The voter doesn’t always know best

Voters’ ability to express their displeasure through seemingly perpetual opinion polls has created an entire generation of risk-averse, poll-driven politicians. But who is actually to blame for this populist approach to public policy and the tenure of political leaders?

As Katharine Murphy observed earlier this week:

We elect governments as an investment in [the] long game, yet tear them to shreds for not delivering for us in the here and now. It’s always been thus, an enduring perversity of expectation about politics, but I worry it’s getting worse.

I worry that politics is losing some of its capacity to stand its ground against the various toxicities in the media cycle, and dysfunctions within the parties themselves – that too many perverse incentives are being created to mortgage the future for the present.

The most obvious symptom of this is the trashing of political leaders we’ve seen over the past few years. Politics is itself devaluing the currency of leadership in some Faustian bargain to remain one step ahead of opinion polls.

Our elected representatives once were leaders we admired, or at least respected, and we were confident they would make the right decisions on our behalf.

While Katharine Murphy invokes Faust in her analogy of how our leaders have become devalued, I’d suggest a different type of demonic force has infiltrated our democratic processes: our politicians have become doppelgangers, mirroring our views, our concerns and yes, even our basest prejudices to win favour and the approval of the Newspoll gods.

We need to keep this in mind when railing against policies such as the Government’s proposed changes to 457 visas or the Opposition’s approach to asylum seekers.

Both these positions are mirrors, reflecting the views of the parties’ prospective supporters back to them. The parties do this to convey not-too-subtle subliminal messages to the visceral voters who ultimately will decide the election. “We are like you”, the messages whisper, “we share your concerns” and “your priorities are our priorities”. The parties do this in the hope of making a connection that will deliver a vote on election day.

Whether it is based on fact or fiction, job security and the broader question of employment continue to be voters’ number one obsession. Many factors contribute to this fixation including the inequities of the two-speed economy, the pressure of huge mortgage commitments and the uncertainty associated with GFC-diminished superannuation.

Job anxiety is also a political legacy, an albatross borne by both major parties directly as a result of the fear campaigns they ran against Work Choices, in the case of Labor, and the Liberals’ crusade against the carbon price.

It’s easy for those of us with tertiary educations and regular pay cheques to dismiss such job anxiety as an indulgence of the narrow-minded and ignorant:

But the reality is that every adult Australian, ignorant or not, has the right to vote with as much or as little thought as they care to exercise.

And let’s face it, while its honourable to urge politicians to resist being guided by the ignorant majority, to show some leadership and do what is right, the political reality is inconsistent with that noble goal: there’s little chance of implementing a suite of worthy policies from the opposition or cross-party benches. Just ask the Greens…

It seems the days are long gone when the public supported a politician for doing the right but unpopular thing. In fact, we may well have lost respect for our political leaders altogether. As Jonathan Green observed this week after a (possibly orchestrated) outburst from the parliamentary public gallery during Question Time:

It would be fair to say that many Australian voters view their politicians with something more than laconic distaste and a lot less than humble awe. But this Question Time outburst had that special feeling that is close to a defining feature of our modern politics: that edge of guttural, contemptuous ugliness.

In the converse of my mirror theory, Jonathan Green posits that the depth of voters’ current disdain for political leaders is a reflection of the disrespect with which they are held within their own parties:

Last week we saw the effect again in full and fatal swing, with Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu losing the confidence of his party and thus his job … If the role is so easily tradable, the office so easily removed, is it truly worthy of the sort of respect it has traditionally attracted? … It seems logical that if political parties see leadership as something so casually vulnerable, then the voting public will follow suit and look at those high offices with scant respect.

Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke apparently also canvassed this issue when he addressed a reunion celebrating his time in office at the National Press Club last weekend. Dennis Atkins reported that the striking thing about Hawke’s address was that he didn’t simply dwell on the good old days:

Hawke laid out his story of 1983 to 1991 with typical clarity – explaining the problem his government inherited and how they tackled the momentous challenges. He also pinpointed a central problem of the present broken system of politics and government – that Parliament is held in low regard.

Hawke said the contempt for national politics had to be tackled urgently. He proposed breaking down the way parties approached agendas by having one set of issues that fit neatly with Labor or the Coalition and bigger, more contentious matters handled in a new way. Hawke said these challenges wouldn’t go to party rooms but to parliament to be thrashed out and voted on without politicians bound by pre-determined positions.

There certainly is merit in Hawke’s proposed approach, encouraging parliamentarians to venture beyond their party platforms and explore what their communities think and want. But it does nothing to address the real faultline in Australia’s democracy – the reality that voters are likely to think and want things that might not actually be in the nation’s best interest.

Meanwhile, opinion polls continue to drive our political conversations and popularity remains the most important element of a policy, causing politicians to resort to lowest-common-denominator policies in order to survive.

As Katharine Murphy notes, this approach:

… prioritises personal survival over coherence: it creates a palpable sense of contingency.

In that frame, who will take on hard reform?

The first step towards answering that question is for us, the voters, to accept that our community’s views are at least partly responsible for the populist but ultimately self-destructive state of Australian politics today.