Democracy For The Taking
We are drowning in partisan rhetoric that is just true enough not to be a lie; in industry-sponsored research; in social media’s imitation of human connection; in legalese and corporate double-speak. It infects every facet of public life, corrupting our discourse, wrecking our trust in major institutions, lowering our standards for the truth, making it harder to achieve anything. – Jon Lovett
Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, China, Burma and Zimbabwe. These are just some of the countries where people have struggled, fought, and even paid the ultimate price in the past year for the right to determine the leader of their country at the ballot box. In Australia we are blessed with a gift; at the start of each election campaign, the result will not be a forgone conclusion. This is because we have been bestowed a political system where the people, rather than the military or a dictator, ultimately decide how their country should be run. And what do we do with this incredible gift?
Politics of the moment
Australians are switching off politics like never before. According to a national survey conducted by the Centre for Advancing Journalism and OurSay, more than one-in-three voters have ‘not much or no interest’ in this year’s federal election. The results of the survey, released in May 2013, also show that voters have lost confidence in institutions across-the-board, including government, print media, the legal system and television.
There are many reasons for this loss of confidence. Probably the best analysis of how this happened appears in a 2011 book by former Finance Minister, Lindsay Tanner, called Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy.
In the book, an extract of which is available here, Tanner explained that
the creation of appearances is now far more important for leading politicians than is the generation of outcomes. This produces a good deal of deception, and an approach that I call “the politics of the moment”. Winning today’s micro-argument is all important, and tomorrow can look after itself. This breeds a collective mentality of cynicism and manipulation. Policy initiatives are measured by their media impact, not by their effect.
The symptoms of this shift were on full display in late July, when Kevin Rudd realised that his best chance of pulling off the biggest election upset in recent Australian political history is to take over all of Tony Abbott’s policies. As Lenore Taylor perceptively noted: ‘If Kevin is the guy who “axes the tax” and “stops the boats,” then where does that leave Tony?’
A seasoned political observer, Taylor insightfully concludes that
it’s a political truism that good policy makes for good politics. Australia’s handling of asylum seekers proves the inverse is also right: reactive, partisan politics creates an almighty policy failure. Another rushed and reactive pre-election “fix” [the PNG “solution“] will probably make it worse. But it might just change the course of the election.
The salesperson or the product?
In my mind, the blame for the sideshow that has become Australian politics, the back flips and expedient policy-making, are to be laid at the feet of the voters as much as the politicians. How is it that without Labor changing a single policy, it received a massive 9% swing overnight from 25-34 year olds, and a 6-7% swing for all other ages under 50, after simply swapping its leaders on June 26? Why is it that we care about the salesperson so much more than the product? Why is it that three-word slogans, catchy billboards, Facebook memes and pithy Twitter remarks are more likely to engage us in politics than serious and considered policy debate?
In an ideal world, my dream is that the media would take a leaf from Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom. In Episode 2, Season 1, the fabulous Executive Producer of News Night, MacKenzie McHale, informs her staff of the standards they will be working toward when creating news stories. These four beautiful rules for how information should be presented in a news story are so simple, yet so ignored by most of our journalists who seek to entertain, rather than inform:
1. Is this information we need in the voting booth?
Is the information presented important to that pivotal moment when people cast their votes? Or does it present a triviality (like the Prime Minister’s wardrobe choices) irrelevant to the process of good governing?
2. Is this the best possible form of the argument?
Has the story been cheapened, sensationalized or oversimplified? Does it employ hyperbole as a smokescreen? Does it hold reason in high esteem? Does it sensibly examine motives, causes and effects?
3. Is this in historical context?
Has the fact presented been isolated from its historical surroundings, thereby providing little or no reasonable basis for comparison to assist our judgement? Has a figure or statistic been compared to a similar past situation in order to ascertain if we are observing progression or regression?
4. Are there really two sides to every story?
When there is more than one reasonable side, present those sides reasonably. When there aren’t – don’t. In the former category, we may find an analysis of how to best stimulate a slowing Australian economy without causing damage; deserving balanced consideration from various economic positions. On the other hand, given that over 97% of peer-reviewed articles agree that the planet is warming due to human activity, ‘both sides’ should not receive equal time in a story about climate change. The same is true for the case for and against vaccinating children. Doing so creates a false balance and does not lead to informed decision making.
Can you imagine what would happen if the media showed this sort of integrity in the news reporting process? A successful democracy requires much more than just free elections. It demands concerned and educated citizens. It demands a critical media that spends more time covering the policies rather than their marketing. It demands a real choice between a variety of parties with actual policy differences.
The central nervous system of democracy
If you do nothing else before you vote at the next election, gather your friends and family, and spend an hour reading and discussing one of these websites. They are some of the few places online where you find the agenda of each party, sorted by policy area, with a clear comparison made between each of the parties’ policies. It’s free of spin doctors and emotive thirty-second YouTube clips that you will find on the websites of most political parties. It may not be the most entertaining hour of your life, but our democracy will be the better for you having invested the time.
New fact checking pages like Politfact and The Conversation’s FactCheck, are also very good for this purpose, as is OurSay, a movement that is ‘harnessing the power of social media to revitalise critical participation in Australian democracy.’
An educated electorate is the central nervous system of a healthy democracy. It is incumbent on us all to do what we can to realise the gift of Australian democracy, an ideal for which many around the world still struggle and yearn. This means more than just going to the ballot and ticking a box.
In 1984, when asked whether Jews were required by halacha [Jewish law] to vote in American elections, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, supreme halakhic authority for Orthodox Jewry of North America in the twentieth century, answered yes, explaining that “A fundamental principle of Judaism is hakarat hatov, recognising benefits afforded us and giving expression to our appreciation.” In an Australian context, there is no better way to express our appreciation of democracy, than by taking our vote seriously. This is best done through studying carefully before choosing, and creating public conversations in the lead up to elections that are less about publicity stunts and hollow promises, and more about the ideas that fire our imagination, for what Australia can, and should, become.