Last week, Attorney-General Vicki Chapman announced a suite of electoral forms that, amidst high-profile expenses scandals and rising national COVID cases, you might understandably have missed. The unexpected introduction of optional preferential voting in the House of Assembly rightfully saw many brows furrow at a move that could make it harder for independent and out-of-left-field candidates to scrape in via preferences.
But there’s one other change that will be more immediately apparent at our next poll: the banning of election posters in South Australia. While there’s an accepted wisdom that How-to-Vote cards can lightly nudge the direction of votes on the day, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence floating around about the usefulness of ‘corflutes’ (a whimsical portmanteau of corrugated plastic and panflute?).
“The fact is, in this day and age, corflutes on public roads serve very little purpose,” Chapman said. “They’re costly, detrimental to the environment and public safety and do little to educate voters about a candidate or their platform.”
Perhaps the strongest argument for their retention is that they offer a fairly rudimentary way for emerging and independent challengers to establish the kind of public profile already enjoyed by incumbents and major parties. But, by the same token, the sheer cost of printing and plastering an electorate with posters – not to mention tying up hours of labour from ladder-and-cable-tie-toting volunteers and supporters – presents a barrier to entry that would also favour established candidates.
The question of waste is the most compelling argument against; an Irish campaign to eliminate posters in the 2020 election highlighted the fact that the corrugated plastic most posters are made of can take hundreds of years to break down. While some can now apparently be recycled or reused (anyone who’s come into contact with a campaign would know of old corflutes used for everything from makeshift blinds to lining sheds and chicken coops), there’s a growing conversation around the limits of recycling as an environmental silver bullet – perhaps it’s better to simply prevent unnecessary plastics from entering the system entirely. Either way, a lot of posters are inevitably going to end up in landfill anyway.
As Chapman said, they are also fundamentally limited in their level of insight beyond party allegiance and the sometimes unhealthy base-level prejudices we bring to candidates based on their appearance. They’re also a magnet for graffiti, which while occasionally amusing, can also attract misogynistic and racist attacks against candidates who diverge from the archetype of smirking White, male faces that have historically dominated parliament and corflutes.
Adding to that growing list of cons is the visceral, personal level on which some people feel affronted by corflutes – in step, perhaps, with a general anti-politician sentiment that grows with every new expenses scandal. It’s true, having the grinning mugs of hopeful candidates staring down at us while stuck in traffic represents an encroachment of politics into our daily lives that, unlike the news or Facebook ads, can’t be un-followed or switched off.
But is that such a bad thing? Being confronted with the face of a parliamentarian you detest, or a fringe candidate with a snowflake’s chance of being elected is to be reminded of the existence of people you don’t agree with. Sometimes that’s as good a motivator to exercise your democratic right as those you do.
21st century campaigning has, of course, well and truly moved on from the corflute. Between social media and increasingly sophisticated digital data management, parties are becoming better at identifying and speaking directly to their supporters and potential voters. Ever found yourself filling out an online petition on an MP’s website and wondered what the actual point is? There’s a good chance it’s at least partly to add you to a list with a tag denoting your interest in X issue, possibly adding to a digital voter profile that includes electoral roll information and anything else you’ve previously told that party or candidate. It’s why some politicians run such transparent data-gathering campaigns while actually in government.
The 2016 US presidential election demonstrated the deeply troubling ways political campaigns can use social media advertising to micro-target voters based on demographic information and personal preferences gleaned from everything we click, share and comment on. Where political advertising on television once forced us all to sit through the same Unchain My Heart GST ads or It’s Time jingles, voters in key areas could be targeted with messaging personalised down to colour and word choice. Such narrow-casting also presents the temptation for parties to engage in more extreme kinds of dog whistling without the broader public noticing.
For all the positives that social media can bring for grass roots campaigning, when held alongside Mark Zuckerberg’s reticence for Facebook to self-regulate political messaging for fear of losing campaign dollars, all while hoovering up the ad money that supports existing news outlets outlets, it’s a bit of a worry. That’s before we even take into account the ways in which we self-select our own little online bubbles, seeing only content posted by like-minded friends and outlets we already agree with.
It’s not unreasonable to think we might soon find ourselves living a version of Australia’s news and political landscape that’s substantially different to the one experienced by the person next to us at the bus stop. Hearing the opinions some of our fellow citizens are rocking up to Bunnings armed with, we might already be there.
The ban on corflutes is, on balance, probably a net neutral. But we might one day find ourselves nostalgic for a time when we could all basically agree on one political consensus: all these posters are a bit silly, aren’t they?
Walter is a writer, editor and broadcaster living on Kaurna Country.
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