Monday, September 23, 2013

Australian elections 2013

Some thoughts on the just-concluded Australian federal election.

On episode after episode of Q&A before the election, participants asked why the media's political coverage seemed more engrossed with personality than with policy. In fact, even in the first episode of Q&A after the election a member of the audience asked rhetorically why the minor parties elected to the Senate were expected to have any serious policy platforms when the major parties lacked the same. This was a motif that ran through a lot of the (center-left) media's coverage. Several newspaper commentators remarked in the course of the election campaign that the major parties had turned it into a presidential contest. It was claimed that personality had taken precedence over policy. Seen in conjunction with the general 'despondency' and 'lack of interest' that purportedly characterized voter sentiment, these imputations, though justified, confused me quite a bit. I found it hard to understand why the public could not discern the undeniable and self-evident differences in the policy platforms of the major parties. Several said that the major parties offered the 'same deal' under different guises. I found this perplexing. Even as a first-time observer, I could clearly see where the two parties diverged and where they shared common ground. Yes, undeniably, the Rudd-Gillard spill and the subsequent takeover of the campaign by the so-called Rudd camp necessarily denoted conflict over personality; yes, the Rudd-Abbott debates were largely seen as exercises in the delivery of well-tested party slogans and the demonstration of personal conviction; nevertheless, the policy platforms remained there throughout the campaign for all to see with their naked eyes. This was evinced in a simple (and caustic) way by the Don't Be an Idiot website on the eve of the election which neatly divided the major parties' policies into two separate (expletive-laden) columns. Why then the constant barrage of criticism about the campaign's personality-centric outlook and lack of focus on policy?

After Labor lost the election, the first (and subsequently most repeated) criticism that emanated from the party pertained to its 'leadership dysfunction'. All those who were re-elected on Saturday (7 September) spoke on ABC1 after the election and stated explicitly that they considered the leadership changes the primary cause of the electorate's disenchantment with Labor and, therefore, the party's loss. Even those who had supported the switch to Rudd were vocal on this count, including Anthony Albanese and Bill Shorten. Tony Abbott in his victory speech noted that Labor had received its lowest primary vote-share in a hundred years. On Q&A last week, Tanya Plibersek corroborated the view that Labor had been punished for its leadership problems. Needless to say, this view is incontrovertible and absolutely correct. In this morning's edition of The Age, John Watson, citing the Essential Report survey conducted last week on voting preferences, argues that most voters preferred Labor policies (e.g., NBN, health, education, GFC management, etc.) and recognized the possible implications of a Coalition victory (e.g., job-cuts), but nevertheless supported the Coalition because of its policy coherence and leadership cohesiveness. Agreed. 

I believe, however, that neither the alleged lack of focus on policy nor Labor's leadership dispute is an adequate explanation. The Coalition's victory was huge. Amidst all the sloganeering, there must have been something that received the support of the majority of the people? Why did these 'Coalition-owned issues' not make their way into the ABC and The Age, which are my primary sources of information? While the News Corp-owned papers certainly harangued and vilified Labor in a undeniably partisan manner, they must have also channeled some emergent, and evidently decisive, voter impulses to coincide with and buttress the Coalition's vision? Labor's campaigners produced brilliant and incisive advertisements critical of the Coalition in the last phase of the campaign. They appeared widely on television, Facebook and YouTube. Did these have no impact on voters? Bill Shorten and Kevin Rudd, on their respective Q&A appearances before the election, argued the government's case (I believe) ably and articulately. Why did their clear delineation of government policy not sway public perception in any discernible way? After the election, Julia Gillard wrote an opinion piece in The Guardian that criticized the Coalition for basically adopting and replicating a majority of her (ostensibly popular) policies, especially on education, disability and the NBN, and thus lacking originality. Could voters not have been aware of the co-option of Labor policies on the part of the Coalition?

I suspect, and this is only based on surmise, that this election had a lot to do with voter sentiments that could not be fully articulated in the political arena but nevertheless found expression through the ballot box. What critics called the lack of focus on policy or voter disenchantment resulting from Labor's leadership uncertainty, or even more broadly loss of faith in the political process itself, actually concealed a wide swath of voter impulses that could not, for various reasons, be properly represented or deliberated in the mainstream media. This leads me to believe that the current parameters of political discourse set by the media, determined on valuations of policy 'worth', need to change. While agenda-setting might work for some, clearly the electorate's thinking is more complex than what is represented by a simple set of slogans, and these complexities need to be recognized and given adequate space.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Counter-productive comments

I am currently doing some research on public discourses around sexual violence in India, reading, for the moment, newspaper articles online and articles on websites such as BBC, CNN, etc. Something that confounds me is the incongruity of the comments posted in response to the articles. I find that the predominant tendency is to contradict and dismiss, often without any substantive counter-argument; the basis for contradiction or dismissal is almost never spelt out, with vague general statements standing in for a reasoned rebuttal. The urge to contradict isn't perturbing in and or itself, it is contradiction for the sake of contradiction that perturbs. I suspect a large part of it has to do with the subject at hand. Because it is a sensitive topic, no analysis is deemed 'complete' or comprehensive enough. Most writers focus on a few select points (depending on their understanding of the topic), which leaves readers, invariably, 'dissatisfied' with the 'effectiveness' of their arguments. This approach is logically unsound and terribly self-satisfying. No analysis can possibly aim to address the entirety of a topic, particularly a topic such as this, at one go. Each commenter assumes that their contribution is more 'nuanced', when in fact most are utterly vague and incoherent.

All of this is besides the fact that a lot of the comments on websites like CNN seem to contain either abject 'apologies' for the state of sexual crimes in India, or (defensive) assertions of the fact that 'crimes like rape take place in other countries as well'. Several comments on CNN, seemingly posted by men and women of 'South Asian origin based in the US', point out that 'racism is a serious problem in America'. While racism may be a serious problem in America, this does not mean American views on sexual crimes in India are somehow all motivated by an urge to 'tarnish' India's 'image'. The sense of shame or, worse, defensiveness, pervading these discussions is obviously counter-productive.

I think the first observation (vague comments, contradiction for the sake of contradiction) applies exclusively to Indian readers of articles on Indian news sites, while the second applies to readers of international news sites.