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The Californication of Australian politics

By Jason Falinski - posted Monday, 10 December 2007

While another election campaign has ended, the Californication of Australian politics continues unhindered. Essentially, Californian politics is played out through bought media: advertisements. The media itself generally gives politics and politicians little attention. This is best summed up by the Californian observation, generated no doubt by the movie industry also located there, that politics is acting for ugly people.

In California, politicians raise substantial amounts of money to buy these ads; in Australia, taxpayers do. Many political observers believe that a potential answer to removing this perversion of public funds is stricter rules. However, if history has taught us anything, it is that the tougher the rules are, the sooner they are bent until broken outright.

The answer may lie in encouraging a more active involvement in politics, especially by those charged with scrutinising it.


Since the dawn of democratic time, incumbent governments have had the cards stacked in their favour. Governments had the ability to set the agenda by which the electorate would judge alternatives. Since the time of Roman Emperors, all governments have spent actual money on a grateful populace even if just in the form of bread and circuses.

Government comes with the benefit of departmental resources, which amounts to thousands of people who are charged with the responsibility of developing and researching innovative policy solutions. Further to this, a sitting member has at their disposal substantial funds for postage and printing, a staff of four and tax payer funded phones and faxes. Political parties estimate that for a challenger to be just on equal terms with an incumbent requires at least $300,000.

Age old political advantages have been augmented with modern tax payer funding. Still, such additions only go some way towards explaining how dislodging governments became such a Herculean task.

There are a number of potential reasons for this. First, the cost of modern campaigning has left the majority of parties at the mercy of unions, corporate donors, or the public purse. Second, the decline of public involvement in institutional party structures has left most political parties at the mercy of branch stackers which in turn means they need to pay for activities previously carried out by volunteers. Finally, the media is both reflecting and leading public disinterest and cynicism in politics, while simultaneously cutting resources dedicated to in-depth analysis.

In my opinion, it is the last of these factors that is the greatest advantage to sitting governments.

In the past, the advantages enjoyed by governments were counter balanced by the general interest of the media through which space and emphasis were given to alternative points of view. This constrained the government's ability to set the agenda above all others. Arguably, these factors no longer exist in Australian political discourse.


Politically, Australia has become the California of the South Pacific.

The media spends more time commenting on politics than analysing it, and has not bothered to report on it since Don's Party premiered. More importantly, when was the last time you noticed someone from a media outlet demanding a political leader justify their claims, instead of egging them to sensationalise it even more?

My personal favourite technique of the contemporary political journalist is when they interview each other. Jon Stewart, an American comedian (though not Californian), mercilessly pokes fun at US commentators who do this, thus far no Australian comedian has felt it worthy of comment.

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First published by Insight, the Centre for Policy Development’s publication, on November 27, 2007.

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About the Author

Jason Falinski is managing director of CareWell a provider of furniture and equipment to the health sector, and a former national president of the Young Liberal Movement.

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