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The Politics of Apathy

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Last year, the Democrats were finally obliterated. Few people appreciated the full extent of their marginalization, but I knew it was coming the moment I saw the marches down George Street, Brisbane.

“Free Burma! Free Burma!” the peaceful protesters cried. Normally, you only see people carrying signs for the Socialist Alliance, but this time it was for the Democrats. Instantly, I knew they had become the fringe.

I mentioned this to a few people. And they gave me the same shrug as those watching the protestors march down the street. The protesters pass by, the green man lights up, and everyone crosses the road as though it were nothing out of the ordinary.

Of course, according to Carole and Ferrier’s Radical Brisbane, the city has long been a hotbed of activism and political engagement. Right to march protests, racial and sectarian riots, and crackdowns on punk rock concerts are all fine examples. Hard to say whether that view is overstated or if perhaps the times have changed.

We all know public engagement is the crux of democracy. In its absence, not only is policy is stunted by restrictions on both expertise and feedback, but there is no guarantee the public will accept and bend to legislative changes. So how much involvement is enough? And how can we best cultivate it?

A lot of political junkies – especially on BlogCritics – take the attitude that the electorate is always ill-informed and too easily won over by rhetoric. Just because they do not fuss over all the nuances of this or that speech, spend all their time reading the papers or share their particular ideology. In their view, the public never seem to be engaged enough with the major decisions of government.

Of course, maybe we are deluding ourselves and the public actually is as engaged as it should be. After all, I am passionate about telecommunications policy and information equity, but that does not mean it should be a concern of the public generally. And most duties of government are routine budgets and project approvals which have little relevance to you or me personally. The real concern is when the public wholeheartedly supports legislation against the public interest.

In her landmark book Global Spin, Sharon Beder outlines a number of methods by which industry can garner support and undermine green campaigning. Astroturf campaigns, lawsuits against public participation, providing classroom materials and greenwashing are just a handful of these methods.

Putting aside the more obvious aspects of spin, another aspect of misinformation has a lot to do with issues of faith. Not that a person of any particular faith is necessarily stupid or ill informed because of their beliefs, though these will often create bias. The problem is where groups like the Exclusive Brethren, as reported on Four Corners, use their financial muscle to run covert campaigns and manipulate legislation.

Good journalism is essential, but not enough, for the public to make honest judgements in an election. The dissemination of and access to information must provide space for reflection and review. Nevertheless, regardless of how many sources you cite and link to, a writer or campaigner will always need to compete with the incumbent politics of apathy.

One of the main reasons I support compulsory preferential voting has a lot to do with countering this disconnect. Coercing all individuals to be a part of the outcome not only creates interest in their own decision but the inconsistent feedback keeps them coming back. Admittedly there are a few leaks, as noted by Crikey!, but it works in principle.

It is unfortunate that this is more a case of treating the symptom than the cause. Would it not be better to address the latter and therefore eradicate the problem more fully? Well, let us consider the cause.

Hugh Mackay’s Advance Australia…Where? and Clive Hamilton’s 2006 quarterly essay What’s Left? both reach the same conclusion. Over the last decade, prosperity, they argue, has disengaged people from the struggles which once defined our politics; lulling the electorate into passive acceptance of a deeply unpopular government. As in Huxley’s Brave New World, there is no point in causing a ruckus about civil rights if things are good. Perhaps there is a grain of truth in this, but it cannot be the whole truth.

The real problem is relevance. Consider, the greens have their senate seats and will often run public campaigns for environmental causes, but such issues as the Tasmanian pulp mill and global warming are of more direct concern than the rights of those in other countries. And according to Michael Gawenda’s essay, entitled Getting Elected and available through the Monthly magazine, both the American Democrats and Australian Labor Party have been wise to separate themselves from the intelligentsia like Mackay, bloggers and their traditional base. Given the right-wing has seized upon cultural dissatisfaction with the left, the adopting nationalism and a fear of God would leave the public to decide entirely on the issues that the left is superior on.

On the other hand, perhaps it is true that consumerism provides comfort for those alienated by politics and its processes. The opening number to this year’s hysterical Warf Review (MP3), presented on Radio National’s summer talks, places much emphasis on this point. And I consider it fair to say the shift from a daily to an hourly news cycle makes for a somewhat confused and disorientated public. As any salesman will tell you, information overload can kill a sale.

However, this is less of an issue than some might lead you to believe. Many people tend to zoom in on particular issues, taking a casual interest in current affairs and only get involved when something pricks their concern. When word got out about the changes to the electoral act, Get-Up which has many young subscribers, ran a short circuit – I hate the term “netroots” – campaign to encourage young people to enrol and update their details if they had not done so. Getting this information through the grape vine, swarms of young people quickly followed suit and the organization has since started a petition to reverse said changes.

When the government does not change for an extended period, it is often hard to say whether the public is engaged. After almost twelve years the Australian people managed to turf the Howard government out, and since then it has been a strange couple of months. John went from being all over the media, to being non-existent. Perhaps the public really were engaged with the real issues. But then again, maybe people were bored with their prime minister and changed their votes as they would change channels. In either case what may have kept him in power is the lack of a better alternative.

The antidote to political apathy is to nurture a situation where political decision-making is consistently relevant to the lives of the people. And, at the end of the day, it is the media and government who are ultimately responsible for this. Perhaps it is time to stop asking what we can do for our country, and start asking what our country is supposed to be doing for us in the first place.

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About Jonathan Scanlan

  • http://www.republicofdave.com Dave Nalle

    Jonathan, your final paragraph scares the hell out of me. The only thing protecting us from the oppression of excessive government is lawmakers tendency towards pursuing irrelevancies instead of doing their jobs. I can’t imagine how screwed we’d be if they spent their time legislating on issues that actually matter to people.

    Dave

  • STM

    The Democrats have been dead ducks for a while in Australia, which is sad in a way because under Senator Don Chipp, their former leader, it was envisaged they could hold the balance of power in the Senate and vote with their consciences to thwart partisan voting that would act as a rubber stamp for decisions made by the government in the lower house.

    They also sought to stop the opposition voting mindlessly against lower-house decisions made by the government in cases where such decisions might actually have some merit.

    His vision was expressed thus: “Let’s keep the bastards honest”. And for a while, they were close to achieving that vision of giving ALL Australians (not just with minor-party vested interests) a voice in parliament as the holders of the balance of power.

    Their poor showing at the last election is, sadly, the dying gasp of an ugly duckling that never quite fulfilled its promise to become a swan.

    It’s not apathy that killed them – it’s a mish-mash of policies and muddle-headed thinking, and as Jonathan says, the fact that they are now regarded as a fringe outfit.

    Their lack of support is also underlined by the fact that in their 30-year history, they have never managed to win a seat in the House of Representatives.

    What can the government do for us? Plenty, but a good place to start would be to get the hell out of our private lives except when we are breaking the law.

    Close, at number 2, would be not trying to fix stuff that ain’t broke. Like turning us into a republic. A constitutional monarchy based on rule of law has kept this country going with nary a hitch and has made it one that others envy and will knock down the door to get to.

    We’ve already voted on the republic issue and we’ve rejected it. And we don’t want some bulsh.t flag either that doesn’t reflect the country’s heritage.

    So: leave the union jack in the corner and every star in place. And keep the background blue!

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Hooray!

    Although I do think, as do (I know) some others, that Bruce Woodley’s ‘We Are Australian’ would make a fine national anthem, much nicer and more relevant than ‘Advance Australia Fair’.

  • Jonathan Scanlan

    Stan, surely there must be some things about the nation which you would be willing to change?

    Myself, I don’t see why we can’t cut the ties with British monarchy and leave the government structure as is. And on that point there is no reason why we should change the flag, since it gives credit to our history.

    Yes, the national anthem is certainly something that does need an overhaul.

  • STM

    Yeah, the national anthem IS crap. It’s a dirge. Like they say, a camel is a horse designed by a committee. The national anthem, then, is a camel.

    No Jonathan – I don’t believe in punting the Queen as we’ve already cut our ties anyway with Britain.

    This is an independent country. Britain has no say whatsoever in how this country is run and in reality, has had no claim on it since the federation of the colonies.

    The Queen is just the instrument that allows us to continue to have a constitutional monarchy.

    Note, too, that here she is referred to only as the Queen of Australia, not the Queen of England.

    I don’t believe in a republic. I’d hate to go down the circular American path of endless navel gazing (no offence meant, folks) and breast-beating. If their system is better than ours, I’ll eat my hat.

    I’m serious Jonathan in regard to this – why try to change something that isn’t broke?

    Please don’t cite the “constitutional crisis” either – even as a Labor voter, I’m willing to concede that the Whitlam government was more the architect of its own downfall than anything else.

    IMHO, even in that situation, it all worked perfectly, even if I wasn’t happy with the outcome at the time.

    You can’t have any fairer end to a “constitutional crisis” than giving the people the final word at the ballot box.

  • Jonathan Scanlan

    “I’m serious Jonathan in regard to this – why try to change something that isn’t broke?”

    Well, I always thought of it more as throwing out something we don’t use any more.

    And correct me if I’m wrong, but did Dave just defend bureaucracy and bureaucratization?

  • STM

    I think so … but bnly in as much as they are hopeless at their jobs, which is the only thing that really protects us from them.

    Which IS almost presenting a case for bigger government rather than smaller.

  • Clavos

    I love this site!! And the web!!

    Just saw the beginning of Stan’s last comment in the “Fresh Comments” column down the right side of another thread.

    Naturally, I couldn’t resist seeing why he thinks the Australian Anthem is “crap,” so of course I googled “Australian Anthem,” which led me to a really cool site with dozens of countries’ anthems in both streaming and MP3 formats.

    For the record mate, while it’s certainly not a lively tune, I respectfully disagree that it’s crap; to me it sounded about like most of the world’s anthems do: slow, ponderous “majestic” music. In a word (or two): anthem-like.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    And in case anyone thinks I’m interfering, I think my country’s national anthem is terminally dreary as well.

    I believe we’re the only country in the world, apart from Jordan, whose national anthem is entirely about the head of state.

    The popular choice for a replacement is ‘Jerusalem’, which, although it’s a handsome tune, I don’t think quite cuts it. My vote would be for ‘Hearts of Oak’, which embodies our maritime heritage and is a great rousing march.

    Jonathan, for Australia, how about ‘God Save the Queen’*?

    * The Sex Pistols version. ;-)

  • Jonathan Scanlan

    My personal choice?

    “I still call Australia Home.”

    I like it’s cosmopolitanism, and keep in mind the anthem is gona get played at the Olympic games.

    An added bonus is it was written for a Qantas commercial; which means it’s short and a somewhat postmodern choice.

  • STM

    Yeah, as long as it’s short.

    What about some of those South American anthems? Fair dinkum. Your kids have grown up by the time they finish.

    The Argentinian one’s a classic. I couldn’t wait for ‘em to get into the action in the Rugby World Cup game against South Africa, but the bloody thing goes for ages.

    Just when you think it’s finished and you’re about to a) clap, b) breathe a sigh of relief, c) watch the kick-off, the thing starts up all over again.

    I reckon a really good writer could come up with some (decent) new words to the tune of Waltzing Matilda, which is qunitessentially Australian.

    For the record, my fave anthems:

    1) South Africa (Nkosi Sikelel’iAfrika, anyway. The rewritten bit of the Afrikaners’ The Call I could do without.)

    2) The US, but just the tune – the words are a call to arms and my British heritage tells me I shouldn’t be celebrating any such thing.

    3) France. A rousing and passionate call to … well, anything, really. As long as it’s French.

    4) New Zealand (especially the Maori version, the English version being a little bit hokey).

    That bloody Pom anthem though.

    What an absolute shocker.

  • STM

    Missed one.

    Love the Fijian anthem too. What a beauty.

  • Jonathan Scanlan

    Ya know, as fascinating as anthems actually are… maybe someone should write a review of them for the culture section.

    *sigh*

    Any chance of getting some discussion of what I wrote?

  • http://www.republicofdave.com Dave Nalle

    I thought the Australian anthem was ‘Waltzing Mathilda’ not that tedious dreck I listened to the MP3 of.

    I’m all for Jerusalem as the new Brit anthem. It’s a great song, but of course it’s totally jam packed with Christian mysticism and it’s a luddite anthem too. I happen to LIKE ‘dark satanic mills’. BTW, they took it out of the Episcopal hymnal here in the US about 30 years ago. Are you still allowed to sing it in church in England?

    Dave

  • http://pointlessannointed.blogspot.com/ colin

    Doc, you forgot the Welsh one, Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, the praises of which you have sung in the past!

    Can you really like Dark Satantic Mills Dave? They are dark and satanic, and while I understand you have a libertarian laissez faire view of pretty much everything, surely using children to run under looms, go up chimneys, hand mould molten metal ;o) etc needed taming. Yes, Blake was a mystic with all sorts of crazy visions, but his words really do get people fired up, and as an idealistic vision it’s not a bad one.

    And the home of the brave!

    As to the article, I’m sorry to say my knowledge of Australian politics precludes me commenting. On political engagement everywhere, I think the THINK GLOBAL ACT LOCAL, mantra is a good one, the best way to get involved with the political process is in your own community – although in Britain local politics is in a bit of a mess… Personally I’d ban political parties from any level below the national parliament (I’d ban them from that too if I could) to ensure genuine representation and the idea that people really can effect the way their elected representatives act more than a diktat from party HQ in Ludnud.

    Ned Lud was right as it happens, so was Captain Swing… Owain Glyn Dwr will rise again soon – he’s only asleep, with King Arthur and Don Revie/

    All the best all, I’m offline till I get ‘net action in Cardiff, but no doubt I’ll be spouting more bobbins within a week or so.

  • http://pointlessannointed.blogspot.com/ colin

    You surely must be allowed to sing Jerusalem in British (sorry, English, Welsh and Scottish and Northern Irish) Churches, surely? I’m not sure Dave to be honest, I’m not a church goer, however it remains the anthem of the Women’s Institute, whose membership is surely staunchly CofE.
    Why was it banned? I think vicars in the CofE have a lot of autonomy on what they do and don’t like sung in church, and you do see occasional stories of a localised ruccus over this or that hymn – the last one I can recall was I Vow To Thee My Country, they usually come to light when someone – usually after years away from church arranges a wedding or funeral to have it scuppered by the local Vic!

  • http://www.republicofdave.com Dave Nalle

    I don’t know that Jerusalem was banned by the CofE. I pointed out that it was booted by the Episcopal Church in the US, which I think was a real shame. I’m just hoping the CofE kept it in their hymnals.

    And Colin, surely kids have a right to work too if they want to?

    Dave

  • Clavos

    I guess not, Jon…:>)

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    I believe ‘Jerusalem’ is still the most popular choice of wedding hymn in the UK. It certainly hasn’t been banned that I know of, except possibly – as Colin says – unofficially, by local vicars who’ve decided “If I hear that wretched ‘Jerusalem’ one more time I’ll…!”

    On the subject of great national anthems, the Dutch have a cracking one that’s a great tune to belt out at soccer matches. The French one serves better as a rousing call to patriotism than just about anyone else’s – heck, even I feel proud to be French when I hear it – and I’m only one-sixteenth!

    The most intriguing national anthem I’ve encountered is the Egyptian one. I remember hearing it before Egypt’s games in the 1990 World Cup. It sounded like a steady-paced, fairly standard military march: but if you watched the players singing along you could actually see their lips waggling like an auctioneer’s, and their faces turning blue from the effort of trying to gather enough air in their lungs to get all the words out. The Egyptian anthem is apparently a testament to the attempt to squeeze a 2,500-line epic poem into a one-minute march.

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy in Jerusalem

    See what happens when you post an article about an Australian topic that nobody knows anything about? You wind up discussing national anthems and church hymns!

    You shoulda explained what the Democratic party is/was in your article. A short paragraph so we wouldn’t confusalate it with Barak Obama, etc.

    As for national anthems, I’d like to see Hatikva replaced with either Psalm 126, which is sung at the Grace After meals on holidays and Sabbath, or a short martial song that is a combination of the first lines of Psalms 66 and 68. Both are snappy, short, everybody knows the words and can sing them, and you can enjoy a good football game afterwards without falling asleep – or needing a beer to get through it, like you do with the Star Spangled Banner.

    And when are the Canucks finally going to ditch O Canada!?

  • STM

    Clav: “I guess not, Jon…:>)”

    The problem is Jon, I’m the only bastard here who knows what you’re talking about.

    I agree that the stuff translates everywhere, but no one knows about Aussie politics here except you and me – and maybe Doc, as he’s been to Oz a few times (unfortunately, by some cruel accident of fate, after expressing a desire to live here, he’s ended up in the US. Fresno … geez. That’s not even a close second :)

  • Clavos

    Fresno’s not in the US, Stan, any more than Miami is.

    Fresno’s in California, and Miami is a country unto itself.

  • STM

    Jerusalem is a classic hymn. It really should be the national anthem of Britain.

    Problem is, it’s very English-sounding, and in most people’s minds, is a song that resonates most with the British upper classes.

    I can tell you that it is sung as an anthem here in Australia by the equivalent of at least one of the British “public” schools in Australia – as its rugby song.

    Bizarrely, the school is a posh Catholc institution run by the Jesuits – the original arch-enemies of The Crown.

    So while it could work in Oz, where the hatchet was buried eons ago, I’m not sure that in the melting pot that is NOT modern Britain, it would work at all.

    But it IS one of the all-time great tunes.

  • STM

    I didn’t mean he got second prize moving to the US, Btw … it’s Fresno that causes me the most worry.

  • STM

    DD: “The Egyptian anthem is apparently a testament to the attempt to squeeze a 2,500-line epic poem into a one-minute march.”

    Unlike the Argentinian one, which is an attempt to squeeze a 5000-line epic into a song that lasts almost the length of the rugby match it precedes. The song itself even has its own half-time break – the bit where you think (hallelujah!) it’s stopped, and then suddenly it all starts up again and goes on, and on, and on, and on ….

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    I’m actually an ethnic minority in Fresno, folks. And I don’t just mean my limeyness. The city is about 55% Latino.

  • STM

    DD: “heck, even I feel proud to be French when I hear it – and I’m only one-sixteenth!”

    Geez Doc, now I AM worried. That 1/16th bit – I bet all your French relatives reckon it’s the good bit. Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they??

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    They would if they knew who I was. The relative in question was my maternal grandmother’s grandmother, who died in about 1910. All attempts to navigate the genealogy on that side of the family falter, due to the sheer number of progeny. This was the Edwardian East End of London, where the only available activities were (1) loading and unloading ships (2) supporting West Ham and (3) making people.

    I’m also one-sixteenth Welsh, on the same side. Be afraid, see. Be very afraid.

  • STM

    Doc, does anyone call you a limey, or has the PC movement got to that as well??

    You realise, of course, that in Australia a group known as BPARD (British People Against Racial Discrimination – ha, what a hoot that is!) took action in the courts to have use of the term POM banned under racial vilification legislation, and in a victory for common sense, the courts actually ruled against it.

    They decided that use of the term Pom was perfectly justified, was a term that had been part of language landscape of Australia for 200 years, and that it should not be taken to be a discriminatory term on its own :) The addition of certain epithets, however, makes that different.

    As I told my Pom mate Richard afterwards: “Now it’s official … it’s actually against the law NOT to abuse you.”

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Yeah, that does sound like a pretty silly bit of litigation. The word Pom just doesn’t have the ugly history that other racial/ethnic/national epithets do. I know I’m not offended when you call me that.

    I’ve never been called a limey, that I recall, but wouldn’t mind in the least. Oddly enough, it seems to be obsolete – a lot of people here have never heard the term and often don’t even know what it means.

  • STM

    One of my grandmothers was half German, Doc. Her name was Wilhelmina. How’s that for a mish-mash what with my Irish and English background as well.

    I’m told this is nothing unusual in the UK, as it had the largest number of German immigrants of any country except the US, and that ethnic first-generation Germans considered themselves British anyway. It’s not uncommon in Australia, either, with many South Australians being of German origin and having German surnames.

    But French. Geez, mate … that’s a tough cross to bear.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    We’re all bloody German, Stan (or at least Teutonic), if you go far enough back (except for your Irish bits, and even then there’s probably some Norse lurking… Dublin was founded by the Vikings).

    Even the French are German. The Franks, from whom the country takes its name, were the most powerful of the Germanic tribes. Don’t tell them that to their faces, though.

  • STM

    That must be why Corporal Hitler kept banging on about it in his warped worldview based on race (“England is not our natural enemy!”)

    Foolishly, he believed his own bollocks. They WERE his natural enemy.

  • STM

    The French would LOVE the notion that they are Germans. I know the Frankish tribes in the north succumbed less to the roman influence, but ultimately this had an effect on their language, which is why French is so different from languages based on Old German.

    Lol. So they are part German and part Italian? That explains everything.

  • http://www.republicofdave.com Dave Nalle

    No question about it, Stan. I’ve got a graduate minor in Linguistics for my English MA and we studied the relationships between the various indo-european languages in depth. French is just loaded with germanic words and even german grammatical structures, not just from the Franks, but lots of later loan words as well.

    Dave

  • STM

    Thanks Dave.

    It doesn’t explain, however, why they hate the English so much.

    A thousand years of military humiliation, perhaps, at the hands of the “English”?? Or lack of any decent dishes in British cuisine. Merde! The English have been barbarians in this regard. And their sauces! From a bottle! Sacre bleu …

    Possibly, had the French chosen to be less feisty, none of it would have been an issue in the first place. As Napoleon noted, the English were a nation of shopkeepers, and they probably would have been happy keeping it that way.

    I know the French dislike the Germans immensely, but it’s worth noting that while Napoleon’s hordes were rampaging across Europe bringing bloodshed and destruction in the name of France a century before the Germans returned the favour, the feeling was mutual, which might be where much of the enmity comes from.

    One would hope that all concerned have now got it out of their systems for good.

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy in Jerusalem

    One would hope that all concerned have now got it out of their systems for good.

    How many euros would you bet on that, Stan?

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    It doesn’t explain, however, why they hate the English so much.

    A thousand years of military humiliation, perhaps, at the hands of the “English”??

    That would explain it…

    It probably doesn’t help their national pride any that the one and only time the French did give us a really good thumping*, it took a woman (Joan of Arc) to do it.

    * I’m not counting the Battle of Hastings. William and his army weren’t French, even though they lived there and spoke the language.