Australia prides itself as constituting a democratic nation. Australia was one of the first nations in the world to enact universal suffrage and it was the first nation in the world to elect, albeit briefly, a democratic socialist government. Moreover it is an oft repeated adage that the some 100,000 Australians from two world wars died to preserve Australian democracy, or at least the Australian democratic way of life. Whether the above statement is entirely accurate is another matter, although the statement does show how central the belief in democracy is to the Australian psyche. There are, however, some disturbing trends which are arguably devaluing and even derailing democracy in Australia, and it is appropriate that some of these trends and challenges are subjected to critical scrutiny.
One of these many challenges to democracy is the emergence of sound-bite reporting of politics. Increasingly, what is reported is not reasoned analysis of issues, but rather a few sentences of response on radio or television. Moreover, the actual section, or bite, of speech from the politician or would-be politician is becoming increasingly truncated, so that it is now not impossible to hear merely two or three words from a politician or would-be politician played on the electronic media. This clearly impoverishes political debate. Political debate becomes limited to a conflict of personalities and parties, rather than an exploration of the strengths and weaknesses of arguments on issues. And if the electorate is not well informed on political issues, it is difficult to see how democracy can function effectively.
It is useful to compare the operation of politics in what the pre-electronic and post-electronic eras of politics. In his book Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville documented the passion that American citizens traditionally held for political debate. In the nineteenth century it was not uncommon for speeches from US presidential candidates to last for hours. There are some who argue that the Internet has improved the potential for political debate, although there are some serious doubts as to the depth of this debate. For instance, Andrew Keen, in his book The Cult of the Amateur, points out that the anarchic nature of the Internet means that political debate very easily degenerates into the superficial and abusive, with very little control as to the quality or veracity of what is written.
A second of the many challenges to democracy in Australia is the increasing reliance of the media on horse-race journalism. This is a term used by American political scientists, and refers to the obsession of journalists and reporters with opinion polls. It is not too difficult to see how horse-race journalism has developed - it makes writing stories very easy. All that a journalist needs to do is to present the latest data on how a particular politician or would-be politician is advancing or declining in opinion polls, and then to speculate as to why this advance or decline is occurring. As new opinion polls are regularly produced, it is a very easy way to produce new copy without any onerous research. Ultimately horse-race journalism is a licence for lazy journalism, as the journalist needs to do little research and does not need to engage in the hard work of interpreting policy issues.
Horse-race journalism is also profoundly undemocratic. Just because a pollster or journalist can discern a trend in opinion or even voting patterns in the past does not necessarily mean that this trend must continue into the future. It is the right of every voter to make up his or her own mind at the time of polling. It is an axiom of social science that the behaviour or events of the past do not necessarily predicate what will happen in the future. To believe that the past necessarily does determine the future represents the logical fallacy of determinism. Yet this is precisely the implication of horse-race journalism. It may be that there is a self-fulfilling prophecy when journalists declare that a particular political party is dead, although this is in itself is profoundly undemocratic. It is the voters and not the media who ought to be making such decisions.
A third way in which democracy in Australia has become compromised is through polling booth campaigning. This involves covering public places where the voting takes place with vast amounts of unsightly bunting and having voters being provided with vast quantities of how-to-vote (HTV) cards as they enter the polling booth on polling day. The vast amount of paper wasted is simply an environmental disgrace. Even the notion of a how-to-vote card or leaflet should ring warning bells for anyone sincerely concerned with democracy. It is surely the citizen himself or herself who ought to be determining how he or she should vote, rather than being instructed how to do this by a political party. There is, moreover, widespread public anger at the circus that represents election day in Australia, with potential voters having to run a gauntlet of party-faithful proffering how-to-vote cards and other literature.
There are some voices of protest against polling booth campaigning. For instance, the Australian Democrats have a long held a policy on electoral reform which states, quite unequivocally, that "The distribution of all election material, including how-to-vote cards and policy leaflets, will be banned on election day" (1988). On this issue it is surely time that political parties took a moral stance, and simply refused to participate in polling booth campaigning. The Democrats argued that it should be possible to put a simple statement of political party information at the polling place. Moreover, with the Internet, there is more than ample opportunity for political parties to let voters know of recommended preferences. And we could always do the unthinkable - actually let the voters themselves make the decision as to whom they want to elect. This is after all implied in the Australian Constitution, which repeatedly emphasises that representatives will be "directly elected by the people".
Overall, the state of democracy in Australia makes some depressing reading. What is particularly disturbing is the sense of national cynicism about the political process and the prospects of achieving through political means. It is a self-reinforcing cynicism, as the more people distrust the political process less people will participate. This essay argues that part of the problem lies with our media and the fact that we do not have the media we deserve. What is needed is reform on the part of the media, to report more professionally and ethically. Part of the problem, however, must also rest with our political parties. What is needed is the real political will on the part of political parties to exercise moral leadership in key areas such as those above. Without this, it is very difficult to see meaningful progress for the future.
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