Dumbing down Democracy

Lindsay Tanner and the dumbing down of democracy

(Published in the Geelong Advertiser on Wednesday 25 May 2011, p. 22 as ‘Pollies caught by cycle,’ which helps make the point).

By Roy Hay

Lindsay Tanner was one of the most articulate and deep thinking politicians of the last couple of decades. He served as Minister for Finance and Deregulation in the Rudd Labor government from December 2007 until he resigned prior to the last election. It is well known that he did not see eye to eye with Julia Gillard, and he left a huge gap in the talent of her current minority government.

Earlier last month he published a brilliant critique of modern Australian politics entitled Sideshow: Dumbing down democracy. As he writes, ‘The sideshow syndrome is eroding public faith in democratic politics. As political coverage gets sillier, politicians are forced to get sillier to get coverage. The antics, hyperbole and spin that have eventuated now alienate many voters.’ Furthermore, ‘The two key rules that govern the practice of Australian politics are: (1) Look like you’re doing something; and (2) Don’t offend anyone who matters.’

Every story is fitted into a preconceived frame and even his book falls victim. As he was aware when he published it, the journos would be looking for the headline, ‘Tanner trashes Gillard’ or ‘Tanner dumps on Rudd’ rather than analysing its message seriously. As he points out, serious journalists are equally concerned that their trade is being undermined. Elections are conducted on the basis of trivia and nonsense, sound bites and slogans.

All this represents a serious threat to democracy because people are disengaging more and more from politics. The informal vote at the last election jumped. ‘The need to entertain has completely taken over the media’s approach to serious subjects. That’s forcing those whose job revolves around communicating about serious issues with a mass audience to become entertainers. The audience might get a few laughs, but in the process the underlying issues are trivialised and distorted.’

Sport has been part of the entertainment industry for some time, and is best conceived of these days as an extension of Hollywood. The merest peccadilloes of sports stars provide pages of newsprint commentary and hours of television and talk back radio. Politics has now gone the same way. The whole process is speeded up beyond reason. What was five minutes of fame now becomes 30 seconds. Politicians know that the only way to get noticed is to play the media game and so you get the leaders of the country trying to keep up with the media cycle instead of addressing the long term and fundamental issues which affect all our futures. There is no percentage for the politician in taking the really long term view, for even if a valuable reform were set in place, the benefits are only likely to be realised much later while any problems will blow back in his or her face immediately.

Tanner argues that no one group is to blame. The fact that we have not had a serious depression in Australia while the rest of the world has been going through one may have bred a complacency that allows trivia to trump substance. We, the public, contribute. We may say that we demand serious deep and meaningful discussion of key issues, but we watch Masterchef and the Biggest Loser rather than Four Corners, or the news on SBS or even George Negus on Channel Ten.

So what can be done about the dumbing down of democracy? This is where Tanner is less than illuminating. He says he is optimistic and pins his hope on ‘Growing public awareness, and a shift in collective attitudes, [which] would start to influence the behaviour of politicians and media outlets. Countless Australians appalled by the childish quality of the 2010 election campaign should start voting with their feet. However their anger is expressed, whether by changing the channel, abandoning a subscription, supporting or opposing individual politicians, or just talking to friends, it will have an effect.’

Let’s hope he is right, because if the media and through them the politicians are driven by the commercial imperatives, a change in our behaviour is essential if we are to abandon sideshow for the main game. As Shakespeare said, ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.’

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