Now that the election has been called journalists-and not just those locked in the Canberra bubble–will be salivating with anticipation over what will happen over the next six weeks: all the gotcha moments, all the dirt, the denials, the photographic moments. Everything but the detailed policy statements.
It has always been the case that journalism in the Australian print and electronic media finds itself trapped within the continual contestation that drives “democratic” politics in an environment where political conflict is inexorable simply because it is conflict and where the quiet Australian steadily turns off from this. For the journalists this contestation is most commonly expressed in elections, leadership challenges and question time in parliament. It focusses above all on the theatre of politics–which in many respects is the message being conveyed and intended to be conveyed. This enables it to give irresponsibly less attention to the ideas which ideally should be a considered reaction to the enduring problems we face at a national, international and environmental level, ideas which might be analysed, formalised and turned into policies.
But there are a range of levels of presentation of political ideas, for want of a better word, that are potentially accessible to most voters if they choose to avail themselves of them. Some, but not all, of these are communicated through the main stream media in both print and electronic forms. The most comprehensive statement is the formal presentation of policies on the web sites of the respective parties. These are fairly lengthy and only give a guide in the abstract to what the party stands for. They will never be consulted by the average voter. Usually before the actual election itself the more ‘responsible’ of the main stream print media will give an extremely abridged summary of some of the main policies–usually economic, health, climate change, defense–of the LNP and the ALP. But again this will not be perused by the majority of the electorate.
Then when the actual campaign is underway the electronic media in particular will almost universally present human interest stories where a particular political decision, often involving cost of living, natural disasters, and racial crimes, will be discussed by individuals placed within one of the stories. Usually any discussion about party politics involved in these is uninformed and completely devoid of any larger contextualisation. What is pushed in such reports is imagery and emotion, reflecting the centrality of the visceral in most television representation. These will also include the infamous “gotcha” moments.
Finally, we might consider advertising in all of its forms, and especially now on social media. This simply involves talking heads or statements of political intent, or criticism of one party by the other, muckraking and fear-mongering at a very elementary, yet visceral level. It is the visceral nature of such reportage and the direct feeding of the visceral into deep, often obscured, life values that is a powerful influence on how people vote, whilst at the same time absolving them of having to seriously study whatever the main parties are proposing that has a long-term impact.
The coverage of an election campaign by the media also severely telescopes time, such that everything seems to be focussed on the now, ostensibly the future, but rarely the past. As such any historical dimension is minimised. The campaign trail is everything and this is now very much predicated on what the leaders of the governing party and the opposition say. Where it goes beyond this is in the consideration of individual electorates. The media still usually follow the leaders but include interaction between the sitting member/candidate and some members of the voting public in order to provoke a human interest story. This suggests they are bringing their coverage back to the concerns of the voter and away from the larger pressure groups and media owners, whose interests they really represent.
A more measured opinion on voting choices by voters really needs to be based on performance over the complete span of the previous government’s period in office, and since 2013 in the case of the present election. However, the visceral nature of much reaction to political events constricts whatever is perceived of policies into easily remembered cliches such as “the Liberals are better economic managers”. Irrespective of how easily this can be shown to be historically false, the cliché and the judgement it brings with it will be internalised by voters. Such opinions are both picked up and fed by the media who will push a few basic themes–advanced by the leaders who know what the media want–and place these in what will be a six-week temporal frame. This will be filled with claim and counter claim accusation and rebuttal, but with minimal exploration of the long-term, both past and future.
As such spectacle overtakes substance and simply reinforces the viscerality of the voter’s attitude both to politics as a dynamic institution and to the voter’s reluctance to explore the underlying–often implicit values–driving their refusal to change when external forces require it. For the voter politics is often very much outside of the world they construct around themselves, inherited both from their upbringing and the commercial media. Outside of this construction the world exists only in passing as something which creates fear or does not affect them. This represents a kind of insularity which the main stream media actively tries to break through during the election campaign, but in truth only really to reinforce it, rather than to play an educative role in what an election campaign should really be about.