If we look at figures for actual engagement with government, making submissions to parliamentary or agency inquiries, we might be able to get a good idea about what Australians really care about.
A recent inquiry, not a high-profile parliamentary inquiry but a departmental one, had an extraordinarily large number of public submissions (323), suggesting the subject of the inquiry could be the philosopher's stone for politicians, the barbeque-stopper.
What was it? Climate change? Economic policy? Human rights? No, no, and no.
The thing that gets the electorate engaged is the issue of sport on TV.
The following table compares the number of submissions and submissions per day (between announcement and closing date) for the TV sport review compared to some inquiries at high-profile parliamentary websites on weightier issues that affect us all. The figures would be even more stark if we only included submissions from ordinary citizens, rather than the usual suspects of academics and companies with a direct commercial interest in the outcomes of the inquiries.
With more submissions in both absolute and per-day terms, the clear winner is TV sport, in this case, the anti-siphoning regulations that limit what sporting events pay-TV can broadcast.
For most issues, submissions to inquiries are far outnumbered by the number of news items, published letters to editors, and blog posts, suggesting that the so-called "nattering classes" are just that, nattering but not officially engaged. I suspect, however, that on this issue of TV sport, the number of submissions far outnumbered the news items and letters to editors.
Oddly enough, this might suggest that the TV sports buffs are much more efficient than the nattering classes when it comes to official engagement with the political process. For once, the couch potato is smarter than a self-styled member of the intellectual elite: if only everyone who wrote a letter to a broadsheet about an issue under inquiry made a submission, we might be better governed. Unless of course, the nattering classes are only nattering, appearing concerned about important issues only in front of their friends, while in truth, their inner bogans rule.
The data in the above table could be extended, looking at more inquiries homed both in parliamentary and agency websites, correlating against letters to editors, space in the news sections of the mainstream media, number of blog posts in the same time, only including submissions made by "ordinary citizens" rather than academics and organisations, as well as the many other things that sociologists might consider relevant. However, the take-home message probably wouldn't change: while the electorate as a whole might sometimes say some things are important, when it comes to actual engagement, engagement that probably reflects the vote-changing issues that politicians will devote their minds to, the electorate is little more than a Homer Simpson with a bogan accent.
This is an edited version of an article which was first published in the author's blog, Balneus, on November 4, 2009.
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