By BARRY JONES
As somebody with a lifelong, but not very happy, involvement in politics, I must declare an interest, as a life member of the ALP.
Nevertheless, I think I can be objective in describing the decay of our political system. I was one of many who thought that the 2010 election would be the worst in our modern history for the debased quality of political discourse, but all indications are that the 2013 election is on track to be even worse.
Lindsay Tanner contends that 1993, when he was elected to the House of Representatives, was the high point of rationality in Australian politics but by 2010, when he left, it had sunk to an abyss of populism, despite our rising participation rates in education.
Party spin-doctors, on both sides of politics, work on the assumption that by this stage in the election cycle about 80% of voters have already decided how they will vote, and that short of some major event (cabinet ministers charged with felony, perhaps) nothing that is said or done in the campaign will change that.
The 20% who are uncommitted, profiling suggests, are neither interested nor involved in the issues, do not much care about the outcome, are largely voting because they are obliged to do it, and will make up their minds on the day – perhaps as they stand in line waiting to receive their ballots.
Reaching these voters is not by raising serious issues, setting out a vision or challenge, by emphasising fear (“you don’t realise how bad things are…you are at risk…”) or by entertaining them, appealing to quick jokey references, as with Twitter, or offering bribes, the appeal to greed.
Some elements in the media play up to this approach with trivialising gimmicks, for example interviewing a cat for his/her political opinions on Channel 9.
Geoff Kitney wrote an important article for the Australian Financial Review – Vote for Abbott, and vote against politics – describing Abbott as the anti-politics politician, who puts a heavy emphasis on appealing to those (many?) reluctant voters who say: “I can’t stand politics, and don’t even pretend to understand it”. This does not just discourage debate on complex issues, it kills it. There may be even a bonus for non-involvement, to be told: “don’t feel badly about knowing so little – celebrate it”.
Despite Australia’s high formal levels of literacy, politicians are increasingly dedicated to delivering three word slogans (“stop the boats!”) – now degenerating even more to the use of one word, repeated three times (“Cut! Cut! Cut!” or “Lie! Lie! Lie!”).
There is an exaggerated emphasis on “gotcha!” moments – Tony Abbott and his suppository, Kevin Rudd and the make-up lady, moronic candidates in swinging seats. In the last months of Julia Gillard’s period as Prime Minister, in two separate incidents, sandwiches (vegemite and salami as it happens) were thrown at her at schools, for reasons which have never been clarified. The incidents became big news stories, so much so that they crowded out major announcements about the Gonski reforms that she was planning to make.
Often politicians acquiesce in the trivialising, for example Kevin Rudd and his availability for selfies, Tony Abbott gyrating at a boot-camp, and his “dad moments”. We should have a minute’s silence to reflect on the contribution of Julie Bishop, Warren Truss and Clive Palmer to the campaign.