When I first got involved in politics at the age of 18, I knew nothing at all about the ancient practice. Nothing. I didn’t know the difference between left and right philosophies, how parliament works, or the fundamentals of modern democracy.
Yet I joined a political party, mostly because the boy I lived with had done so, and became instantly entranced by the political world. So entranced in fact that I’ve worked in and around politics for most of the 30 years since.
Despite my tendency to opine on a wide range of topics, I try not to do so without at least some understanding of the subject matter. For this reason, I quickly followed my new party membership with formal studies in political science.
Sometimes I wonder whether I would’ve stayed in the political world if I’d not made the effort to study its genesis, practices and precedents. To my mind, it’s this contextual knowledge that makes politics such a rich experience: comparing what’s happening now with what came before; searching for evidence that lessons have been learned from past mistakes; looking for patterns over time, developing theories and constantly refining these in light of contemporary political events.
I truly believe that knowledge of this kind helps us as individuals to feel engaged and involved in the democratic process, and therefore to value it more than the disengaged punter.
I also wonder whether the obverse is true. Is lack of political knowledge the reason why most voters don’t give a fig about politics?
Political enthusiasts may think everyone else takes politics as seriously as they do, but political operatives know the opposite is true.
Very few people join political parties. While reliable contemporary numbers are hard to obtain, the most recent Australian Bureau of Statistics research shows that around 1% of Australians say they actively participate in a political party.
Admittedly, political engagement can be more than just being a party member. So to complete the picture, the same ABS survey found a total of 19% of adults who say they actively participate in civic and political groups. In addition to the 1% who are active in political parties, 7% participate in trade union, professional and technical associations; 5% in environmental or animal welfare groups; and 4% in body corporate or tenants’ associations.
Even if we use a different measure to gauge Australians’ political engagement, the number is still low. A recent opinion poll found only 10% of the people surveyed say they follow politics closely. This proportion was quite consistent regardless of political preference and age group, except for over 55s which had a higher level of interest at 17%.
So what if Australian voters are generally disengaged; does this even matter until election time? Some political operatives say that while we are less engaged than other countries, we still pay attention when it counts.
While the limited political engagement of voters might suit those who run campaigns, I believe it’s this general antipathy to politics that drives the phenomenon dubbed “the Sideshow” by retired federal Finance Minister, Lindsay Tanner.
Tanner claims the media’s preoccupation with “news as entertainment” has not only diminished the quality of news reporting, but has accordingly driven politicians to either flip the switch to Vaudeville or parrot endlessly-circling soundbites to minimise the chance of mis-speaking.
Tanner either ignores or evades the corollary of his complaint. While it’s true that the media has forced politicians to turn our democratic institutions into a Punch and Judy Show, it’s also true that the media has necessarily adapted its content and presentation to satisfy the viewing/reading/listening preference of their audience.
Newspaper sales continue to dwindle. The size of television audiences for comparatively more serious news and current affairs shows are modest next to their sensationalist cousins. Advertisers are using other information platforms to reach the high income earners (and therefore spenders) in the coveted AB demographic. Is it any wonder that media corporations are scrambling to find ways to bring back the ears and eyeballs, if not the brains, of news media consumers?
Presenting news as entertainment is the logical response. The ironic side-effect is that the politically engaged, who seek objectivity and analysis, are then driven elsewhere to interact with similarly-interested, if not necessarily like-minded, voters.
Would better education in politics change Australians’ disinterest in things political? Maybe. Maybe not. A recent straw poll conducted on Twitter found less than half the tweeps that I’d consider to be politically engaged had studied political science in either high school or uni. While the poll was far from rigorous, it did surprise me.
So, I’ve adjusted my theory somewhat. Maybe we don’t need to teach even more political science in schools. Perhaps what’s needed instead is to teach political history to nascent journalists. This would help them to better understand the antecedents of a political event and hopefully result in them reporting that event with a richness of perspective that’s sadly missing right now.
Either way, something needs to be done. It’s about time we took more notice of our political institutions and accepted responsibility for the tenuous links that contemporary Australian politics has to what we consider to be important.
While I disagree with Tanner’s complaint that the media is making our politicians dumb, I do believe it has the power, and perhaps even the responsibility, to make voters better educated on political matters. Perhaps what is needed is for voters to tell the media that this is what we want.
This piece originally appeared at The King’s Tribune