The ingrown toenail of Australian politics
Updated 7 hours 27 minutes ago
Neither major political party any longer represents the electorate as a whole, writes Tim Dunlop. They have instead become self-perpetuating mechanisms for the advancement of their own kind.
What we are seeing in Australia at the moment is a collapse in the relevance and standing of our political class. By “political class” I mean those organisations and institutions involved in the day-to-day work of running and informing the country, most especially, the major political parties and the mainstream media.
How did this come about?
It begins with the parties themselves, as they are ultimately the institutions on whom we rely to not only carry the weight of sensible political discussion but to stand up to the various rent seekers (from mining companies to retail magnates) who think the country should be run for their benefit.
Both Labor and the Coalition are failing to do either.
The opinion polls that once (allegedly) showed our desire to change government and install the Coalition have already swung back the other way.
The problem is that neither major party any longer represents the electorate as a whole. They have instead become self-perpetuating mechanisms for the advancement of their own kind.
In the absence of a broad membership, Labor and the Coalition have become inwardly rather than outwardly focussed, the captive of special interests. Their reason for being is no longer to serve but to continue to exist.
Both parties are riven by internal disputes that have less to do with policy differences (that is, visions for how to make the country better) than with factional power.
The most obvious example is the insane infighting that culminated in the Rudd/Gillard disputes of the last few years. Nothing has done more to undermine the credibility of the Labor party than these so-called “leadership” battles.
The Coalition has benefitted from Labor infighting in that they are the only major alternative for which people can vote, but that doesn’t mean that people are happy with them either.
In fact, major factional battles exist within the Coalition too, and they are driven by the same malaise: a disconnect from the electorate at large and an inability to articulate a vision of the national good outside their own obsessions.
Even an ideologue like News Ltd journalist and former Liberal staffer Chris Kenny is honest enough to admit the fact. Back in 2009, as Tony Abbott ousted Malcolm Turnbull as party leader, Kenny wrote:
The federal parliamentary Liberal Party has become, in a practical sense, divided into two separate and disparate parties, one in the Senate and one in the house.
The Senate party is deeply conservative, reluctant to take action on climate change and supports Tony Abbott as leader.
The Liberal Party of the House of Representatives is moderate, supports an emissions trading scheme and prefers Malcolm Turnbull as leader.
In the recent leadership change and policy U-turn over the emissions trading scheme, the Senate party imposed its will on the house party.
…the conservative minority pushed for a leadership spill but still fell well short of the required numbers. Confronted by this defeat, the conservative wing, from its power base in the Senate, unleashed a shock-and-awe campaign of frontbench resignations, forcing the Liberals into a policy and leadership crisis, from which Abbott won by a solitary vote.
He concluded that, “The Senate-house divide, unchecked, could lead to a fatal disconnect between conservative politicians and the people they seek to represent.”
That’s exactly what is happening and it is what I call the ingrown-toenail syndrome of Australian politics: a seemingly endless bout of political self-obsession.
The net effect of it is the rise of a harsh partisanship of which the Abbott government is the most successful proponent.
Public policy is no longer seen as a long-term process of trying to enact reforms that are to the benefit of the nation as a whole, but as a winner-takes-all game where the incumbent gets to reshape the country according to its own prejudices.
Or rather, the prejudices of the dominant faction within the governing party.
Under such circumstances, the emergence of Cory Bernardi is not an aberration but a logical development. When parties stop reflecting the mainstream of voters, marginal ideologues emerge, and Bernardi represents a particular faction within the Coalition trying to assert itself so that it gets to play its part in the game of “reshape the country”.
The electorate’s dissatisfaction with all this is palpable. The opinion polls that once (allegedly) showed our desire to change government and install the Coalition have already swung back the other way.
And polls are far from the only indication of our dissatisfaction.
At the last federal election, more of us voted for someone other than the major parties than ever before. As Antony Green summarises:
Support for minor parties and independents reached record levels for both the House and Representatives and the Senate at the 2013 election.
Support for non-major party candidates reached 21.1 per cent in the House of Representatives, representing more than one in five of all votes.
In the Senate, support for non-major party candidates reached 32.2 per cent, just under one in three of all votes.
…In the House the 21.1 per cent non-major party support broke the 20.4 per cent record at One Nation’s first election in 1998. The level of support for independents and minor parties has now been above 14 per cent at every election since 1996.
Non-major support in the Senate has always been several percentage points higher than in the House. The new record of 32.2 per cent surpasses 26.2 per cent in 2010 and 25.0 per cent at One Nation’s first election in 1998. Minor party and independent support in the Senate has now been above 19 per cent at every election since 1996.
These are incredible figures and they show how we are desperately scratching around, trying to find an alternative.
At the moment, the system is throwing up “solutions” as diverse as Palmer United and Cathy McGowan, but small parties and independents alone cannot properly address voter concerns.
Indeed, under such circumstances, the very act of voting deepens our sense of powerlessness rather than allaying it. We simply don’t feel we are getting a parliament with our best interests at heart.
Compounding the problems is the collapse of coherent public discussion.
The mainstream media, in print and on television (television being where the vast majority of us still get our political information) simply can’t cope. They either oversimplify everything to the point of caricature, or they become – as is the case of the Murdoch newspapers – openly and comically partisan.
This partisanship is in part the result of the financial problems within the media industry, an attempt to consolidate what small market share they have by pandering to the converted. It is probably inevitable.
But I don’t think it is our chief concern. The problem is more fundamental.
The media isn’t failing because their business model is broken (though it is). They are failing because their news model is broken. They, too, have lost touch with their audience, in exactly the same way that the political parties have. Audiences are bored and turned off by the way politics is covered and the editors and journalists in charge of things have little idea about how to respond.
So just as people have sought alternative candidates come election time, they are also seeking alternative sources of news and information as they try to get their head around the changing political environment.
The emergence of social and other online forms of new media is most welcome: can you even imagine how much worse things would be if we were still limited to the handful of media outlets we were stuck with before the invention of the internet?
Nonetheless, new media is still in its infancy. And just as a few independent MPs cannot fix a parliamentary system struggling for relevance, a few new news sites and social media pages cannot replace a coherent, focussed and properly functioning fourth estate.
Where does all this leave us?
The bottom line is that we are passing through a period of transition, and the trick at this stage is to step back from the day-to-day trivia and see the big picture.
That’s a lot easier said than done, but the ferment obvious in our national politics – from our voting patterns to the way we are now consuming media – suggests an engaged electorate actively thinking about how to make things better.
It is from such engagement that reinvention will emerge.
Tim Dunlop is the author of The New Front Page: New Media and the Rise of the Audience. You can follow him on Twitter. View his full profile here.