Pomp and circumstance

Nine days out from the federal election, Mark Latham emerged from another 30 minute stint of ‘talk back’ claptrap. ‘Well that really set the news agenda for the day’, despaired one Sydney Morning Herald journalist, snapping off her dictaphone in disgust. Labor’s campaign launch was a mere day away, and the Australian voting public had just been treated to another hard-hitting interview: yes, Mark Latham had been present for the birth of his two children; no, he hadn’t brought any massage oil.

Voting at election time is one of our few responsibilities as Australian citizens. However, making that vote an informed choice has become an increasingly difficult burden.

I’ve always been fascinated by the cut and thrust of election campaigning, and the making of an Australian prime minister. Subsequently, I volunteered to follow the Latham campaign as a youth ‘Election Tracker’, and write for an independent website, www.electiontracker.net. My mission, along with three other young volunteers, was to provide an alternative analysis of the campaign than that presented by the rest of the travelling press gallery, while attempting to demystify the ultimate democratic event.

Once every three years, Australians are compelled to choose from a field of political candidates, the one individual best able to present their case and represent the nation’s interests. Part of making this choice includes an opportunity to reflect upon the merits of each candidate before voicing a democratic preference; for once these preferences have been tallied, the electorate is expected to remain largely silent while a new mandate is hastily implemented.

Election campaigns are intended to provide this opportunity for reflection. Now that another election has passed, it is important to ask just how much we learned about the policies on offer. Did the ‘news’ you read, saw or heard provide the analysis required for you to make an informed choice?

One trend that emerged from this election is that the Australian contest has become increasingly presidential. Through the mainstream media’s narrow lens, Australia watched a slogan-filled slugfest between two big spending contenders. As each scripted barb was met by a choreographed riposte, journalists ‘embedded’ in the campaign eagerly redistributed the ‘live action’ recorded from the ringside. And while the cameras and digital recorders were trained on the prime ministerial stoush, those voices calling for attention on behalf of other national issues went unheard.

On the election trail, each ‘embedded’ journalist travels within a whirlwind of spin. From unknown destination to unknown destination, from photo opportunity to press conference, the media’s brief was to spectate, not speculate; we watched what we were brought to watch. Thus, the Australian public became spectators too.

As the campaign progressed, one day morphed into the next; even the media’s questions appeared recycled. Faced with another policy announcement, the Australian Financial Review would ask Mark Latham whether it was fully-funded; Channel Nine or Seven would ask for a response to the Coalition’s response to an earlier announcement; and then one of the major dailies would follow up by asking whether this new spending commitment would negatively impact upon interest rates? By question seven or eight, someone might be so bold as to request additional information on the policy itself. Then question time would be over, leaving the journos an hour or two to peruse that morning’s quotables, file their story, and then board the ‘opportunity express’ to the next marginal seat.

Thankfully, there was always plenty of time to drown one’s sorrows on the campaign trail—one more of the trail’s daily routines.

On the bus, I listened as seasoned journalists commented on how stale and stage-managed election campaigns have become; how politics has been turned into a public relations exercise orchestrated by professional PR firms. Now, the only message left to report is ‘their’ message. The need to feed ‘news’—any news—back to headquarters up to three times a day has left the mainstream media vulnerable to this kind of message management. As the campaign spin doctors starve society of real information, the media quickly devours whatever scraps remain on offer.

While Australians may be compelled to vote, they are not compelled to consume the ‘information’ dished out to them. Labor spent millions of dollars crafting the story of the ‘Boy from Green Vale’, yet Australia’s swinging voters weren’t listening. The federal election may have been one of the most policy-driven campaigns in recent history, yet Labor (through the media lens) failed to convey the merits of those policies to a sceptical electorate. Through a combination of spin and the media’s need for simplicity, their policies were reduced to content-free slogans. In the end, Australia’s swinging voters went with the devil they knew.

After eight years of conservative government in which numerous issues of national importance were raised—immigration detention, climate change, pre-emptive war, national security and our relationship with our region—this election was won on the back of four simple words: ‘Keeping interest rates low’. No matter the forum, the fortunes of Australian families were incessantly portrayed as dependent upon low interest rates, yet where was the debate surrounding this assertion? While economists rallied against the notion that a future federal government, Labor or Liberal, would send interest rates sky-rocketing, the media continued to convey the Coalition’s warning on interest rates to a cautious voting public. They continued to do so because it was all they were hearing on the campaign trail.

Which leads me to ask: just what sort of mandate did the Australian people really give the Coalition for their fourth term? Did the Coalition receive an endorsement for their plans to privatise the rest of Telstra, or to remove unfair dismissal laws for small businesses and restrictions on cross-media ownership? Does a government elected to keep interest rates low hold a universal mandate to rule?

When election campaigns are reduced to a cacophony of competing soundbites, Australian democracy is poorly served. Unfortunately, the future outlook is similarly grim. Election coverage will increasingly be left to junior journalists, campaigns will be ever more tightly managed by public relations firms and the relaxing of cross-media ownership laws will see the range of issues covered contract even further.

The Australian voting public deserves better. Thankfully, the internet is one medium that supports in-depth independent investigation, and even provides an opportunity for debate among citizens. It is here that voters can become informed citizens by supplementing the information they receive from more mainstream mediums.

With fewer time and space constraints, the internet is only going to improve as a medium for political reporting and analysis. And as the internet becomes more mainstream, its capacity to inform voters will grow.

In the interests of democracy in Australia, it is my hope that rather than switching off at the next election, Australians turn on the computer instead. It is there that the Australian voting public will find answers to the questions that were never asked. 

Tim Martyn joined Mark Latham on the federal election campaign trail for as a volunteer youth journalist. He is currently employed as Policy and Research Officer at Jesuit Social Services.



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