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A Syria not so far away from our election


Man in suit playing shell game

A collective sigh of relief could be detected rising from the nation as our political leaders briefly turned their attention from the election campaign to events in war-torn Syria.

Partly it was an expression of relief at having a diversion from the dreariest political contest in living memory. Partly it was a reaction to being suddenly confronted by something real, something concrete, after weeks of chimera and empty rhetoric.

Syria’s murderous ordeal and Australia’s contemporary political experience at first glance may seem completely unrelated, and yet certain themes resonate between them. Of course there is nothing in this country to compare with the internecine bloodshed and cruelty of Syria’s civil war. Reports of an apparent chemical attack on its citizens by the Bashar regime fill us with horror and outrage, as we also reflect that such hatreds and methods are thankfully not part of our reality. 

But what exactly is our national reality? Syria represents the politics of all or nothing, of absolute power as both a means and an end; a state of affairs in which human lives are mere numbers on a casualty list and mercy has become a stranger to justice. Expressed in these terms, could it be that Syria’s experience begins to resonate for Australians, as we prepare to select a new government from the mire of negativity, mistruth and mean-spiritedness in which the major parties have chosen to wrestle for our votes?

The thought was prompted by an ABC TV news report mentioning the Liberal Party’s forthcoming attack ads, which one source said would 'make the Somme look like a Sunday picnic’. Crass and disrespectful of the victims of the First World War killing ground, the remark saw fit to compare our political process to a mindless slaughter. Similarly, in Labor’s television ads – reminiscent of the Grim Reaper campaign during the AIDS scare in the 1980s – hapless ‘victims’ of Coalition policies are consigned to oblivion. 

It is one thing to hold passionately to one’s political beliefs, but quite another to turn a contest of social values and spending priorities into an all-or-nothing, winner-take-all, blood sport. Of course we are talking about representations and not realities, inclinations not facts. Like the commercial radio host heard recently explaining that he did not need to provide balanced or factual political coverage ‘because I’m an opinionator’. 

I assumed he had made up the word but sadly discovered it already existed (my Google search also listed ‘opinionator anxiety’ and ‘opinionator idiot’s delight’). It is no longer sufficient just to counter an opponent’s opinion; he or she must be ridiculed, humiliated and obliterated. And if you don’t like what he’s saying, tell him to shut up. Show no mercy. Or spread the fear that he will show no mercy.

Who of us is not fed up with this charade? Who is still listening when $5 million, $50 million or $500 million is promised for some football stadium, road upgrade or shiny new benefit? At the past two state elections, both major parties promised to install an elevator at our local railway station (which serves a community with a large proportion of retirees). Ten years later nothing has been done. Election promises, too, have become representations, theatrics, not realities.

Regardless of who wins on 7 September, this unwilling suspension of disbelief called the three-year federal electoral cycle will give way to a political reality bearing no resemblance to the Somme, the Plague or present-day Syria. Supposedly sacrosanct policies will be re-forged in the fire of parliamentary and budget realities and emerge in other forms. In many cases they’ll be better for it. The electorate – regardless of whom one has voted for – will survive. The lights will not go out. The practical business of governing will stumble on in the twilight of everyday life. 

In an uglier place, at an uglier time, our politics would truly be a winner-take-all contest: television ads would be poisonous gas and campaign songs the rattle of machine guns. Why is it, during our own festival of democracy, precious and privileged as it is, Australians prefer to hold up a mirror to the ugly side of humanity? It is a dangerous indulgence that leaves us all a little smaller, a little frailer, a little less kind.

Walter Hamilton headshotWalter Hamilton is a former ABC correspondent and author of ‘Children of the Occupation: Japan’s Untold Story’.

Grim Reaper image by Shutterstock.

Topic tags: Walter Hamilton, Syria, Grim Reaper, politics, election, Liberal, Coalition, Labor, ALP, advertising



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Existing comments

A kinder Australia? An Australian Icon is defined as “an image or symbolic representation, which often holds great significance and importance to the Australian culture.” Every country has icons that represent their culture and values; Nelson Mandela is an example of a South African icon but also an icon of the world, who represented statesmanship, courage, freedom and equality against apartheid. Australia also has many significant icons such as the Sydney Opera House, vegemite, the Kangaroo, Ned Kelly, and the Koala to name a few. These have all played significant parts in Australia’s background, culture and values.

Annoying Orange | 27 August 2013  

Perhaps the radio host confused "opinionator" with "terminator" in the inadvertent sense? The termination of commonsense? I think we get many of our "combat" images from our predilection for sport where winning the Ashes is right up there with Gallipoli. Because it shows we are all heroes? Correction, the young men sacrificed at Gallipoli were. All our politicians need to take a mental opening dose and let it work in private. Our forbears, both here and abroad sacrificed much for what we have today. Young people need to be taught this whether at school or by TV or other media. We need to own our past as Americans do.

Edward F | 27 August 2013  

It is my 'opinion' that Mr Abbott has introduced lack of respect for people, and personal attacks into our political discourse. Unfortunately Labor seem to believe that this is the direction that our politics should go.

Tim Collier | 28 August 2013  

There seems to be two mutually exclusive ways of judging success in politics. 1. to build up the Common Wealth of the Nation. To achieve this, tax the bloated "earnings" of the super rich, and use it to boost the Nation's infra-structure such as the NBN, fast rail links between capial cities, but especially by educating the 'battlers' so they can achieve their full potential. The wealth of Nations is in the capability of its people. 2. to get elected. To achieve this, tax the poor and boost the rich. The rich have better resources to elect whoever supports them, and to fob off the aspirations of the poor with deceitful slick slogans and fear mongering. They will also fight harder to defend and increase their wealth than the poor will to make the effort to become better educated, because much of the effort of the poor is used up in the battle to survive.

Robert Liddy | 28 August 2013  

One of the things I find disquieting in modern politics is the tendency for parties to claim that if they win an election they have a mandate to follow out their policies that are a conglomeration of the ideas they placed before the people in election advertising and from political ideology. our Westminster system of government is based on having an independent Civil (Public) service that is staffed by experts and advisors that than scrutinise all legislation before it is placed before parliament.

John ozanne | 28 August 2013  

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