SCOTT BURCHILL. What is going wrong and how did we get here?

Mar 9, 2018

Despite the temptations of presentism and intemperate thinking, the forces which have brought us to the current political malaise have been around for some time.

The ideological convergence of the major parties in our two party system has been underway for over four decades. Its most unfortunate consequence is that voters are robbed of meaningful policy choices in key areas which concern them:  the threat of terrorism, national security and defence, surveillance laws, foreign policy, immigration and asylum seekers. This is the serious negative effect of bipartisanship. 

For the Coalition and Labor, effective and innovative political ideas are difficult to develop in an increasingly narrow political spectrum, especially when internal divisions spill over. Product differentiation, even in narrow policy areas, is challenging. Consequently, as the major parties converged, the void in the political spectrum opened up to minor parties and independents  —  an assortment of Greens, localised parties, single issue groups, jingoists and outright racists.

To some extent this constitutes a revolt against the elites and the anachronistic political duopoly that ignores all but the bases and key financial backers of the major parties. There is also profound cynicism about the influence-peddling of lobbyists, foreign and corporate donors and party faction leaders, all veiled by a lack of transparency and the pernicious influence of an increasingly partisan media.

The political process has become so contaminated by vested interests and an obsession with opinion management in the media, there is no long term policy planning or national investment beyond the very short electoral cycle. After learning how the system actually works in their first months, governments waste precious days in office planning for re-election instead of developing policies and making decisions for the future – which may take two or more electoral cycles before they gain public support.

This is a wicked paradox. Bipartisan politics robs voters of meaningful policy choices, however medium to long term planning requires a broad consensus. Add in weak and constantly changing leaders and you get debacles such as the NBN – vital infrastructure and national planning are ruined for short term political opportunism.

Unsurprisingly, votes bleed to minor parties and independents, especially where the proportional voting system favours them. However, the significant and legitimate public anger which leads voters down these dead ends remains unfocussed and is often expressed without any expectation of electoral success for alternative candidates. Phenomena such as Hanson, Trump and Brexit become the locus of frustration and estrangement from “the system”, which is widely and correctly perceived to be stacked against the “ordinary voter”.

Nonetheless, simplistic populism — scapegoating minorities and refugees, a plague on both major parties, sectional interests, protectionism, closing borders, nationalism — provides no answers to the grave problems we face domestically and internationally. It will only deliver pyrrhic victories, though it will continue to thrive when electorates think their political choices are illusory. Jeremy Corbyn’s rise owes as much to his rejection of the neoliberal consensus in the UK as it does to Tory mismanagement and incompetence. There is a lesson here for the ALP, which has too often just lazily waited for the political cycle to turn in its favour instead of undertaking the hard slog of policy development which might take two or three elections before sufficient public support is gained.

Political debates in Australia have become tightly scripted and perfunctory. Spin doctors, media management, opinion polls and focus groups dominate politics. The media is obsessed with the private lives of politicians and enjoys nothing more than a pile on if there is a leadership challenge or a whiff of scandal in the air. Consequently, key issues facing humanity such as climate change, nuclear proliferation and asylum seekers can be effectively banished from mainstream public discourse during an election campaign.

Only slight differences of emphasis in policy get aired, with media coverage increasingly concentrated on leaders and personalities, stunts and gaffes: this is the trivialisation of politics. Newspapers, whose prime responsibility was informing the public and holding politicians to account, have lapsed into openly campaigning for their preferred party – or sometimes their preferred leader for a party. Or obsessing about their taxpayer-funded competitors who enjoy higher levels of credibility and public trust.

The lesson here is not that the political system is broken, but that it was not designed for contemporary realities, and is too difficult to change. The convergence of the major parties in a Westminster two-party system cannot be reconciled with an electorate which demands meaningful policy choices to face the difficult challenges ahead, and desperately needs the long term planning that will be required to meet them.

 Dr Scott Burchill is Senior Lecturer in International Relations, Deakin University.

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