Saturday, July 17, 2010

What if they gave an election and nobody came?

Australia will get the government it deserves when the country goes to the polls on 21 August. For the next five weeks democracy temporarily ceases to be an opaque topic as people are reminded on a daily basis someone wants their vote.

Those in marginal seats will be the subject of extraordinary promises. There will be endless and persuasive marketing. Most of it will be on television where the masses still congregate but increasingly more is migrating to the social web where there is less control (though with imagination and humour as Old Spice proved, it can be a very successful strategy). Both the Government and the Opposition will spend vast amounts of money in the hope of convincing the small number of swinging or disaffected voters their candidate ought to be elected.

The parties shill to a small number because they know the rest don't matter. Seats with large majorities won't change hands regardless of who wins. There are other external factors parties cannot control. The donkey vote is real and top placement on the ballot can be the margin of victory in a tight race. So too is happiness unrelated to politics which can make a person punish or reward the incumbent. And ultimately it is a secret ballot. As the Sex Party notes, it doesn’t matter who you say you vote for when it gets to the unpredictability of what actually happens when it’s just you and a pen in the voting booth.

Predicting elections is not entirely impossible, of course. If it was, pollsters would go out of business. Good polls are usually right to within 3 percent and the current polls, and the bookmakers predict a narrow win for Julia Gillard and the Labor party. That margin of error means an Abbott win is not out of the question with a targeted marginal seat strategy.

It doesn't matter who wins, it is what they do in parliament that counts with the ugly sausage-making of changing and making of laws. In the US, Obama is proving a master at this by making left-liberals and conservatives alike hate him for being “always willing to cut a deal and grab for half the loaf.”

Both the parties here will also be willing to go for half the loaf. Gillard will obviously want more of the left of the loaf than Abbott – but only by a matter of a few crumbs. When the new Prime Minister took Labor to the right with her revised immigration policy, almost 70 percent of voters approved. Gillard may personally want looser immigration rules, gay marriage and bigger taxes on mining companies. But while the majority of the people she needs the vote of do not, she is not going to step far ahead. Otherwise, she knows she's toast.

It is not just a conservative electorate Gillard must deal with, there is also a hyper-sensitive media. If her Government was to step too far to the left, it would be demonised by soapboxes in the press and talkback radio. Television is too simple to need shock jocks or op-eds; it rules by allowing only eight minute blocks squeezed between advertisements where everything is reduced to pious homilies like “moving forward” and “working families” and “great big new tax”.

That leaves the untamed frontier of the Internet. Research shows the brands that dominate the web are the same ones that dominate other media channels. So in Australia most people get their online news from News Ltd, Channel Nine, the ABC and Fairfax. The big portals such as Google are complicating the picture but like the big newspapers a hundred years ago, they are finding they can make more money by being impartial.

The radicals are still out there on newsletters, blogs and social media. But with no trust or brand awareness, they will be far away from the networks of power. Journalists (or perhaps more truthfully, their editors) who decide who is in the news and the politicians they talk to in front of the camera, mic or pen, collude to set a narrow agenda that keeps most topics firmly off the agenda, Facebook and Twitter notwithstanding.

As I've written before, I believe this collusion of cosy mutual interest is the biggest threat to the health of democracy. However I’ve been glibly attacking this threat without ever explaining what democracy means. The Gettysburg Address is a half decent stab at it with its notion of “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

While "the people" might have been an identifiable concept in Lincoln's time (and I have my doubts), it does not make much sense 150 years later. There is no such thing as the people, there are just people. And a government of people by people and for people is too amorphous and tricky to manage. Every person is placid and contrary, irascible and content, malleable and intractable, driven and bored. It’s hard enough to please one person, a democracy that tries to please everyone is doomed to fail.

Yet it must so try. Democracy is indeed the worst form of government apart from all the others. As rotten and stinking as it is, there is nothing better waiting in the wings to take its place. If it can’t be replaced, it’s got to be fixed.

There is a role for journalism here, or rather many roles. There needs to be more muck-rakers hunting down corruption, more fourth estate reporting on and commenting on the goings on of government, parliament and the courts, and more lobbying on behalf of those with legitimate grievances by asking questions to those who have the power to affect these grievances.

The problem for journalism is that most journalists are employed by corporate media. The single biggest threat to democracy is the corporation itself with its profit motive subsuming all other motives to the fatal detriment of the body politic. That means large numbers of lobbyists, PR flacks and lawyers working only to make more money for their company. People who don't see society, only consumers.

Neither Julia Gillard nor Tony Abbott will be willing to address this problem, nor indeed even admit this is a problem. And if they were somehow foolish enough to stray off-message and be honest about it or even allude to it, the media would be there to gleefully humiliate them as someone who made a terrible “gaffe”.

Nevertheless until corporate greed is made to serve the public good, then democracy will continue to become as bad as all the other systems Churchill didn’t like. And “the people” will continue to treat politicians and the media with contempt.

Bernard Keane on the probability of a content-free election campaign.
Stilgherrian on how the media will report it.
Guy Beres on the dumbing down of Federal politics.
Mark Bahnisch on the parties' opening salvoes.
Gary Sauer-Thompson on the importance of Queensland and NSW.


"Guardian Central" said...

Do we simplify our form of govt to a Republic - [a representative democracy in which the people's elected deputies (representatives), not the people themselves, vote on legislation] you would lose more than you gain. Democracy has its flaws, but the essence of government is power, and power, lodged as it must be, in human hands, will forever be liable to abuse. Commercial shackles are generally unjust, oppressive, and impolitic, while democracy is in play, it will be kept in check and but so too will the effects of poverty on our society.
Compare Aust with USA, and this is a vulgar simplification: the people elect the Prime Minister and due to our constitution our Prime Minister and Premiers are still answerable to those who elect the US the people elect their Representitives and Senate leaders, but no matter how big the state only 1 representitive and 2 Senators can get in to govt, many states are under represented due to this law. The Congress made up of Reps and Senators elects the President and each party elects its own leader.

current Aust govt system:
Federal (Federation) - a form of government in which sovereign power is formally divided - usually by means of a constitution - between a central authority and a number of constituent regions (states, colonies, or provinces) so that each region retains some management of its internal affairs; differs from a confederacy in that the central government exerts influence directly upon both individuals as well as upon the regional units.
Parliamentary democracy - a political system in which the legislature (parliament) selects the government - a prime minister, premier, or chancellor along with the cabinet ministers - according to party strength as expressed in elections; by this system, the government acquires a dual responsibility: to the people as well as to the parliament.
Commonwealth - a nation, state, or other political entity founded on law and united by a compact of the people for the common good.

current US form of Govt:
Confederacy (Confederation) - a union by compact or treaty between states, provinces, or territories, that creates a central government with limited powers; the constituent entities retain supreme authority over all matters except those delegated to the central government.
Federal republic - a state in which the powers of the central government are restricted and in which the component parts (states, colonies, or provinces) retain a degree of self-government; ultimate sovereign power rests with the voters who chose their governmental representatives.
Democratic republic - a state in which the supreme power rests in the body of citizens entitled to vote for officers and representatives responsible to them.

Lorenzo said...

I enjoyed your post, but the "corporations are a threat to democracy" inspired me to respond.

And thanks for directing my attention to the Edward Herman essay, it was terribly helpful in understanding what is wrong with the "manufacturing consent" analysis (which I also intend to post about).