So, how have you enjoyed the show?
Not a lot, judging by the level of profound disengagement of voters toward this election, and the fact that on election eve the polls are locked up tight, as if we can’t work which side we dislike less.
But too bad, we’re paying for it anyway. Attendance is compulsory — fortunately for the major parties, because otherwise we’d be looking at an historically low turnout.
And no matter how much you dislike it, the major parties end up with your money, courtesy of public political funding, and your vote, courtesy of compulsory preferential voting. Remember the last bloke who tried to encourage voters to evade preferencing was put in gaol. That’s how seriously Labor and the Coalition take this elaborate, publicly-funded pantomime. There’s no escape.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
The media’s been doing its bit to keep the show going, but it, better than the party apparatchiks and political tragics, can see the disengagement, the lack of interest, the plain tedium, in the eyes of the audience. So, like any performers, they’ve instinctively hammed it up.
The great Press Gallery tradition of thinking you’re a player, not just an observer, is in rude health, and luckily we now have social media to see the egos at play. “Tweet tweet tweet,” as Julia Gillard said yesterday, the sort of cold, dead-on line that she should have been using far more often over the last five weeks.
Even the actual voters with a walk-on role have disappointed. Not since George Romero subtly set a zombie film in a shopping mall has brain-dead consumerism got such an elaborate outing as we saw in News Ltd’s “community forum” events. They were plugged by the conservatariat as “real” political events (in opposition to debates, interviews, and other self-pleasurings of the chattering classes), but they only served as a pointed highlight of how both electoral tactics and, one suspects, simple intellectual torpor, meant both parties ignored 80% of Australians in favour of voters in outer western Sydney and regional Queensland.
And those lucky recipients of the slavish attention of the major parties, at least as far as their would-be benefactors are concerned, are obsessed with not letting anyone into Australia and how much money they can get from the Government because they have difficulty funding their lifestyle choices.
Thus the election was summarized by small businessman Peter, in his question to Ms Gillard on Wednesday, when he demanded to know
“You promised to bring the budget back into surplus within three years, three years ahead, three years early. If you don’t do this, what’s in it for me?”
The non-sequitur is only comprehensible as the thinking of someone who has faintly received the Coalition’s message of debt ’n deficits, and yet can only process politics through a prism of self-interest, rather than the national interest, however poorly understood.
I laboured the performance metaphor because, well, 1. I labour metaphors all the time but 2. because it’s an apt description of what our politics was reduced to when we outsourced it. One of the duties of our new class of government professionals is to act like political leaders are supposed to behave, to “lead”, to “reform”, to do what politicians traditionally do.
That’s why Labor, which is further along the path of professionalization than the Liberals, seems full of people who know what they’re supposed to do – manage the media, sell policies, attack their opponents – but not quite why they are doing it and how to do it as if it matters. For these people, most of them too young to remember, and certainly too young to have worked in, a real Labor government, the practice of political tactics is akin to an elaborate but poorly-understood ritual.
They know what incantations to utter (taken from that blood-soaked grimoire, Whatever It Takes) and what gestures to makes, but not their purpose or rationale.
That, I suspect, accounts for much of why Labor now finds itself about to be tossed out of power by even as clumsy and unfit an opposition as this one. Tony Abbott and the Liberals retain enough basic grasp of politics to outwit a party increasingly dominated by apparatchiks, nurtured within the party since their teenage years, who dispatched the only figure with experience of leading a successful election campaign, Kevin Rudd, and have been driving the campaign of Julia Gillard, once upon a time a formidable, dominating political presence, with the finesse of someone driving a sports car into a wall at high speed.
Like Labor, however, an Abbott Government will be playing at governing, unwilling and intellectually unable to tackle the key issues facing Australia, which have been present only in parodic form in the campaign: housing supply, the infrastructure deficit, a two-speed economy and the need to commence decarbonising the Australian economy.
These issues aren’t amenable to politics 2010-style, but, alas for us, won’t wait for a new generation of more capable politicians to emerge. Climate change globally is tracking worst-case scenarios, and yet we’re becoming more dependent on carbon, not less. Housing supply will continue to fall below even our current declining levels of population growth, further driving housing affordability down.
A return to resources boom conditions will again drive inflation and interest rates up for the rest of us. Millions of Australians will endure worsening congestion as an integral part of their working lives.
That’ll all happen regardless of the utterances of politicians, embedding not just inefficiency into the economy – hey, we can all put up with some inefficiency – but making the lives of Australians materially worse.
Where to from here? While we’re switched off en masse from engagement in public life, content to contract out government to professionals who offer the political equivalent of all care and no responsibility, it’s hard to see how it will change. I received several emails from people after I raved at length about the outsourcing of politics a fortnight ago, saying they’d been prompted to join a political party.
That was most heartening. Reluctantly, one must conclude that given the enormous advantage the current electoral funding system hands established parties, it is probably only by using the established structure that the newly-engaged can best make a difference. The Greens, for example, have needed 30 years of grassroots development to be on the cusp of a balance of power role that will mean they can play a serious legislative and oversight role.
You can go out and start your own movement, but factor in a similar timeframe for achieving anything.
Fortunately the role of the media is more within our control. The media has been scrutinized like never before in this campaign, and journalists haven’t liked it. But the performance of the media – and there are of course a number of exceptions across all outlets, including News Ltd’s – has only served to confirm the emerging and unpleasant reality that the mainstream media, including the ABC, is increasingly an impediment to quality political debate and the cause of good government.
And it’s because of unthinking partisanship, unreflective he-said-she-said reporting, and lack of support and resourcing for journalists who want to focus on issues of substance over a lower-cost emphasis on ephemera.
And that’s the good news; the bad news is newspapers continue to lose readers hand over fist, meaning less support for good journalists – of which there are plenty – and less editorial interest in public policy. The only positive in all that is that, by the time the “quality media” dies, we’ll have gotten used to its absence anyway because we’ve seen less and less of it.
But I’d suggest that Gallery journalists lifted their game quite a bit in response to the bucketing they copped online. While the second half of the campaign had fewer of the distractions that were a feature of the first half, there was a greater emphasis on policy in the questioning of the leaders. If nothing else, that suggests that online scrutiny and criticism from ‘armchair critics’ has results.
The only problem is that scrutiny needs to be maintained and applied right through the political cycle, not just in the frenzy of an election campaign, if there’s to be a reversal of the dumbing-down of policy debate that has been going on since, in my view, the 1980s.
The best result tomorrow would be a repudiation of the apparatchiks on both sides, but particularly within Labor. A hung Parliament is ostensibly a recipe for instability and uncertainty — one awaits the AFR piece on how a hung Parliament is a “sovereign risk” — and Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott and Bob Katter are not exactly my idea of the public policy magi.
But anything that puts the frighteners on professional politicians, and yanks politics back closer to the community that has so unwisely subcontracted its operation, is for the betterment of Australia at this point.