How to solve the electorate's discontent

Dan Wood / July 01, 2013 04:50 PM

The Federal Opposition used last Thursday’s Question Time to quiz the reminted Prime Minister on his trustworthiness. 

Manager of Opposition Business Christopher Pyne wanted to know how Rudd could expect the public to trust that he will remain Prime Minister if re-elected in September given the ALP’s penchant for unseating leaders. Fair enough.

But Pyne’s line of questioning seemed to ignore a broader, underlying truth. The simple truth is that Australians don’t trust their politicians in general—they haven’t for a while.

This is not a revelation.

Our distrust is symptomatic of a chronic social malaise; one whose etiology has preoccupied political strategists for years. It inspired the age of spin, that fetid nostrum peddled by the likes of John McTernan and Tony O’Leary. And it continues to inflate the discrepancy between a politician’s “Message of the Day” and public reception of that message. The perennial Catch-22 is these messages do little more than strain existing acrimony. Again this should come as no surprise.

It 's Going To Be Great

Whether Kevin Rudd’s ascension will significantly assuage public frustration and angst remains to be seen. But the leadership fiasco has been so prolonged and fraught with diffidence it is hard to imagine the electorate will be all that forgiving in the long term. In her outgoing address as Prime Minister, Julia Gillard readily admitted that “politicians aren’t fashionable in the Australian community”.

One thing is certain: the electorate’s typical level of cynicism has increased. A survey commissioned by the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advancing Journalism shows the public’s already waning faith in politics has deteriorated beyond expectations.

Distrust and suspicion have reached a critical intersection. Here they have collided with long-held prejudices to produce a mangled and viscerally discharged form of hatred—the infamously ostentatious and the scandalously "private"—packaged variously as humour, boys-being-boys catharsis or, more brazenly, honest and valid opinion.

No doubt about it: some of us are not just frustrated but demonstrably incensed.While much protest comes from incorrigible buffoons, considerate
Australians are also expressing their dissatisfaction (in ways not nearly as puerile and moronic, I should add).

Political philosopher, Tim Soutphommasane wonders whether the electorate’s evolving discontent can, in part, be attributed to parliament’s lack of cultural diversity. That there is a dearth of non-Anglo MPs is plain to see. That apparatchiks swarm in increasing numbers to lean on political process is not so visible. Yet the impact of this event is no less real, and having a parliament comprised of individuals from a range of social and professional backgrounds is just as important as one that displays a range of skin tones.

When parliamentary membership inadequately reflects the cultural and social makeup of Australia, the under-represented feel alienated. Naturally, such alienation decays confidence. 

“Public institutions only function when they enjoy the confidence of citizens. This concerns not only whether institutions serve us well, but whether they are representative of us too,” writes Soutphommasane.

He then floats the idea of primary pre-selections as a means to reinvigorate political engagement. In theory it is simple enough. Residents of a given electorate/state are assigned a portion of the ballot (with the remaining portion assigned to the party’s state or national executive) to select the candidate that best addresses their issues—similar to the pre-selection of presidential candidates in the United States. This is not a novel idea but it should not be dismissed.

It is an idea embraced by an erstwhile Labor leader. In his recent Quarterly Essay, Not Dead Yet: Labor's Post-Left Future, Mark Latham recommends the ALP implement a primary pre-selection system for contested seats. The benefit of such a system, writes Latham, is it ensures “that nobody can become a Labor candidate without forging a reputation for community engagement, and winning the trust of branch members, community groups and progressively minded residents”.

Who knows? Had this system been introduced sooner perhaps it could have reduced the inane noise from the gaggle flocking to peck around Martin Ferguson’s seat of Batman. Perhaps it could have helped to restore some trust in our politicians.

In 1999 esteemed political scientist Robert W. Cox lamented an abstraction: “increasingly politics are not about choices concerning the future of society but rather about choices among competing sets of would-be managers of the status quo”. Fourteen years later, these words resonate acutely within the Australian political landscape. If we were only given a chance to vet these “would-be managers of the status quo”! Maybe we could stop the rot, banish them to careers where their narcissistic affectations could flourish without consequence.

We need grounded and empathetic leaders to define a new standard for public office, where they are less beholden to unions, big business, or factional politics.

A quote from Thomas Jefferson might seem breathless to a post-Twitter audience, so here’s one from the redoubtable John McTernan Malcolm Tucker, one that sums up my message to disconnected politicos who continue to operate willfully and/or ignorantly outside of the Australian communities they are supposed to represent: “Come the f--k in or f--k the f--k off!”

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