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.

Author: Drag0nista

Political columnist at The New Daily | Editor of Despatches & AusVotes 2019 | Author of On Merit, a book on the Liberals' *women problem*. Former Liberal staffer and industry lobbyist. Studying the entrails of federal politics since 1989.

10 thoughts on “The voter doesn’t always know best”

  1. Yes I agree with you. lack of education leads to ignorance and self interest, without looking behind why andwhat politicians are doing what they do and where they are coming from.

  2. We have a PM who has the strength of character that her party needs.
    We have a government who works for the here and now as well as the future.
    All that is needed is for people not to believe all of the propaganda about leadership change, unstable gov. bad policies etc. from the LNP.
    It is all white noise to take the focus off the opposition and their leader. TA does not like answering questions. He wants everyone to like him (the changed him).
    Leopards do not change their spots. The people do not like him.
    It is written that the PM is not liked, but who writes that stuff – only the MSM journos who work for both the Murdoch & Fairfax organizations (they own pretty much of all forms of TV, Radio & News (70% Murdoch, 20% Fairfax/Reinhart.
    That to my mind equals PROPAGANDA and Australia is in real trouble if they are to be believed.

  3. Where is Edmund Burke when you need him?

    ‘Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.’
    Edmund Burke, Speech to the Electors of Bristol

      1. Hi Drag0n Lady,
        I got my first hint of the Burke thing via this Inside Story article on the late Peter Andren ‘Opposing John Howard on asylum seekers, and winning’ An inspiring story and a salutary lesson unlearned.

        Current and aspiring politicians would do themselves (and our nation) a great service if they looked at the way Andren worked and emulate him.

        Burke’s thoughts on representation should be required reading and understanding for all aspiring politicians and it would help greatly if ‘electors’ also understood in some small way some of the thinking behind it.

        As a by the by, I gather, but have not confirmed, that Rob Oakeshott sends a copy of Burke’s letter to people in his electorate when they disagree with how he has voted.

        D Mick Weir

  4. I remember Hawke repeatedly asking that Australians tighten their belts in the interests of the future, even though I had zero interest in politics at the time. We had wage freezes at the same time as computers were being introduced and people were being made redundant. All sorts of industries were hit hard by the economic changes. It was pretty dire. Yet people did as they were asked and voted for Hawke again.

    Even though Howard indulged people for a decade, I think people would still respond well to a challenge set by a strong leader they could respect. Someone who treated the electorate like adults with a stake in good governance.

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