We get the governments we deserve

(Another of the posts I have moved across from my soon to be defunct original blog site. This one was posted on Monday 16 August, 2010 just before the Federal election that year. I was not to know how it so well anticipated the tenor of the ensuing hung Parliament)

 There are many things about the current state of Australian politics and the Federal election campaign which are just downright frustrating and annoying.

Our national political debate has become a pageant of political puppetry and mime punctuated mainly by competing vituperation and spending announcements aimed at targeted interests, mostly in marginal seats.

The political messaging of the major parties is more about denigrating opponents than of substantiating policies or articulating values and vision.

Particularly galling is the relegation of vital nation or future-building issues from the political discussion.

Some would say there is a leadership vacuum with politicians seeking power as an end in itself rather than as a means to achieving a better future for the country.

Cast against the big issues modern Australia should be addressing, the campaign so far has confirmed veteran columnist Laurie Oakes’ depiction of the election as a contest between “political pygmies”.

It is almost as if we Australians, having found the future too confronting and difficult, are content to rediscover the complacency and comforting hypocrisies of Donald Horne’s “The Lucky Country” of half a century ago.

Particularly missing from modern elections is any real dimension of citizenship.

Beyond paying tax no serious political party ever asks anything of us as Australians; rather both sides set about out-promising each other about what they will offer back from the great emporium of possibilities funded by those taxes.

And the easy option will always be the one taken.

With infrastructure bottlenecks choking our cities, and with regional Australian screaming out for skilled labour, a country spanning a continent with a population of just 22 million people has to have a population debate rather than focus on a decent public transport policy.

Even the word “sustainable” has been hijacked from its rightful place in the progressive change agenda and restyled as conservative code for keeping out immigrants.

It seems the pollsters are finding that climate change is too hard for people to understand so both major political parties have agreed to put off doing anything substantial.

Instead we will just have some ‘direct action’, a survey group to test “consensus” and more token investments in green projects when it’s economic innovation and the price of carbon that really matters in fixing climate change.

Content to follow and avoid the risks of leadership, our political “leaders” tell us though what we want to hear.

People lament the performance of our politicians or they blame the media for trivialising the big issues of our time into meaningless sound bites.

But the truth is we the people are the most responsible for determining the quality of our national political discussion.

Over twenty years ago, I sat in the advisers’ box in Parliament House Canberra and looked around the chamber at our representatives.

What struck me about the members was how closely they resembled the constituencies they represented; every shade of opinion, prejudice and perspective – as well as all the degrees of talent – was to be seen and heard among the then 148 members of the House of Representatives.

We elect politicians to represent us not lead us – as much as they pretend to do the latter.

And so the political malaise we suffer at the moment must shoot directly home to us because we have let it happen.

The dumbing down of the political process has been exacerbated by the rise of the full time working family and the concurrent decline of community capital and socially aware citizenship.

Too many people do not have time to help or care anymore, leaving the individual and sectional interest to triumph over the public good.

Further compounding the decline of citizenship over recent decades has been an erosion of educational standards and general knowledge.

People unversed in basic geography, history, and science understandably will struggle and tend to indifference when the brave politician speaks about something in more detail than a ten second sound bite.

We hear so much about politicians having to communicate better, but do not we the electorate also have an obligation to take more interest in understanding, considering and discussing the issues.

Regrettably, for many Australians the notion of citizenship as a privilege with rights as well as obligations and responsibilities has been truncated to mean just the first part.

And so paradoxically we are a nation which will  recognise proudly and sombrely the sacrifices of our Diggers from Fromelles to Afghanistan, but at the same time be annoyed that we have to take time out of a Saturday to vote.

If we Australians are going to be up to the job of reclaiming our democracy from the professional politicians, the spin doctors, and the circus that doubles for national affairs, we will require a broader more involved and informed view of our country and its context.

Benjamin Franklin reminded us over two hundred years ago, the seeds of a vibrant democracy start with the printing press and a literate society.

He could have added that values and vision help, particularly for electors.

Author: Professor John Cole OAM

Professor Emeritus and founder of the Institute for Resilient Regions at the University of Southern Queensland and Honorary Professor, UQ Business School, The University of Queensland.

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