Political parties and the dumbing down of democracy

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Independent candidate for Lalor James Johnson says that when it comes to dumbing down democracy, political parties and bureaucrats are far more to blame than the media.

In his latest book, Sideshow, former Australian Labor Party Minister for Finance and Member for Melbourne, Lindsay Tanner has written a charming and surprising expose of the difficulties of practising politics in the modern, media saturated age.

It is a surprising book. A book one might expect to have been written by a Professor of Journalism, say a Professor Jay Rosen of New York University, rather than a man newly retired from a 30 year career of practising serious politics at top levels of trade union, State and Federal Governments.

Tanner’s book is an informative read, combining his own opinions and experiences along with an array of op eds (editorial opinions) by a multitude of political and media commentators, reviewers and players.

Subtitled “dumbing down democracy”, Tanner’s book includes a cover page comment from former Liberal Party of Australia Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser to the effect:

“Tanner does us all a service … the relationship between politicians and the media degrades public life and diminishes our future.”

The central thesis of Tanner’s book is that democracy in Australia is at risk because of bad journalism and bad media portrayal of our political leaders.

This is an enormous and weighty charge for any senior figure of any politician party to lay upon the Australian media. And the corresponding charges made against the media in other Western nations are no lighter.

There can be no doubt that our national political health is dreadful. Complaints of “mediocrity” against our political leaders are far from new. Charges of political and constitutional swindles are far from new either.

But is the Australian media guilty of ‘dumbing down democracy’ in Australia?

Curiously many in the media have been almost falling over themselves to admit guilt to these charges.  Too demoralised, perhaps, to rush to their own defence, they demonise themselves instead.

Just how far is the Australian media to blame for our political ills? Are there other suspects to be found? How much of the blame fairly belongs on other parties, such as, well, err, political parties, or the all-power bureaucratic arm of Government, or the general citizenry, or even, shock horror, the individual and collective parliamentarians themselves?

As suspects, accused of “dumbing down politics”, I’d answer these questions as “not much” (media), “loads” (political parties), “loads” (bureaucratic arm of government), “not at all” (general public) and “loads” (parliamentarians themselves).

I can’t help but think that Tanner has in his book made the classic mistake of focusing on the strange fruits of our political system rather than digging a little deeper and exposing the crippled roots. He has taken the effects and attempted to make them the cause. He has engaged in a little old fashioned shooting the messengers.  I’m not suggesting he did this on purpose.  Quite possibly, he didn’t know any better.

Let’s consider an alternative hypothesis that the media report on Australian parliamentarians as if parliament is a sideshow (of government) because, well that is exactly what it is. Let’s add a second limb to this alternative hypothesis. Just suppose that our parliament operates as a sideshow (of government) with the main event (of government) taking place in other halls of power because (a) that is exactly (and all) there is for the media to report; and (b) these are exactly the roles that our parliamentarians have been chosen to play, and that they themselves have chosen to perform.

Let’s also consider as part of this alternative hypothesis that, rather than the media dumbing down the general public, and causing citizens to disengage and become less educated on political affairs, the general public are in fact very switched on (with our without media assistance) and are frustrated and alienated from being forced to put up with a sideshow (of a parliament) rather than enjoying the benefits of a real deal parliament and a parliamentary-controlled public service  that serves their needs and interests?

Viewed from this alternative hypothesis, Tanner’s Sideshow takes on the shape of a hideous sleight of hand, an attempt to cover up deep structural problems with our Australian political system. Sideshow becomes by design or by accident an attempt to excuse current unacceptable parliamentarians and their humiliating antics by framing “the media” for a reality that they the media have the displeasure of reporting, but no significant part in the creating.

Not only does Tanner fail in his efforts to frame the media, he manages to totally misframe the charges.

There can be no dumbing down of any democracy in Australia, because democracy has never been a feature of any period of government in Australia. There was no democracy in our penal times (1787 – 1868), nor in our colonial times (1868 – 1900), and certainly not at any time post-federation (since 1901). Professor Donald Horne’s “The Lucky Country” (1964) and “Death of the Lucky Country” (1976) along with Peter Botsman’s “The Great Constitutional Swindle” (1999) and Robert Hughes’ “The Fatal Shore” (2003) are ample testimony to 222 years history of undemocratic, authoritarian rule by governments in Australia.

In my opinion Tanner vastly exaggerates the power and influence of the media in shaping parliamentary events, personalities and careers. Attention could be better put to examining the power and influence of political parties and bureaucrats, for example.

Tanner refers to the decision, made during the 2010 election campaign, to postpone a highly stage-crafted political debate between the leader of the Australian Labor Party and the leader of the Liberal Party of Australia so as not to interfere with the scheduling of a televised cookery competition. Should the media be blamed for that decision? Or the general public? Shouldn’t, for example, some of the blame be cast on the two political parties that actually made that decision? Tanner thinks to blame “the media” and the general public.

And to what extent can parliamentarians avoid the blame, and the media be left shouldering all responsibility, for the shameful ‘juvenile hall’ performances of our parliamentarians during parliamentary question times?

Even more seriously, Tanner and his co-accusers grossly underestimate the intelligence of the general public. The Australian general public are far from stupid. We are disenchanted. Our disenchantment is rooted back in the dirty politics of our colonial and pre-federation times and in our current, crooked, constitutional set up.

We are 22 million Australians, including 14 million eligible voters, all trapped in a political system not of our own making and for which we are powerless to change and for which we have no reason to vote (other than 1920s emergency government laws that force us to do so). We can hardly blame the Australian public for being pissed off with, and disengaging from, the political doings of our narrow ruling class political elite. It is not only the fabled homo economus who rationally refuses to invest time or energy in fruitless activities (such as rigged political processes) for which there is zero prospect of any positive net benefit.

Further demonstrations of the weaknesses in Tanner’s book come from his inconclusive conclusion. Tanner devotes 11 overlapping chapters to the problem of “dumbing down democracy” by the media, and even quotes Malcolm Fraser to that effect on the cover. And yet in the concluding chapter Tanner refuses to say whether or not the “dumbing of democracy” is a problem. Surely this is the ultimate fence-sit, spoken like a modern (though recently retired) Australian Federal Minster-Parliamentarian?

Sideshow starts out as an intriguing political “who did it” with lots of academic and scholarly quotations, but peters out into a very unsatisfying and readily dispatched set of false and foolish allegations — an attack on the integrity of the fourth estate from the united bowel of two of the integrity-less first three estates. Just goes to show that anything the media can do, our politicians can do worser.  And you can hardly blame the political media for continually serving up lemonade when they have nothing but lemons to work with.

(This story was originally published on on August 23, 2011, and has been republished with permission.)

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