For a country so obsessed with winning, as a nation we have been strangely tolerant of a race in which we seem to want all protagonists to lose.
For a country so obsessed with winning, as a nation we have been strangely tolerant of a race in which we seem to want all protagonists to lose. In what might best be called a contest for last place, Australian federal politics is in a dismal state. Not only is the quality of debate abysmally low, the whole system no longer functions in the interest of the people. Both the major parties are showing the atrophy of old institutions and neither deserves to win power in the September election. The modern, single-minded imperative of economic success has long ago made the Australian Labor Party’s founding ‘fair-go’ policy seem parochial. Where once Labor’s role was clear, its steady evolution towards the conservative right has left it stranded between its stubbornly asserted every-man identity and political reality. Symptomatically, it has now become the party of factionalism, darkroom dealings and poorly kept secrets. Though admirable in their unity the Liberals are faring little better. Their unswerving devotion to economic rationalism and market forces no longer reflects the world that many people want to live in. The last few years has cracked the thin veneer of security that a corporatised world promised; the firm political ground that the Libs once stood upon has shifted, leaving their deeply rooted principles far behind the curve. That these two lame ducks are still in power is, in considerable part, due to the changing face of the media, and its dangerous desire to maintain the status quo. With the rise of mass, social, integrated media the power structure between voters, politicians and media organisations has been dangerously warped. Ideal democracy places the citizenry at the top of the pecking order, with the government structure below as a function of the people. Below this should be the media, reporting and digesting information that is then fed back to the people at the top. This is no longer so. Rather than defer to the public, politicians now defer to the media as a weather vane of public opinion; whole government departments are now dedicated to wooing the media before any consideration of courting the people. The competition between media outlets for audience dollars favours controversy over substance, which reduces our whole governing body to a self-perpetuating blame game. The media’s greatest trick has been convincing us that the fault does lie somewhere in Canberra, and not with our own power to hold both the media and government to account. As a result, politicians are more engaged with political point scoring and the production of soundbites with running the country. The media’s power over how politics is played out is now tangible. Instead of the prime driver of the system being the satisfaction of the majority, the system now favours the satisfaction of the media. This is not to pine for some long lost golden age of democracy; the media and politics have always been in a dynamic relationship. But the sheer saturation of often-monopolised media opinion and downsizing of debate has shifted the balance. Our lives have become a perfect storm of opinion too easily pedalled as fact. And the media are the gatekeepers who decide what we see and for how long we see it. One of the media’s cardinal sins has been to portray Australian politics as a two horse race, and on the periphery the Greens as Judas Iscariot and the independents as an anomaly of a broken system. The system is not broken, but its players do need rejuvenation; and the quickest way is to encourage the rise of three-party politics and independents candidates. This scares both the Lib/Lab conjunction and media moguls alike. Though not pretty, Gillard’s last term has been a rare glimpse of what politics should be, where rural voters, smaller parties and local constituents were given real power. Despite her imploding cabinet and the media’s dogged portrayal of unmitigated disaster the Gillard government managed to negotiate some very forward-thinking ideas through a hostile parliament. Whether good or bad the last three years have been about discussion and compromise to reach outcomes. Politics is not, and should not be, about majority parties slamming though party-line policies. The system should – as we have seen somewhat in the last three years – result in the masses reaping the benefits of political compromise, not just the invested minority of a stranglehold government. If the mass media continues to dictate our opinions and inspire apathy over action then we are looking at a future of politicians with no policies and newspapers with no news. We are the people stating our demands and expectations of the media everyday, with our wallets and our website traffic. Democracy demands engagement and we need to exercise our rights and reverse the trend. There is no need for us to be satisfied with slipshod journalism when there are more information sources out there than ever before. We can and we must refuse to be the bait for a media that dangles public opinion in front of politicians like a carrot. We may not, right away, be able to get the government we want, but we will always get the government we deserve. Grant Mills is editor of Australia’s oldest political science journal, AQ: Australian Quarterly