In Why Democracies Need an Unlovable Press (2008) Schudson argues that one of the key reasons why news reporting is not entirely captured by public officials and politicians is because the universe is capricious. “Shit happens” he remarks bluntly, and because of that the best laid plans of even presidential masters of the universe can become unstuck. Journalists love shit because when it happens it provides new angles for worn out story lines, and allows them to escape the programmed drudgery of “beat reporting”.
In the case of the New South Wales state election, shit’s hit the fan, with the terrible events in Japan replacing the state election as front page news. That is in principle, at least, because the election wasn’t making the front pages before the earthquake so news editors have a rationale for it being pushed back into the paper rather than a justification for a recent decision to demote this workman like event we’re living through.
The practical reality is that the media has been split on how to approach the election: both the Sydney Morning Herald and the Telegraph have moved from reporting events to creating them (a series of policy fora for the former and the “people’s parliament” for the latter). With more column inches to fill, an election-as-done deal presents them with particular problems in what to cover and how to jazz up the event. For the electronic media, with a greater reliance on event reporting, the election is still being covered as a competition between two major parties: a fundamentally deceptive frame that emerges from embedded journalistic practices about what elections should look like.
The truth is that this election demonstrates what post-democracy looks like: it seems like there’s an election going on, what with the Premier going about the state announcing policy and talking about her political agenda for the next term. But there’s something terribly sad about all this wasted effort that’s reminiscent of Peter III of Russia, hunting around the palace looking under beds for the Empress who’s already deposed him. That said, it’s clearly not a novel observation to note that the election was over long ago.
What we need to consider is that – while we may still like liberal democracy’s pluralistic competition, civic engagement and individual rights – the structures we use to deliver it are having trouble keeping up with the contemporary era. With the advent of mass society and mass media, the role of periodic elections and parliaments are revealed as what they are: technologies of a horse-drawn age. We need to consider if the recent period of effectively illegitimate government we’ve had in New South Wales is appropriate in the current age, where the pace of change has accelerated and the need for all organisations to be increasingly responsive is widely acknowledged.
Questions about changes to our democratic institutions need to balance responsiveness and popularism: and the administrative gridlock of California (one of the world’s largest economies, if it were a country) is a cautionary note when we consider the introduction of direct democracy mechanisms such as repeal provisions. We have to recognise that governments can become “lame ducks” through their internal decline, but also because of the way that public opinion of their performance, once widely known, can significantly diminish their political legitimacy. As policy making becomes increasingly about managing tangible and symbolic aspects of public life, legitimacy and policy capacity become increasingly intertwined.
Interestingly, however, the 2011 state election has demonstrated some novel potential solutions to these problems. For the first time in NSW, the state Electoral Commission has introduced internet voting. This introduction demonstrates a greater degree of comfort with the role of the technology in the electoral system than election administrators and politicians were willing in the past. This is unsurprising, as the recent upswing in the use of online payments and commerce by the general public shows a greater willingness of Australians to invest important decisions into the virtual world.
Importantly the Electoral Commission has made a number of concessions to security for the online voter: an extended voting period which reduces the risks associated with denial of service attacks, as well as two-factor identification and the provision of receipts. While the system is currently restricted to those who have disabilities or are unable to access the conventional ballot, there’s no reason why the system, now established, cannot be used more widely. Certainly strong demand for postal voting shows the public is less committed to the conventional voting process than some advocates of tradition would argue.
Of most interest to me is the elongated electoral period, something increasing numbers of electors are enjoying because of their use of postal ballots. Our present electoral system focuses on a specific election period and voting day only because of administrative convenience. The impact of this is that the election period has been presumed to be a number of weeks before election day, and we have established behavioural norms (such as the electronic news blackout) around this expectation.
The reduced cost of voting online means that this approach can be reconsidered: a longer voting period would allow candidates to be elected as soon as their quota had been met, doing away with the currently encouraged (but now avoidable) period of time in which electors are forced to consume/endure the election. Longer election periods (and I’m thinking about months, if not a year), would force parliamentarians back into their electorates for longer periods of time, while watering down the ability of governments to “pump” policies to produce short term positive outcomes for electoral advantage.
Had NSW had this type of system, the election would have been over long ago.
Peter John Chen is a lecturer in Media Politics at the University of Sydney. He worked on the Victorian Electronic Democracy Inquiry in 2004 as a consultant, which rejected the introduction of internet voting systems.
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