While another election campaign has ended, the Californication of Australian
politics continue unhindered. Essentially, Californian politics is played out through bought media: advertisements. The media itself generally gives politics and politicians little attention. This is best summed up by the Californian observation, generated no doubt by the movie industry also located there, that politics is acting for ugly people.
In California, politicians raise substantial amounts of money to buy these ads; in Australia, taxpayers do. Many political observers believe that a potential answer to removing this perversion of public funds is stricter rules. However, if history has taught us anything, it is that the tougher the rules are, the sooner they are bent until broken outright.
The answer may lie in encouraging a more active involvement in politics, especially by those charged with scrutinizing it.
Since the dawn of democratic time, incumbent governments have had the cards stacked in
their favour. Governments had the ability to set the agenda by which the electorate would judge alternatives. Since the time of Roman Emperors, all governments have spent actual money on a grateful populace even if just in the form of bread and circuses.
Government comes with the benefit of departmental resources, which amounts to thousands of people who are charged with the responsibility of developing and researching
innovative policy solutions. Further to this, a sitting member has at their disposal substantial funds for postage and printing, a staff of four and tax payer funded phones and faxes. Political parties estimate that for a challenger to be just on equal terms with an
incumbent requires at least $300,000.
Age old political advantages have been augmented with modern tax payer funding.
Still, such additions only go some way towards explaining how dislodging governments became such a Herculean task.
There are a number of potential reasons for this. First, the cost of modern campaigning has left the majority of parties at the mercy of unions, corporate donors, or the public purse. Second, the decline of public involvement in institutional party structures has left most political parties at the mercy of branch stackers which in turn means they need to pay for activities previously carried out by volunteers. Finally, the media is both reflecting and leading public disinterest and cynicism in politics, while simultaneously
cutting resources dedicated to in-depth analysis.
In my opinion, it is the last of these factors that is the greatest advantage to sitting governments.
In the past, the advantages enjoyed by governments were counter balanced by the general interest of the media through which space and emphasis were given to alternative points
of view. This constrained the government’s ability to set the agenda above all others. Arguably, these factors no longer exist in Australian political discourse.
Politically, Australia has become the California of the South Pacific.
The media spends more time commenting on politics than analysing it, and has not bothered to report on it since Don’s Party premiered. More importantly, when was
the last time you noticed someone from a media outlet demanding a political
leader justify their claims, instead of egging them to sensationalise it even more?
My personal favourite technique of the contemporary political journalist is when they interview each other. Jon Stewart, an American comedian (though not Californian), mercilessly pokes fun at US commentators who do this, thus far no Australian comedian has felt it worthy of comment.
Of course in the absence of a personal agenda, or corporate resources, the contemporary
political journalist relies on the government to provide them with ideas for their stories. This process of story generation further cements the advantage that a government has. After all, what critical analysis can one expect from the animal that is being fed by the very hand that they are meant to be questioning?
In Australia today, we have political journalists who want to be the story. This has meant
more time is spent reporting on tactics than policy outcomes; who is up and who
is down; what the polls say; and who the next proverbial pop star is. There is not much room for discussion of what the impact of policy is going to be, or for serious questions of opposition responses or government policy frameworks. In other words: the government can get away with virtually anything.
Writing in the New York Times, David Brooks remarked that John McCain is the only person of character in the US presidential race. He spent an entire column reviewing the character and history of McCain, not his tactics or his poll ratings. He remarked positively on the unpopular stands and policy stances that McCain has taken, which with the benefit of hindsight have been more often right than wrong. It is inconceivable that you would ever see such a well researched, competently argued column in Australia. Not unless a government media adviser suggested, researched and presented it to one of our political commentators.
Until a political journalist can come up with such an article without relying on the government of the day, it is fair to say that the electorate will remain switched off, the
government will continue to set the agenda, oppositions will be irrelevant, and
democracy will be badly handicapped in a land that prizes its freedom of choice
For all these reasons, if you want to look at the future of politics in Australia, look not to London or Washington, but to California.