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.