The Closed Loop
I did some time with the Greens.
Here are some examples of typical questions I was asked and remarks passed by my friends and family during my time there:
“Why would you even get involved in politics, aren’t they all scumbags?” Or “so, do those Greens people say much about Israel? They’re all anti-Semitic aren’t they?”
For many, it was never about my job. There was no interest in what it was like to work on a tightly contested, high-powered election campaign.
“She’s pretty, she’ll probably win.”
Many didn’t care about Ellen Sandell’s (the candidate contesting the seat of Melbourne) background, what she’d achieved or what she stood for. They didn’t care that she rode a bicycle to her press conferences and that she lived and breathed the values she professed publically.
“Pfftt, the Greens. What do they know about the economy – bunch of tree huggers.”
I worked as an Organizer for Ellen’s successful State election campaign in Melbourne. In case you don’t follow State politics closely, Ellen won. She became the inaugural Greens MP in the Lower House of the Victorian Parliament, unseating the Labor Party, who held the seat for 102 years.
On November 29th, 2014 a young team of campaigners, executing cutting edge field organizing techniques, made Australian political history.
What I learnt as a young person, especially one who was unexpectedly thrust – completely unprepared – into the heart of a high stakes campaign was this important truth; politics operates in a closed loop with us, the voters.
All I hear nowadays are the same old, extremely tired, regurgitated platitudes. And no, it’s not the ubiquitous; “young people don’t care about politics”. In fact, a quick Google search could demonstrate – to even the most ardent pessimist – that this particular fallacy has been researched into nonexistence.
What I take issue with is the constant complaining; “politics is just about sound bytes now, there’s no passion anymore” or “the politicians are completely out of touch with the rest of society” or, my absolute favourite; “they’re all just as bad as each other”.
Based on my personal experience from the campaign – in more ways than I care to admit – politicians are absolutely in touch with society. Unfortunately, this has given birth to a structural tension in communications, information and image.
It’s unclear who started it, but a culture of gross simplification and exaggeration has rotted politics to the core. The general populace may complain about it, but – by and large – it gets swallowed whole. Everyone has an opinion on politics, but almost no one takes the time to read policies, watch interviews or deeply engage with the facts – they don’t even want to. Our opinions – our personal truths – are based almost entirely on the sound bytes we claim to detest. Sometimes, they’re based purely (and shamelessly) on superficial judgments: “I never liked Gillard, just the sound of her voice was annoying” or “I saw that guy interviewed, he’s just slimy and has a weird accent”. There is no room for this in politics – for delusion and prejudice to shape our opinions and inform our votes.
I’m a huge Seinfeld fan – so here’s a pithy line that’s incredibly relevant and insightful (and maybe even a little scary):
Loyalty to any one team is pretty hard to justify because the players are always changing. You are actually rooting for the clothes. Fans will be so in love with a player, but if he goes to another team, the same human being in a different shirt, they hate him.
We are in an awkward position here. Today, in politics, all we do is barrack for what’s irrelevant.
We’ve allowed (and maybe even encouraged) politicians to exploit our choice to be ignorant. We want our politics fed to us on a shiny spoon in tidy little digestible slogans, because that’s what we like to eat and how we like to eat it. We don’t want to trawl through Senate Estimates or read wordy policies. Instead, too many people want some white guy on TV or a media mogul to simultaneously sum it up and spin it for us. We’re asking for our food to be thrown in a blender, simplified and served to us by the mainstream media – but then when we sample what’s on offer, we complain that it all tastes the same. Our elected representatives are falling over each other to get the best food processor on the market. Last year, a report emerged that Scott Morrison – the former immigration minister and the guy ‘stopping all those boats’ – had employed 95 communication staff in his Department. Whether or not this is replicated amongst other departments is irrelevant – that’s 8 million dollars a year on… yes, let’s call it spin.
Here’s the real kicker though – there’s no excuse for eating baby food. The technological tension at play is the double-edged power to consume in 5 seconds or 5 hours. That’s our choice. Every policy is online, every staffer is accessible and almost all of the information is out there. I’ve never heard someone say; “I would love to know more about climate change, but I just can’t find the right article” or “I’d love to learn more about our foreign aid policy but Google just doesn’t generate enough results”.
Today, ignorance is not just indefensible and unforgivable but, in some cases, unconscionable. We prefer short lies and convenient misinformation to longer, potentially unglamorous truths.
This is the closed loop.
We demand more of our politicians but we fail spectacularly at asking to be treated like the well-reasoned adults that we claim that we are. We derive and extrapolate an idea we think is substantial from that which is baseless. Therefore, my real question is; why would politicians change their tactics? If they did, we’d probably just find them clinical, boring and out of touch, albeit truthful. Their truths would get lost and this would be our fault, not theirs.
Or would they?
Ellen’s campaign – that I was fortunate enough to work on – may prove otherwise. Perhaps it’s a noble model for a politics that is intrinsically real.
Ellen Sandell is courageous, fair and intelligent – with a vast appetite for policy. She’s literally dedicated her life to the protection of the environment and is an accomplished scientist. Her communications guru is a genius, a talented and capable campaigner. What I think they should be doing is distributing reasonable, rational policy and having as many genuine conversations about that policy as possible.
Policy is the lifeblood of what politics really is. Don’t worry, there is still plenty of that happening.
But, they’re being forced by a system, a system we’ve perpetuated a demand for, to spend far too much time worrying about things that are absolutely irrelevant; Ellen’s hair, her image and her wardrobe. Coming up with slogans and sound bytes to go into war with or risk being outgunned and outmatched by the other side.
However, the dissemination and discussion of policy, accompanied by genuine conversations, dominated our campaign. And we won. I saw far less ‘politics’ in this campaign than I was used to in Federal & State Politics – particularly between the two major parties.
What’s the effect of this trivialization? Generally, it makes politics bitterly uninspiring. I believe that there’s room for charisma, leadership and personality in an MP – but what I crave is for it to be backed up by more than just one-liners.
So what did I learn at the Greens? I learnt about perspective. Watching and contributing to the innermost machinations of a political machine I finally understood how much is policy and how much is propaganda. I saw how we “play the game”. Now, as a young person, I look at politics differently. I crave substance, reason and honesty. I want informed opinion and to be treated with respect, without contempt.
If we want politics to change, we need to strive for more. Before we hold our politicians to a higher standard, we need to raise our own.