Two perceptive comments on the state of democracy in Australia, from yesterday’s Age. First Barry Jones laments the dismal state of political discourse:
I have been heavily involved in politics all my adult life and the current national situation, both in the government and opposition, is a low point, the lowest I can recall – even the dark days of 1955, 1966, 1975 and 1996. It seems to get worse every week. The 2010 federal election was the worst in my memory because there was no debate about ideas, simply an exchange of slogans and mantras (”Stop the boats!”). The word ”because”, leading to an attempt at reasoned explanation, seemed to have fallen out of the political lexicon. We observed an infantilisation of debate, for example on refugees and climate change. There is good reason to expect that the 2013 election will be even more depressing. I have lost count of the number of exchanges I have had with voters in Melbourne streets where they express their dismay to me about the state of politics, on both sides. Some burst into tears.
This reiterates a point in an Age opinion piece back in July:
Tony Abbott’s approach to the carbon tax debate is illustrative of a general collapse in the quality of rational discourse. The proposed carbon tax, a very complex issue, is being attacked with ruthless simplicity, ”Stop a toxic tax, based on a lie.” Is there a second sentence in this argument? Has the word ”because” fallen out of the political vocabulary?
Then James Button, pointing towards an explanation:
Strangely, the information age seems to have made grasping the truth of things harder. The shrinking of the broad base of political parties, their failure to tell stories that inspire and ring true, the increasing lack of penetration of the serious media, the rarity of deep analysis told in a compelling way, the 60-second YouTube videos that portray Julia as robotic or Kevin as a knockabout bloke who swears a bit much, the distrust and distractedness of we the people – they all promote misunderstanding. They are death to an engaged politics.
Neither however has much to say about how to fix or ameloriate the problem. They seem resigned to it, or perhaps hope that describing the problem will somehow help turn things around. In this they are like Lindsay Tanner, whose Sideshow was an entertaining book-length treatment of this territory but was also short on solutions (see the tepid final chapter).
Button suggests that “the information age” is to blame, at least partly, for the degradation of politics. Yet it is also the only place where countervailing forces are likely to arise. And indeed we are seeing a sudden proliferation of new forms of democratic engagement (Duval, Next Generation Democracy; Shirky, Here Comes Everybody).
Our own fledgling effort in this area, YourView, is aimed at (among other things) helping interested citizens to “grasp the truth of things” by making the key arguments on major public issues easily accessible, allowing citizens to express their view, and identifying the “wisdom of the crowd.”