and why. I always used to say to Alastair [Blair’s PR supremo]: if she were ever in politics, even Clinton would have to watch out.

One moment of Diana Directive delight was this investigation of the whether Bill Gates’ handshake technique was offensive or just weird, even for a nerd billionaire.

When pondering the Directive, it’s striking how often Obama has been in the frame in previous years. This year he again dominates. The ‘selfie’ of Obama and the British PM with the Danish PM at the Mandela funeral was a notable effort, but the layers of meaning are either too ephemeral or too dense for the judges to unravel.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalism fellow. Image courtesy of Twitter user @TonyAbbottMHR.

Share