The challenge for politicians who may feel tempted to join Lindsay Tanner in lamenting the dumbing down of politics is to find new ways of engaging with voters. Today’s Essential Report suggests that voters remain as interested in politics as ever, and if anything are a little more interested now than in recent years. However, they are clearly being poorly served by politicians obsessed with managing the media cycle and a media focused, as voters see it, on personalities over policies, and presenting only one side of a story.

From the media’s point of view, the arch-villain is clear: the internet has choked off the flow of revenue to the bastion of in-depth political journalism, the daily newspaper, wrecking a revenue model that funded quality journalism and a collective public space in which informed political discussion was taken for granted. For politicians, however, the internet should be a key tool of engagement with voters.

And while there is much talk of the political impact of social media, too few Australian politicians, and certainly not the major political parties, see it as anything other than yet another form of broadcast medium, serving only to deliver content to receptive audiences. Unfortunately, audiences are no longer content to be passive recipients, either of entertainment or of political propaganda, especially propaganda that treats them, as Tanner has suggested, like children.

They want a conversation, and they want control – the one thing neither political parties, nor the mainstream media, want to give them. There does exist the opportunity for an enterprising politician to carve out an alternative to the game of spin and trivia that has become the default mode of Australian politics. It lies in seeking to connect with voters in a way that creates a genuine dialogue and which gives voters greater control not just over how they communicate with politicians, but how they participate in politics themselves – including via preselections and election campaigning.

It is undoubtedly risky — ceding power always presents risks — but nothing else presents an opportunity to break out of the cycle of dumbing down that has overtaken us in recent years.

***

As we hit the publish button, reports are filing in that US President Barack Obama is about to announce that Osama Bin Laden has been killed by US forces in a mansion outside of Islamabad, Pakistan. Check back to the Crikey website for a report from Bernard Keane immediately after the President’s address.

Peter Fray

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