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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Arjun, to this I might add that some perceptions; i.e. general hysteria associated with the asylum seeker boats, successfully exploited by the Libs, an almost savage dislike of Julia Gillard prior to her sacking by her own party, may have contributed to media bias and reporting, as well as public perception of 'who' would make a better PM rather than 'who' would lead us forward without cringing. Great post, love it!