Managing the protest vote

tweedledee-tweedledum-3Any Australian election campaign follows a fixed pattern. Daily photo opportunities masquerading as policy announcements are interspersed with debate stoushes and then the debates themselves. Somewhere in the final two or three weeks the campaign launch is held. And also around that time, the expectations game begins.

The rules of the expectations game are simple: make the voters think the election outcome is finely balanced and that every single vote counts. This is a time-honoured way of managing the protest vote. It’s preferable for any political party to be perceived as the underdog at that point in the campaign, running slightly behind, than to have an unassailable lead.

Election outcomes that are seen as a sure thing can lead voters into thinking they can afford to lodge a protest vote against the inevitable outcome, safe in the knowledge they won’t be responsible for altering its certainty. When enough voters think they can harmlessly protest in this way, they can inadvertently tip the election pendulum and produce unexpected election outcomes.


The most recent examples of this phenomenon happened at the State level in the 1990s. Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett entered the 1999 state election campaign with a seemingly unassailable lead but lost to fresh-faced newbie Opposition Leader Steve Bracks because he hadn’t bothered to manage the protest vote. Victorians who voted against The Jeff mostly likely just wanted to give him a boot up the arse, not throw him from office altogether. And yet that’s what they ended up doing.

A similar fate almost befell another Liberal Premier in 1991. New South Welshmen and women came close to tossing out Nick Greiner that year when he called a snap election to capitalise on a strong lead in the polls and was predicted to be easily re-elected. Greiner ended up with a minority government instead.

While one could argue that the fate of two former Liberal Premiers has little import for the current Leader of the Federal Liberal Party, it’s clear Labor has commenced the expectations game early and is attempting to manage the protest vote against Abbott. It’s mostly a ‘saving the furniture’ strategy but with a bit of wishful thinking thrown in for one of those ‘unexpected’ election results.

Gillard supporter and potential future Labor leader Bill Shorten said on Friday:

‘There is no doubt in my mind that if the polls are correct Tony Abbott would win in a landslide. So the question then is, what does an Abbott government look like if the polls are correct and stay this way?’

Admittedly, Shorten later backed away from this statement, worried that it was being depicted as a sign of no confidence in Gillard, but it was clearly part of a strategy to mobilise a protest vote against Abbott.

While not going as far as Shorten, his Gillard-supporter Cabinet colleagues followed the same strategy earlier in the week. Communications Minister Stephen Conroy said Abbott would cancel construction of the NBN to new premises should he win the September federal election. Industry and Climate Change Minister Greg Combet said Abbott would not scrap the carbon tax.

Their subliminal message is that although Abbott’s election is inevitable, it’s not too late to voice your protest and rein in his post-election power.

Greens leader Christine Milne is employing a similar strategy, conceding an Abbott victory even before votes are lodged in the hope of gaining enough protest votes for the Greens to keep the balance of power in the Senate.

Granted, these attempts at marshalling the protest vote may be an entirely misguided strategy. Perhaps Kennett and Greiner are not the relevant case studies; see contemporary State Liberal Leaders such as O’Farrell (2011), Newman (2012) and Barnett (2013), who all converted huge poll leads into landslide election results.

Each of these leaders tapped into voter disenchantment with a tired and discredited Labor Party. Each leader offered a clear alternative. And each promised stable and competent government. Voters responded by flocking to them in droves: O’Farrell’s Liberals achieved a 14.16% swing, Newman got an 8.05% boost, and Barnett stormed home with an 8.71% increase. Abbott appears to be in for an equally impressive tide, currently tracking at around 6%.

The similarity doesn’t end there. Each of the successful State Liberal triumvirate led their opponents as the preferred Premier leading into the election, but not all had a higher net satisfaction rating (with Barnett, the only incumbent Premier of this group, trailing his Labor opponent).

The other distinguishing feature of these three elections is how the Green vote diminished over time. The 2011 NSW election (seven months after the Greens saw their highest national vote ever at the 2010 federal election) saw the minor party’s vote increase by around two percent. But by the Queensland election in 2012 the Green vote was coming off the boil, with a one percent swing against them. This had deteriorated to a three percent swing against them at the WA election in 2013.

This downward trend in support for the Greens suggests a growing level of disenchantment with them that will be reflected in this year’s federal election result. Having reached a peak of 11.8% in the House of Representatives and 13.1% in the Senate at the 2010 election by providing a lightning rod for the protest vote, the Greens are now registering 9% for the HoR and 11% for the Senate in the most recent published polls.

Labor voters who turned to the Greens in protest in 2010 are now turning away again. The lightning rod has turned to lead. Fifty percent of voters now believe minority government has been bad for Australia and only 25% support the independents and Greens having the balance of power in the Senate. This means the protest vote will be looking for a new home at this election. The smart money will be on the party that manages them the best.

Former Labor State Secretary and Minister, Graham Richardson, will go down in history as Australian politics’ greatest protest vote-wrangler. The second preference strategy he devised to save Labor’s bacon in 1990 cleverly acknowledged voters’ anger with the Hawke Government by saying ‘we don’t deserve your first preference vote, but please give us your second’. This strategy, paired with preference swaps and a strong marginal seats campaign, delivered Labor victory with more seats than the Coalition but less votes.

The protest vote is a fickle beast, beholden to no-one and difficult to manage. This year it will be more unpredictable than ever, even taking the Coalition’s strong lead into account. For Labor, effective management of the protest vote could turn a rout into a respectable loss. For the Greens, it could mean salvation from irrelevancy and impending oblivion.

And for Tony Abbott, good management of any protest will secure him a place in the history books as the only Liberal Leader to take his party to victory despite one of the highest disapproval ratings ever.

As well as a thumping mandate to do pretty much whatever he pleases.

This post first appeared at The King’s Tribune.

What class war?

A bizarre survey drifted into my corner of the interwebs on Friday night. It allocated respondents into one of the eight new ‘classes’ identified as the UK’s contemporary social hierarchy.

Having plugged in our responses and tweeted the outcomes, we egalitarian Aussies chuckled at the wacky descriptors and their unlikely recipients. Tweeps identified as the emergent service worker class took heart in their rich social life but empty bank accounts; whereas the precariats conceded they were just plain poor. (For the record I was classified as technical middle class, which must be code for “crazy cat lady who spends too much time on the internet”.)

Our amusement also stemmed from the very notion of class as an identity. Surely this alien social stratifier, imbued as it is with concepts of superiority, inferiority and entitlement, has no place in modern Australia. Surely most Australians consider themselves more or less equal to their compatriots. Classlessness is one of the things that define us. Isn’t it?

Then why is the current political debate encouraging us to make judgements of each other based on who has or has not?  What damage is risked to our social fabric by deploying the politics of envy in the name of votes?

I must stress I’m not referring to the long-standing tension between capital and labour. While capitalism endures as the basis for our economy there will always be a power differential between bosses and workers, mitigated to varying degrees by unions. But as more blue-collar workers have become self-employed and, in turn, become bosses themselves, the demonisation of employers has diminished. This is one of the reasons union membership has dropped in Australia.

That transition from employee to employer is part of our nation’s egalitarian ethos: everyone is entitled to a fair go. While the Great Australian Dream is different in many ways to its American cousin, it is similarly grounded in the belief that hard work delivers dividends and that he/she who toils is entitled to enjoy the fruits of their endeavours.

It’s for this reason that, while demographers and pollsters may prefer to label a particular segment of the Australian population ‘aspirational’, the term arguably applies to all of us.

The right to a fair go, and to make a go of it, applies equally to cabbies, bakers, brickies, and – yes – even corporate executives. Like it or not, people who are highly paid get the big bucks because they have skills and experience that the employment market has decided are worth more than, say, that of a cabbie. The fact that a person earns more does not make them a bad person, or any less entitled to enjoy what they have earned.

But that’s the subliminal message that’s emanating from the Labor Government, particularly now as we head to the federal election.

What’s curious about this strategy is that it’s been tried before, and it failed. Labor Opposition Leader Mark Latham’s invocation of the politics of envy with his private schools hit list in the 2004 federal election was later identified as one of the reasons voters were uneasy about him as the alternative Prime Minister. Notably, the broad appeal of Gillard’s subsequent Gonski reforms is that they’re based on educational need, not whether a school is public or private.

Nevertheless, Labor has chosen to re-visit Latham’s ‘us and them’ rhetoric by creating baseless antagonism against high-income earners.

I’m not just referring to the latest proposed changes to superannuation, which would have met any sensibility test if not for the accompanying desperate scramble by the Government to unblock the dribbling revenue pipe. But even in this case, was there a need to demonise high-income earners (undefined as they were for much of the debate) as being selfish tax avoiders? Let’s not forget they are legally using a tax concession established to encourage our nation’s aging population to fund its own retirement.

Although Joel Fitzgerald’s intervention in the superannuation debate and depiction of his high earning constituents as battlers was risible, it was also a reminder that most Australians see themselves as working or middle class. What remained unspoken by Fitzgibbon was that, despite our self-perception of clustering around the middle of the pack, Aussies nonetheless reserve the right to be fabulously successful and rich.

Australians are incontrovertibly aspirational: we expect to own a home, we buy one million new cars every year, and a whopping 43% of adult Australians own shares.

So it would be a mistake to read our support for raising and redistributing the taxes of big business and high-income earners as a brimming well of class envy just waiting to be tapped. It is just part of our egalitarian nature: we ardently believe everyone deserves a fair go, and reasonable taxes are an effective way to ensure that revenue is raised according to who is most able to pay.

The merits of the Labor’s proposed changes to superannuation tax are clear without being dressed up as class warfare. To do so is unnecessarily divisive, particularly within what promises to be the most brutal federal election campaign we have ever seen.

While the more obvious culprits in the use of societal division as an election tactic are Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and the Coalition, it is not beneath the Prime Minister and her Government either – the rhetoric flying around superannuation and 457 visas has proven that.

The politics of envy should remain in the locked box of failed Latham rhetoric, along with the ladder of opportunity and the conga-line of suckholes. It is neither smart politics nor is it socially responsible for a political party to demonise one element of Australian society, or pitch it against another, for political gain.

This post first appeared at The King’s Tribune


Bad vibes may determine who becomes our next PM

Despite our protests to the contrary, on 14 September Australians will vote for whichever federal parliamentary leader they find less distasteful.

Yes there’s a lot of white noise about values and policies, but when it comes down to essentials the vast majority of voters’ choice will be based on gut-feeling, not careful analysis.

It’s quite confronting to vest one’s principal democratic right in a visceral response to just two individuals. Yet, most voters will give only fleeting attention to parliamentary teams and policy paraphernalia. That’s the nature of contemporary Australian politics: it’s the presidential campaign you have when you don’t actually have a President.

So what will guide voters’ choice of leader this federal election? What emotional signals will influence them at the ballot box? I’m not referring to the loud, but small, subsets of voters on social media and talkback radio, I mean the much quieter majority, who are generally disengaged, at least until the election campaign proper (and often not even then).

Let’s start with the positives. There’s a certain calm strength in the Prime Minister, to which some people do respond positively. While much was made of her misogyny speech being a rallying cry for all women who are subjected to sexist behaviour, it had a much broader resonance. The speech struck a note, not just with feminists, but with all the people who had been waiting for a sign that Julia Gillard was capable of standing up and fighting for a genuinely heartfelt principle. Yes, there was the inconvenient (and, to some, inherently hypocritical) matter of sole-parent payments being reduced on the same day, but the speech signposted the point at which Gillard finally became the leader she claimed to be at the time of the Rudd coup.

Related to the perception of Julia Gillard’s strength, is the notion of respect. While some commentators have drawn parallels between Prime Ministers Gillard and Howard on their response to asylum seekers, I’d suggest Julia Gillard has taken yet another page from John Howard’s book. I’ve written elsewhere that, like Howard, Gillard does not command the voter adoration bestowed upon Hawke and Keating and is faced with the challenge of earning the community’s respect to ensure her political survival. I’d argue that a kernel of respect grew in voters’ hearts the day of the misogyny speech. Vague but politically favourable decisions on education, dental care and disability support have subsequently reinforced Gillard’s perceived strength, ironically enhanced, as it has been, by conservative state governments’ threatened obstruction.

The other visceral quality that benefits Gillard is that, in the flesh, she is a warm and eminently likeable person. The PM’s team has leveraged this advantage by exposing the Real Julia ™ to clusters of opinion leaders, be they “mummy bloggers”, leading female commentators and writers, or voters on platforms such as Google+ and live blogs. The ALP tacticians hope these chosen few will convey the likeability of the PM to their readers, families and friends, who will in turn tell others. (Of course there’s always a risk in depending upon independent third parties to generate such ripples of goodwill.)

Tony Abbott’s flouro-vest photo opportunities have a similar purpose, allowing workers and small business owners to meet and determine their own instinctive response to the alternative Prime Minister. As blogger Preston Towers wrote last week in a post about western Sydney, Abbott’s blokey demeanour is received well in those circles.

The man whose image …is part Vladimir Putin, part Bollywood star and part tradie. Indeed, some people might well believe that Abbott used to be a tradie in a former life, he wears headwear and safety vests so much. Tradies play well amongst many in Western Sydney, because they are the lifeblood of the region… The strategy of having him doing things, being physical, being an Alpha Male, does have resonance amongst those in the West who do similar things, or look up to people who do those things.

So it’s fair to assume that a number of the voters who encounter Abbott in this guise would pass on favourable feedback to their friends and families – determined not by the Coalition’s policies but whether Abbott struck them as a good bloke.

The Opposition Leader’s close association with the former Howard Government is his other advantage in attracting the visceral voter. Whether it is merited or not, many citizens have a retrospectively rose-coloured view of the Howard years. As Peter Brent recently pointed out, even though Howard’s Golden Age coincided with the pre-GFC days of economic prosperity “people don’t look back to the pre-GFC world, to them it’s the Howard one. Most people reckon Howard and Peter Costello knew how to run the economy and the current government doesn’t.”

So, in the absence of considered policy comparisons, and with little more than a fond memory of the Howard years, more voters trust Abbott to run the economy than Gillard. And a plurality are confident that his government will improve it. It seems Abbott’s blue-collar appeal, combined with hand-me-down economic credentials, account for a fair chunk of his electoral appeal.

On the other side of the ledger, however, people have the similar negative reactions to both Gillard and Abbott: they feel a sense of unease.

Voters were unsettled when the feisty and popular Deputy Prime Minister calmly dispatched her leader, proclaiming his government lost its way, while conveniently disregarding her own role in its meandering. They’ve been disconcerted since then by the parade of prime ministerial personas, including the sing-song Stepford PM and the first incarnation of the Real Julia ™ during the 2010 election campaign. And their anxiety has been compounded by the Prime Minister rescinding her carbon tax promise, sharing power with the Greens and being associated with an assortment of allegedly shady characters (something, something, AWU, something, Craig Thomson, something, something, Slipper).

However, looking to the blue corner, voters find no reprieve from their sense of foreboding. They’re apprehensive about the extent to which Abbott’s conservative Catholicism influences his decisions. They’re troubled by his simian swagger and the archaic prism through which he views women and gender issues more broadly. And they’re worried that Abbott’s emulation of Howard will extend to the reintroduction of WorkChoices (which means they can take our jerbs, doesn’t it?)

Come polling day, some people will vote for the party they’ve supported their whole adult lives. Others will base their choice on the handful of policy offerings they’ve taken the trouble to understand. And a very small number will compare the policies of all parties before coming to a considered voting decision.

But the vast majority will vote on instinct, choosing the party leader they feel most strongly about. At this point in the protracted (non) election campaign voters are similarly torn between the two leaders, with their positive response far outweighed by their negativeone.

This may change as the election date draws closer. But it is more likely that, come 15 September, our newly-elected Prime Minister will face the first day of their term knowing that although they were “popularly” elected, they were, in fact, judged by Australian voters to be the less distasteful of the two leaders on offer.

This post first appeared in The King’s Tribune.

Anatomy of a broken promise

Broken vaseWhether we like it or not, 2013 is going to be the year of the broken promise.

While it’s hard to believe there remains even one voter not yet reached by Tony Abbott’s campaign to brand Julia Gillard a venal oath-breaker, there still remain enough politically disengaged Australians to decide the election. And we can be confident that Abbott won’t leave their ultimate voting decision to chance.

An oft-quoted campaign idiom is that only once you’re sick of hearing your own voice can you be confident your message is starting to cut through. So even though political observers are heartily sick of the Opposition Leader’s mantra, he’ll keep chanting about the broken carbon tax promise confident in the knowledge that it has yet to lodge in the brains of the politically disengaged.

Whether this strategy will bring voters to Tony Abbott is another matter altogether.

Prime Ministerial broken promises are hardly a new phenomenon; throughout contemporary Australian politics they’ve often been considered a necessary evil. Promises made, particularly during election campaigns, have routinely been discarded as economic or political circumstances have changed.

In the 1970s Malcolm Fraser undertook to keep Medibank, then dismantled it. The 80s saw Bob Hawke vow that by 1990 no child would live in poverty. Paul Keating retracted his L-A-W tax cuts promise in 1993, resulting in the lowest ever approval rating for a modern Prime Minister (now equal lowest with Julia Gillard), but still dragged that rating up enough to dispatch two Opposition Leaders.

John Howard swore as Opposition Leader in 1995 that he would “never, ever” introduce a GST; then as Prime Minister successfully took one to the 1998 election. Howard also backtracked on commitments made during the 1998 campaign, dismissing them as “non-core” promises, but won the following 2001 election with an increased majority and prevailed again in 2004.

So when Prime Minister Julia Gillard was forced to discard her vow to never have a carbon tax (as the price for securing minority government with the Greens and Independents), she could have been forgiven for thinking she’d get away with it. But in Australian politics one does not simply break an oath; one must play the game of expectations in order to get away with it.

Gillard’s predecessor, Kevin Rudd, learned this the hard way in 2010 when he backed away from his election promise (made in opposition) to quickly establish an emissions trading scheme.

This change of heart shouldn’t have been as difficult for Rudd as it proved to be. Community support for the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) was fading following the disappointing shemozzle that was Copenhagen and the Senate’s refusal to pass what the Greens considered to be a substandard trading regime. New Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s “great big tax” campaign had started to get traction. And business leaders were expressing doubt the CPRS would provide the certainty they needed.

Even having dubbed climate change as “the great moral and economic challenge of our time”, Rudd could have emerged relatively unscathed from the CPRS back-down in April 2010 if he’d better managed the community’s expectations.

But if there was one thing Rudd proved singularly incapable of doing, it was to live up to the extraordinarily inflated community expectations that he’d created as Opposition Leader. Having cast himself as Howard-lite, with bonus features such as the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices, Rudd initially proved to be one of the most popular Australian Prime Ministers ever. But people lost faith in Rudd because his promise to be a better version of Howard ultimately proved to be empty.

In fact a defining feature of Rudd as Prime Minister was to promise big but deliver small. In February 2010 Rudd told his MPs there could be no backing away from the CPRS commitment. But in April, on advice from his kitchen cabinet comprising Gillard, Swan and Tanner, Rudd decided to postpone it. The clumsily leaked broken promise caught Climate Change Minister Penny Wong and other ministers unawares. Rudd then fumbled the explanation, and in doing so extinguished what little voter faith in him that remained. As it was later reported, the decision “galvanised the fastest collapse of support for a Prime Minister in the 20-year history of Newspoll and one of the two sharpest recoils from a Prime Minister in the 40 years of the Nielsen poll.”

Prime Minister Gillard should have heeded Rudd’s CPRS downfall when faced with having to disavow her pre-election rejection of the carbon tax. Voters were already unsettled by the coup and resented being denied the opportunity to cast Rudd out themselves. Gillard’s Rudd-like commitment to resolve priority issues such as asylum seekers, the mining tax and climate action proved to be equally Rudd-like in their emptiness. And a sense of anxiety and uncertainty overhung the minority government negotiations.

It’s little wonder that latent voter unhappiness fomented into outrage once the disavowed carbon tax was publicly re-embraced by Gillard. Abbott’s aforementioned sloganeering whipped that outrage into the phenomenon we know today as JuLIAR.

In contrast, the twilight hours of 2012 saw an exemplary display of how to break a political promise AND get away with it, when the Prime Minister and Treasurer deftly broke their Budget surplus commitment.

The government first created a community expectation that dropping the surplus promise was a sensible and necessary thing to do. This was done in stages, first by floating the possibility in off-the-record discussions with credible journalists and economists who in turn championed the need for the about-turn in the media. The next stage was to convert the “idea” into “a proposal” and leak it to an esteemed journalist whose credibility would provide reflected validation.

Thus, Laura Tingle revealed (the week after parliament concluded) that the surplus commitment would be dropped. Following months of public discussion about this being the right thing to do, Tingle’s article added a sense of legitimacy and urgency to the proposal.

From there it was simply a matter of announcing the decision in the week before Christmas, when most Australians were thinking more about barbeques and beaches than the state of the Budget. The few who had not entirely switched off might have thought “and about time, too”, having vaguely recalled calls for such action. Then Australians would have turned to the post-Christmas sales and the cricket.

Such is the anatomy of a broken promise. Tony Abbott would do well to study it as he deploys the next stage of his election strategy. Most likely he’ll rely heavily on the worst-handled of the Prime Minister’s broken promises – the carbon tax – and the best-handled, being the surplus. But as we have seen with the surplus, not all rescinded commitments generate outrage, and even those that initially inflame – like the carbon tax – can lose their volatility over time.

2013 will undoubtedly be the year of the broken promise: Tony Abbott will make sure of that. But Abbott should be wary of assuming the community will become indiscriminately outraged about any and all oath-breaking. If the Prime Minister has learned from the successful reversal of the Budget surplus commitment, and continues to deftly manage community expectations, it’s likely her broken promises will be seen as nothing more than a necessary evil and something that all Prime Ministers occasionally have to do. And in doing so, she will make redundant one of her opponent’s most valued pieces of artillery.

This post first appeared at the King’s Tribune.

Groundhog Day election campaign

Relentless. There’s simply no better word to describe Australia’s current political atmosphere. Ever since Julia Gillard became the nation’s 27th Prime Minister in June 2010 we’ve been caught in a groundhog day election campaign.

Tony Abbott’s determination to tear down the Gillard minority government, and belief that he will ultimately succeed, has seen him treat every day since the 2010 election as yet another campaign day. He’s constantly subjected us to a scrappy, negative campaign distinguished only by factoids, fluro-vest photo-ops and three-word slogans.

The Prime Minister has had no choice but to respond in kind, and her counter-campaign has been no less intense. Julia Gillard has left no media opportunity unexploited to reaffirm her legitimacy, proclaim her government’s fiscal virtuosity and stake her claim for posterity. But no-one is meant to run a country while simultaneously fighting an election campaign. That’s why we have caretaker arrangements once an election is called, to shift the running of the government into the hands of an apolitical public service. This ensures the grubby business of vote-winning does not contaminate government decision-making.

But the faux election campaign being waged right now has no such separation. Time and again, we’ve witnessed craven electoral politics triumph over responsible government and sensible policies. A confident and secure government, not stuck in an election campaign loop, would have taken a strong leadership position on issues such as the mining tax, climate action and asylum seekers. The more politically palatable options chosen instead by the Gillard government serve as a constant reminder that in this groundhog election campaign, vote-winners will prevail every time.

Minority government too has compounded our sense of a never-ending election. The Opposition and some quarters of the media have attempted smear and character assassination to change the parliament’s composition and trigger an early election. Lobbyists and activists, meantime, have felt a strengthened sense of purpose with the small number of unaligned and minor party MPs holding the balance of power. Vested interest campaigns have been redirected and redoubled as a result, in an attempt to put greater pressure on the minority power-holders.

It’s not just the leaders and lobbyists that are carpet-bombing us with faux election hype. All MPs seem to have defaulted to constant campaign mode. Once there was nary a politician to be seen between election campaigns, but now they are ubiquitous. Parliamentarians tout their wares on our televisions most mornings and every weeknight. Weekends are no longer sacred but crowded with political chat shows and interviews that yield little more than the lines of the day. Our local MPs now lurk in shopping centres and main streets, as well as sending us stalkerish letters and robocalls or popping up on our Twitter streams and Facebook pages.

The only respite we’re given is the Christmas break; the political hiatus when voters and parliamentarians alike flock to the beach and the barbie, preoccupied by little more than the batting average or the plot of a good novel.

But summer days are starting to shorten again and soon the campaign will begin afresh. Despite feeling that we’ve been living with a looming election for the past two years, the real campaign will commence sometime this year and an election will be held even as early as March.

It’s little wonder then that we’re heartily sick of the federal election, even before it’s officially underway. There’s only so much hype and harping that we can hear; only so much politics trumping policy that we can swallow. For many, the temptation to switch off from it all is particularly strong.

But for others, the lure of dissent prevails. These are the voters who’ve added their voices to the shrill and the shouty. Perhaps this explains the negativity that pervades our current political discourse. The groundhog campaign, more than the shockjocks, Twitter trolls, combative political talk shows or online disinhibition effect may be the reason we’ve turned into curmudgeonly quarrelers.

Perhaps the online commenters who habitually seek to discredit the authors of political news, analysis and opinion do so because they’re sick of campaign spin and cant. Perhaps political discussions on Twitter and Facebook have been reduced to snark and the crushing of alternative views in response to the infestation of sock-puppets and shills. Or perhaps we’re simply more cantankerous and less tolerant than we used to be.

Either way, when the federal election is finally held it will mark the end of the longest campaign seen in contemporary Australian politics, spanning as it will from the day after the 2010 federal election to the 2013 polling day. Official or not, the non-stop election campaign will be remembered for diminishing Julia Gillard’s capacity to run an effective government by denying her the free air needed to make necessary decisions despite their political unpalatability.

Hopefully, polling day will mark the end of the groundhog election campaign too, allowing the newly elected government to proceed comparatively unencumbered by short-term political considerations.

Such a government would be free to lead and make the right decisions, rather than the politically expedient ones. It could also set the tone for a new civic discourse, distinguished by respectful, constructive debate and a focus on policy. Over time, this could change how Australians participate in their nation’s democracy, and in turn influence what the media considers to be newsworthy.

In the meantime, we must endure. But at least we can do so in the knowledge that the groundhog election campaign will end within the year, and may yet bring with it the promise of better public debate in the years and elections to come.

This post originally appeared in The King’s Tribune

Is the media consumer always right?

And so, with the demise of 6.30 with George Negus, Australia’s dirtiest secret has been exposed. There’s no longer any point denying it, now the courageous programming innovation featuring the moustachioed one has come to an end. The evidence is clear: we’re a country of Philistines who couldn’t give two hoots about serious news and current affairs.

It’s not that we didn’t already know this; we just didn’t want to accept it. We tried to ignore the fact that more Australians would rather watch grimace-inducing talent shows than hard-hitting investigative journalism; listen to crank calls than probing interviews and read celebrity gossip than analysis.

It’s this conundrum that casts a shadow over the future of Australian media. Are the punters always right? Is the only commercially sensible option to give consumers what they want? Or should the media favour its public-interest role and give people what they should want? This is a fundamental question, because despite the fine words uttered about the accountability that media must enforce in a healthy democracy, media organisations are firstly commercial enterprises. Aside from the public broadcasters, every other media organisation, large or small, needs to make enough money — either through advertising/sponsorship or sales, to continue operating. Some also need to provide returns to their shareholders.

Those that ascribe to Lindsay Tanner’s Sideshow syndrome, would argue that it’s the drive to give media consumers what they want that has led to the re-packaging of news and analysis as entertainment. Politicians are similarly accused of dumbing-down their messages to make them more interesting to the public.

The demise of 6.30 and the modest audiences generated for most serious news and current affairs programs makes it hard to argue against this perspective. Even so, the solution being advocated to reverse the Sideshow trend is simply illogical.

Media academics and commentators suggest that the news-as-entertainment mentality can be neutralised by somehow requiring media organisations to provide more coverage and analysis of serious events and policy issues. There appears to be an assumption embedded within this solution that “if you print it, they will read it”.

But, as we know, the evidence suggests otherwise. If somehow the Herald Sun was required to provide more considered reports on superannuation or health policy, or the unravelling of the Greek economy, does anyone honestly think that any more people would buy it and any less would read it from the back page first?

It’s not that the majority of people want merely to be entertained; they want information that connects with them and the lives they lead. People have simple needs when it comes to the media. They want to know “what happened today and what does it mean for me?” Yes, some people also want to know what it means for the community, the country or the world, but those people are fewer in number. An even smaller number of people also want to tweet, comment or blog about the event and its implications.

But it is the will of the majority that shapes a democracy. The preference of those who choose not to watch ABC24, or listen to PM or read The Monthly, will guide the reconfiguration of Australia’s media as it grapples with the opportunities and challenges presented by the online world.

This is not to suggest that the Sideshow will become bigger and even more perverse. Frankly, it’s journalistic laziness to simply make news entertaining instead of framing it to be interesting or compelling.

While most of the public is disengaged from political events and current affairs, they’re far from being passive consumers. They demand engagement from their service and product providers, to be heard and to have their needs met.

This applies equally for the consumers of news media. Clearly newspaper circulation numbers are dropping because readers aren’t getting what they now want from a news product. Instead of presuming to know what’s best for the public, and what it is that they should want to know, it would benefit journalists and their proprietors to better understand what the public actually wants to know.

An excellent example of a media organisation doing exactly that was the Sunday Age, which invited their readers to guide the paper’s climate change agenda by nominating and voting on the top ten questions to be reported upon. Over a four-week period, 567 questions were posted, around 4000 comments were made debating the questions, and almost 20,000 votes were cast.

This participatory approach to generating news is one of the ways that traditional media will re-establish themselves as relevant and responsive to their customers. There will be other ways too.

If the commercial media model is to survive, then media businesses will indeed accept that the punter is always right. There is no alternative. The pressure will be on politicians, media academics and the commentariat to accept this too, although I doubt they will.

If a genuine attempt is made to understand what the public really does want from their news products, we may all end up being pleasantly surprised. And if news organisations can deliver what the public really wants, then our democracy will be better for it.

This piece originally appeared in The Kings’ Tribune

Post script: This great piece on the media consumer being right from the head of news at ninemsn.