Politicians complain about cynicism, but they drive it
Many words have been used to describe this election campaign and none of them are particularly flattering. From doyens of journalism such as Paul Kelly down to giggly and uninformed disc-jockeys on commercial FM, the consensus has been that it’s been superficial, unambitious, contrived, with both leaders often pretending to be something which they are not in order to win votes.
Without wishing to drift into the kind of mindless nihilism which Mark Latham displayed on 60 Minutes, it has been hard to get too excited about the policy debates, to the extent that there have really been any detailed or meaningful policy debates. Both sides have run relentlessly negative campaigns against their opponents. The end result of this can only be an erosion in our collective faith in politics and a further diminishment, if that indeed is possible, of the standing of politicians in the eyes of the community.
This election campaign is one which we should remind our politicians of in future when they start complaining about the rougher than usual treatment they receive for making the selfless decision to go into public life, and endure the slings and arrows it entails, on salaries which are easily eclipsed by what is on offer in the private sector.
It’s not a cynical media or public which has run down politicians during this campaign. It’s the cynicism of the political parties themselves and their strategists which has done so.
Until this election, the 1999 republic referendum stood as the most damaging recent event in Australian public life for the reputation and standing of our politicians. In order to defend the status quo – which of itself is a fair enough position - the No campaign used the most unfair and intellectually dishonest methods to frighten people about the impact of constitutional change. It did so through the specious argument that a republic would somehow cost millions of dollars, and that it would hand more power to politicians by affording them the right (as our elected representatives) to appoint a president on the basis of a majority vote.
It also rewarded and encouraged stupidity with its mindless but effective line that if you didn’t understand constitutional change you shouldn’t vote for it, because if you did understand it, you wouldn’t vote for it.
It has always puzzled me how clever people who have a passion for public life can use this kind of ploy to urge voters not to think at all.
Tony Abbott, of course, was front and centre in the No campaign with Australians for Constitutional Monarchy. It says something about Abbott’s often dichotomous approach to public life. Abbott is the kind of guy who would, and often has, talked about the breakdown in respect for institutions, and sought more recognition for the nobility and selflessness of a career in public servitude. Yet in that campaign he played a lead role in suggesting that politicians cannot be trusted, are power hungry, purely in order to win his way at the referendum.
The most disappointing aspect of this election for Tony Abbott was that he launched himself from day one of the campaign by fraudulently distancing himself from convictions which have been at the very core of his being. It is bizarre that a guy can be part of a tremendously successful government for 11 years, and then deliberately tie his hands with a gimmicky pledge to make no changes whatsoever to our industrial laws, even if such changes may be in the national interest, or necessitated by changing economic circumstances. To have been the most passionate advocate of continued reform, to have devoted much of a very thoughtful book to the question, and then sign it all away with a stunt in a radio station studio was an early signal that ambition will play no part in this election campaign.
On the Labor side, you can accuse the ALP of doing nothing more than trashing the standing of the office of prime minister. Julia Gillard has done an absolutely woeful job in explaining the rationale behind the execution of Kevin Rudd. She struggled again at the Broncos Leagues Club forum on Wednesday when one punter quite bluntly asked her if she was a hypocrite, in that she’d declared the government had lost its way under Kevin Rudd, and was now rehabilitating him to hold seats in Queensland.
More important, and for Gillard, more excruciating, was the questioner’s assertion that she had been an integral part of the Rudd Government anyway, and had failed to explain the key changes to the policies and performance of the Government since the brutal leadership changeover. Save for a softening of the mining tax, there had still been no resolution of the people smuggling and asylum seeker processing question, and the future management of the ETS was now up to some unelected ginger group, crafted to save the Government from having to make the hard decisions .
The popularity of the ABC program The Gruen Transfer is a telling indicator of the intense public cynicism for the political class. Normally a program of this kind would attract a niche university-educated audience. The fact that it has been winning the ratings shows there is a national appetite for a program which examines issues of spin and message-management, and cuts through much of the confected garbage we are being subjected to in this desperately negative campaign.
In an excellent column in The Daily Telegraph last week, political journalist Simon Benson, whose book Betrayal recounts the conduct of the NSW factions in destroying the premiership of Morris Iemma, provided some killer analysis from former Prime Minister Paul Keating whom he interviewed for the book.
In the interview Keating warned of the looming threat to public faith in politics stemming from NSW.
“When the motivation of the machinery of the Party is unfurnished as to policy purpose, it has nothing more to offer than to focus on marketing and polls,” Keating told Benson. “After a while the public becomes aware of this.”
As Benson went on to write: “The public has now cottoned on. The once revered mighty Labor Party campaign machine has turned into a sitcom.”
After this election, any politician who complains about getting a raw deal rom a cynical public will face the handy rejoinder that when it comes to cynicism, they were the ones who started it.
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