The vacuousness of the current Australian election is the culmination of several trends that have been shaping and directing Australian politics over the last 20 or so years.
From the time of the ALP brokered the “Accord” between unions and business to allow for the introduction of Hawke and Keating’s free market reforms, to the push to the right and conservatism of the Howard years that resulted in a jingoistic and antiquated form of nationalism and political dialogue, Australian politics and political parties have drifted to the right of the political spectrum for.
The “wilderness” years of the ALP during the Howard reign, saw it completely shake itself of any meaningful remnants of its past as a workers’ party. To share power in modern Australia requires appealing not to working class interests or improving the daily lives of the majority of the population, but to ensure and secure the wealth, privilege and power of those at the top - Corporate Australia.
Both the ALP and the Coalition of the Liberals and the Nationals have moved away from their traditional, ideological bases. The disconnect of the ALP from any meaningful popular working class base is mirrored by the trade unions themselves as both have sought power over true representation.
The Liberal Party under Howard moved away from the principles of classical liberalism, where concepts of freedom, justice and minimising the intervention of government in people’s lives emerged from a rich theoretical heritage, to a liberalism that solely serviced the economic realm. This was combined with a social conservatism that completely abandoned Liberal notions outside of economic policy.
The result has been a politics in Australia that is firmly framed by the right, with a two-party dominated system where both parties rely upon and pander to business for financial support. The further disconnected they have become from their traditional bases, the further their reliance on business has become. This in part also explains why both parties have needed to embrace the rhetoric of populist politics to camouflage their policies’ true benefactors.
All of this has been driven by the Australian corporate media environment. Only two companies own and control all the nation’s major newspapers and television stations. The result is that only one nationally available newspaper is published - run by billionaire Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch’s media empire spans the globe reflecting his rightwing, neoliberal position via a cynical form of crass populism.
As media ownership becomes concentrated and as people’s spare time becomes more pressed, the pressures on politics and media are to strip away meaningful debate. Exploration of ideas, policies and their merits are forsaken in favour of sound bites, catchphrases and the more entertaining clash of personalities.
The economic structure of corporate media also drives this process. A focus on profit rather than providing a public service to the population drives the current media model. A general rejection of intelligent and challenging programming that does not assume a lack of intelligence on behalf of its audience has seen a rise in sensationalist and vacuous news and current affairs coverage that appeals to the lowest common denominator.
The dumbing-down of news, and particularly politics, to a circus - a real life soap opera of personalities - makes for splashy headlines and easy to produce, highly rating, television segments and news programs. This strategy is designed to increase audience ratings - which then enable television stations to sell advertising time or space at higher rates. This facilitates - for the right price - the meeting of a captive audience to a company’s particular product or service.
Politics then becomes another profitable media extravaganza: cheap to produce and to market, yielding excellent returns. Finding or developing a political narrative rather than political content and meaning becomes the primary focus. In this manner we see elections being a clash of personalities and special interest stories: of Julia Gillard’s partner; of Tony Abbott’s sporting pursuits; the drama of Kevin Rudd being pushed out of office; the “who said what to whom”. If a narrative line plays itself out, or a more exciting or controversial narrative can be found then the story changes quickly and like Orwell’s memory-hole the previous issues or stories are quickly forgotten.
It is this framework that politics and political parties - especially during an election - pander to. Rather than challenge the reduction of important issues and ideals to mere soap, political parties cater to it.
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