What The Duncan Storrar Controversy Teaches Us About Debating People Over Policy

When people become the face of political arguments, they get put in the firing line.

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Remind me never to ask a question during Q&A – or at least don’t let me do it in election season.

As the Duncan Storrar furore continues for another day, you might have started to wonder if this was about more than one bloke’s question on a discussion show. And you’d be right.

Storrar’s simple question about tax cuts for higher-income bracket earners and his anecdote about being able to take his kids to the pictures cut to the heart of the tax debate in both senses of the word. First, it captured key criticisms of the latest budget – that it doesn’t do enough for the most vulnerable Australians, and second – it did so in a way that moved people emotionally.

That’s the first lesson of Duncan Storrar: it’s not enough to speak the truth, you need to do it in a way that captures people’s imaginations. That’s not a profound lesson – it’s rhetoric 101 (seriously, it’s in Aristotle’s Rhetoric, which is about 2500 years old).

By capturing people’s emotions and becoming a human face to the budget debate (and, by extension, the entire election), Storrar quickly found a range of allies. He was pegged as a class hero, speaking truth to power and calling out the elite. As well as feeling the love on Twitter and a range of media outlets (#DuncanforPM was trending on Tuesday), well-meaning punters dropped over $60,000 to buy him a toaster in protest of small business tax incentives. 

Put simply, people’s emotions were captured and they acted on those emotions. It was Kony 2012 without the inspiring social media video. The story wasn’t really about tax rates; it was about Duncan – the guy who asked a tough question on Q&A and embodied a general sense of discontent about government policy.

It was no surprise other media outlets went after Duncan, even if they did so more aggressively than we might have expected. The Australian first pointed out he pays no tax, then they published an interview with his son that alleged drug use and called into question his parenting. Today the Herald Sun is reporting a violent past.

Many people have been outraged by this response, and not without reason. A range of front-page stories attacking a man suffering PTSD who asked a single question on a TV show seems wildly disproportionate and unjustified.

And yet, what choice were they given? Duncan had already been nominated by acclamation as the representative of an entire political class. He became a working class hero in whom a great deal of Australians invested their sentiments. To put it more harshly, he became a prop. To win the debate he had to be taken off his pedestal: that’s rhetoric 101 as well. If you want to win the argument, change the story.

So here’s lesson two from the Storrar fiasco: the hatchet job currently trying to tear Storrar down isn’t totally dissimilar to the feel-good process that built him up to begin with.

Let me be totally clear – I don’t like public shaming and it seems clear to me that The Australian and the Herald Sun are guilty of a basic logical fallacy: the ad hominem. They’re playing the man, not the argument.

But so were the groups (Junkee included) who transformed him from ‘Duncan Storrar’ to ‘Duncan from Q&A’ and finally, ‘#DuncanforPM’ (complete with Gosford Anglican Church’s seal of approval). 

Nominating an individual to represent an entire position on public policy is a double-edged sword. The story will get people to commit; it will prompt action if the narrative is compelling enough, but no one person can adequately represent an idea because people come to us warts and all. They’re not heroes – and just as their humanity gives a halo effect to the policy they represent, their flaws can tear that policy down. 

More generally there’s a concern with the extent to which we’ve become good at rhetoric at the expense of making actual arguments. We know the quickest way to change people’s minds is to change their hearts, but this heart-led approach has shortcomings.

It leads to sentimental quick-fixes like a gofundme campaign which does nothing to fix the plight of other low-income earners (and arguably gives money to a man who doesn’t deserve it more than anyone else, as Josh Gordon argues). It also invites hatchet jobs aiming to spoil the story – ‘This nice campaign everyone’s excited by actually isn’t as nice as you think, so don’t let it change your political mindset’.

As this exhaustingly long election campaign rolls on, the Storrar story will be forgotten. But having been in the middle of a national tug-of-war in which he has been both hero and villain, what will be left of him?

You can hear Q&A producer Peter McEvoy and others discuss The Ethics of Representation at The Ethics Centre on Wednesday, June 8. Tickets here.

Dr. Matthew Beard is a moral philosopher at The Ethics Centre. Follow their work on Twitter @ethics_centre.