Actually, we’re not over politics


Everyone is over politics. They’re enjoying the break

This may well be one of the most manipulative and selective comments on Australian politics I’ve heard in a long time. Yet it’s being repeated uncritically around the country, including by those who should know better. Voters’ supposed delight in the absence of politics has become the multi-purpose excuse for hiding any and all manner of political activities that might otherwise be troubling our pretty little heads.

The tactic has been deployed since the very beginning of the Abbott Government. As Laurie Oakes recounts in his book on the ‘rise’ of Tony Abbott, there was a lot going on behind the scenes during the 11 days between Abbott winning the election and being sworn in by the Governor General:

… But as far as the public and the media were concerned, it was 11 days of unaccustomed quiet after the Labor years of crisis, chaos and constant politicking. No-one complained. The nation was over politics and welcomed a respite.

Now it’s been 60 days since Abbott was elected and the extension of Operation Mushroom to the government’s day-to-day operations has been a resounding success. Tony Abbott’s promised ‘no surprises’ government has become one of ‘no information’. With a justification similar to “we’ll keep telling you nothing because you’re enjoying the break”, more and more information is being kept from public scrutiny. And many of us are nodding compliantly, seemingly accepting the explanation with little or no questioning.

Some elements of the political media seem equally mesmerised. In not just noting, but also accepting, the tactic, they’re falling well short of exploring its negative implications for open and transparent government. Thankfully not all sections of the media are content to act as benign observers at a fungi farm. Last weekend Bianca Hall catalogued and exposed the silence of the Coalition: Prime Ministerial press conferences reduced to little more than cameo appearances, closed room speeches presented by ministers to public conferences, and limited opportunities for media scrutiny during rare ministerial appearances.

Each limitation on information seems logical in isolation. There appears to be strategic value in not reporting the arrival of every asylum seeker boat in order to deprive people-traffickers of promotional material. The refusal to release incoming government briefs under a Freedom of Information request makes sense on the basis that a department’s assessment can hardly be frank and fearless if it is going to be released into the public domain and used to undermine either that advice or the government for which it was written.

But taken together these actions describe a government that is an opaque and silent edifice, throwing crumbs of information in the name of transparency, and showing a naïve terror of public communication that is the antithesis of the grown-up approach that was promised.

The blanket ‘no information is good information’ approach should be considerably disconcerting for all of us. Not only is the lack of information democratically unhealthy, so is the justification for keeping it from us.

The flippant explanation that we’re ‘over politics’ does voters a disservice. We’re not over politics; we’re just over the type to which we’ve been subjected for the past four years. We’re over the negative soundbites that Tony Abbott subjected us to in his quest to destroy the Rudd and Gillard governments. We’re over the leaks and white-anting that Labor subjected us to by indulging Kevin Rudd’s dark revenge fantasy. And we’re over the Greens preaching at us from their parliamentary pulpit with impossibly high moral standards that broke more hearts than delivered tangible outcomes.

But we’re not over politics completely.

Labor’s leadership ballot gave us a glimpse during the 30-day campaign of the type of politics we would never tire of. The tens of thousands of ALP members who participated in the leadership campaign, as well as the hundreds of thousands who watched them doing so, showed an abundance of energy and enthusiasm for the generally civil and constructive politics that was on show during that period.

Admittedly, I’m not a fan of the Labor leadership ballot. Even Bruce Hawker admits the party reforms were cooked up by Rudd as a way to assuage voter concerns about him being rolled again, rather than to democratise the party. Yet the ALP now has 4000 more members than it did before the ballot and direct evidence that party members and the broader voting community want to be engaged and contribute when matters of importance to them – such as values, policies and party reform – are being discussed.

As Labor is learning, they will now have to live up to the expectation they’ve created for an Australian Labor Party distinguished by democracy. Meantime, the new Coalition Government is playing a different expectations game: one that is based on us expecting not very much at all because apparently we welcome the respite. Or something. And if we are not careful we may become normalised to this post-information regime.

Right now we have limited public appearances by the Prime Minister and even less by his ministers. Community Cabinet meetings have been scrapped and media opportunities mostly declined. Scrutiny at the weekly press conference on asylum seeker arrivals has diminished due to the lack of Canberra political media being able to attend the Sydney-based events and Morrison’s deferral of questions to the defence force personnel who are responsible for Operation Sovereign Borders.

So what’s next on Abbott’s list of redundant transparency mechanisms? Will he emulate Paul Keating and limit his appearances at Question Time or reduce the time and number of questions asked? Perhaps he’ll roster ministers for Question Time appearances (as Keating also did) to shield those who are poor performers or have contentious issues. Or maybe he’ll cancel the televising of parliament altogether (which Keating wanted to do).

Who knows? As Bianca Hall concludes in her piece, the Coalition’s pre-election commitment to restore accountability and improve transparency “will be tempered by Abbott’s judgment about what the public needs to hear.”

Abbott supporters claim his aim to take politics off the front page is similar to John Howard wanting the Australian community to be relaxed and comfortable. Howard wanted our contentment to be based on the knowledge that he was making responsible decisions for the whole nation and he told us enough to let us come to that conclusion. Abbott wants us to take him on trust, to be content in our ignorance and focus instead on the beach, barbeque and cricket, despite there being little evidence that he is delivering what he promised. The two approaches are worlds apart and speak volumes about the respect each man has (or doesn’t have) for the Australian community.

Lack of information and an attendant lack of transparency help those who are limiting the information to avoid scrutiny and accountability. Acquiescing to their post-information approach allows them to think they’re above scrutiny and may even encourage some to feel entitled enough to rort and abuse the system. Good government does not lie along this path.

Tony Abbott can’t run a responsible, accountable and democratic government from behind a curtain like the Great Oz. However it appears he is going to try. It’s up to voters and the media to stop accepting the excuse that no political news is good news. It’s time we challenged those who diminish and dismiss our interest in politics. And it’s time we labelled the attempts to normalise Abbott’s new information vacuum as nothing more than a cheap parlour trick and a patronising way of encouraging us to be less vigilant about holding him and all other politicians to account.

This post first appeared atThe King’s Tribune.