09 February 2011

Why is politics getting so boring?

So much for this not being a political blog, huh?

If you've ever wondered why what passes for political debate in Australia feels so scripted, focus group driven and media manged, consider the following comments by researcher Sally Young (taken from an interview with Mark Colvin late last year):
SALLY YOUNG: ... And I talk about in the book how I think it's really splitting between an audience that's very interested in sort of what we might call public interest news - political news junkies, political tragics, whatever you want to call them - who have information needs that are vast, who are going online and selecting from a lot of different content, who might be watching Sky news or the ABC News 24 now - that sort of news coverage where they're watching live press conferences and so on.

And then you've got another bulk of the Australian media audience which isn't particularly interested in politics news, says that it's probably the last sort of news that they'd want to watch, really. So you're trying to engage and report for two very different groups. And we can see that split going on.

MARK COLVIN: What percentage would you allocate to either group?

SALLY YOUNG: I've got some figures in the book where I try to map this quite specifically because I don't think it's been done in Australia before, that we talk about who are these people? Who is the political news audience? And I've got quite a few chapters devoted to this and in one of them I chart it and I say, basically the people who are really political news tragics - people who watch Parliament Question Time or subscribe to Crikey, for example, or watch Sky News press conferences and so on live - that's about 0.5 per cent of the Australian population. So they're your real political tragics and it's a very small percentage.
SOURCE: http://www.abc.net.au/pm/content/2010/s3077877.htm

In other words, in so far as Australians get their news from any source, it tends to be from media sources providing 'short form' coverage, such as the evening TV news, tabloid newspapers, FM radio updates, and non-specialist sources. Only a very tiny percentage of the Australian population relies on specialist blogs, websites, magazines, news channels, or even broadsheet newspapers as their source of political discussion.

The problem with this is that, rather than in-depth 'long form' discussion of policy and political philosophy, you instead get only a short soundbite or a single sentence written quote from a politician. This is because, aside from anything else, there isn't the time or space to delve into an issue or present a viewpoint in any more depth in 'short form' media.

The situation is made worse by a Canberra press gallery which has long ago given up on even trying to discuss issues or political philosophies in any great depth. Instead, we the viewing and reading public are presented with a version of politics focused around personalities, where two opposing sides hold the only two possible positions on any given issue. The merits of any idea or policy are largely discussed in terms that can fit in a single paragraph or six second grab, with the side coming up with the better sound grab deemed to be the "winner."

So both major parties stick to their grabs and admit no wrong on their side and no right on those opposite (for doing so would mark a leadership challenge because "disunity is death"). And, should there be any doubt about who is winning and losing, there is a scoreboard in the form of a steady stream of opinion polls. 

Politicians, or more precisely their media handlers, have long ago learned to gear any longer form interviews or speeches towards emphasising six second soundbites or single sentence that they want to have picked up on the evening news. And they have to stick to their soundbites, because the ultimate prize for an interviewer or journalist is to catch out a politician saying something other than their soundbite.

Alongside this, we have the declining membership of our major political parties:

LIKE MOST other western liberal democracies, Australia has experienced a steady decline in membership of political parties, with the Australian Bureau of Statistics putting total party membership at just 1.3 per cent of the adult population in 2006 – the same percentage as in Britain, where there is growing concern about dramatic falls in member numbers, and much lower than many European countries.
The decline has made parties secretive about membership numbers, so accurate figures are difficult to come by...
Elsewhere the reasons for decline might be more complex but the figures are almost as stark. In Victoria, where the Liberal Party has traditionally been strong, an internal party review in 2008 revealed just 13,000 members in Australia’s second-most populous state, down from a peak in 1950 (in a much smaller population) of 46,000. More tellingly, the party’s median age stood at sixty-two against a median age of the population of forty-three.
The figures are no more encouraging for Labor. In 2005, when the party opened up the election of its national president to the party rank-and-file, 39,000 ballot papers were distributed but only 19,000 returned, which suggests a very small number of members, active or otherwise. A report on the party in New South Wales revealed just 8000 members in the state, excluding retired people, out of a total workforce of 3.25 million.

The fewer members a political party has, the easier its branches are to stack. If a local branch has 1,000 members and its ballots require 50% + 1 of its membership to vote for a ballot to pass, anyone who can organise an additional 1,001 people to join that local branch and vote their way at each ballot (in other words, stack the branch) to win every vote. If the membership of that same local branch falls to 100, the task of stacking the branch becomes significantly easier; they only need to find 101 people to win each vote. And if it that local branch falls to ten members? Well, you can win every vote so long as you can find eleven people willing to join.

Suffice to say that it should be utterly unsurprising that with the fall of democratic rank and file membership of our two major political parties, we have also witnessed the rise of the power broker and the faction (particularly within the ALP). At its most extreme, there is little to prevent a powerbroker emerging through branch stacking and building a faction for the sole purpose of the powerbroker achieving power, rather than out of any inherent political belief or policy ambition.

Of course, the more the public disengage from civic life, the more they rely on short form media rather than long form media, and the less likely they are to join a major political party. This, in turn, serves to make the political parties more factionalised and more likely to be run by a cynical clique of powerbrokers. And the more this happens, the more the public disengage from civic life. It has become a vicious cycle.

The end result is a form of politics utterly detached from discussion either of issues, or questions of belief. A politics a million miles from the issues that voters care about. The politics you watch on the evening news.

As per usual, feel free to send any thoughts, comments, or feedback you may have about this article to andrewsadauskas at gmail dot com