Election spin is all Greek to me

Election spin is all Greek to me

03 Aug 2010

daniel-bray-thumbDr Daniel Bray
Email: d.bray@latrobe.edu.au


It’s no wonder so many people feel disengaged with the current election campaign. The main political parties seem intent on neutralising each other on controversial issues and fighting a contest of personalities. This is why there has been so much focus in the media on Julia Gillard’s earlobes and Tony Abbott’s budgie-smugglers. These things may excite some people but it is an indication of the poor standard of political debate in Australia today. 

The leaders’ debate did not engage voters because it was a sterile and stage-managed affair that offered little in the way of actual debate. Unlike the Masterchef finale, there was no passion, there was no immediate prize, and there was no clear winner. Can anyone even remember what Gillard and Abbott argued? Most of the ‘debate’ was a deadening fusion of spin, stereotype and colloquial platitudes. As such, it is highly unlikely that anyone will cast their vote based on the performances in the debate, except perhaps to switch to one of the minor parties.

The core reason why this election campaign will go down as one of the most dreary in Australian history is the main parties have demonstrated a lack of leadership in tackling the core problems of economic reform, climate change and infrastructure development. This is not a lapse or an inherent defect of the main parties; it is, in fact, the basis of their entire political strategy. Leadership on policy issues is just too risky for the main parties because they must hold as much of the centre-ground as possible and there is a risk swinging voters might be alienated by strong policy arguments that seem to clash with their individual beliefs. It’s better to smooth out controversy, strive to be all things to all people, and rely on the personal popularity of the leader.

Political leadership requires someone to provide direction to a community by defining a public problem and arguing for their desired solution. In a democracy, leadership is about mobilising the public in order to address shared problems by gaining support for policy changes through public deliberation. For party leaders, this requires assurance in defining the problem, conviction in the rightness of the desired policy solution, and a willingness to argue for its basic principles against sustained opposition. Neither leader seems in the mood for these kinds of fights in the election campaign.

The Labor Party dare not lead on climate change because it fears many people do not believe in the climate change problem in the first place. And their preferred solution, the CPRS, has effectively been portrayed as a ‘great big new tax’ by the Coalition. As a consequence, Labor has given up on leadership in the climate change debate.

The Coalition cannot provide leadership on industrial relations reform because the majority of the electorate does not see a problem with the current workplace arrangements. In fact, part of the reason why WorkChoices was unpopular is that the Howard Government did not convince the Australian public that there was a problem with industrial relations to begin with. This failure of leadership was terminal for Howard. It allowed WorkChoices to become the problem that had to be solved with the election of Kevin Rudd.   

Where does this leave us with almost three weeks to go in the campaign? Rather than switch off completely or switch to another cooking show, Australians need to look to themselves and other citizens for political leadership. The democratic response to incomprehensible spin is to become more active, more critical, and more creative in the public debates about the problems that exist in our society and the solutions required for dealing with them.

For inspiration, we might draw on democracies of days past because the current problems of spin have a history stretching back two millennia to Ancient Athens. Today, spin takes on new forms in the hands of publicity specialists, pollsters and media managers, but the ancient Athenians also had to deal with the manipulative rhetoric of orators in their democratic assemblies. To combat this, the Athenians had a simple guideline directed at avoiding distortions of the truth or tricky language: public debates had to be guided by parrhesia, roughly translated as ‘frank speech’.

Parrhesia involved an obligation to speak openly and truthfully for the common good. It was an attitude of the good citizen and synonymous with straightforward honesty and personal integrity. Parrhesia was a risky business because it often involved challenging popular views and authority figures, which could lead to personal attacks, or in the case of Socrates, death by execution. Consequently, parrhesia involves courage to speak the truth in spite of danger. For politicians, parrhesia is required when their opinion is contrary to the prevailing sensibilities of the majority and they risk losing popular support.

Gillard and Abbott have built their reputation on ‘frank speech’, but in the risk-averse environment of an election campaign this parrhesia has been consumed by catch-all spin. Before the campaign, Tony Abbott damaged himself when he acknowledged that politicians sometimes distort the truth in the heat of the argument. More recently, voters and media commentators have been wondering where the straight-talking Julia Gillard has gone. In recent days, she has signaled an intention to be more ‘real’, but her call for another debate is hardly the way to reign in political spin.  

What this election campaign needs to engage the electorate is some political leadership combined with a generous dose of frank speech from the main parties. But we are unlikely to get it. Gillard and Abbott seemed to have calculated that leadership is not for the election campaign; the risks involved are for the relative safety of incumbency where temporary collapses in popular support can be rectified before facing the ballot box.

In our representative democracy, the obligations of frank speech fall most heavily on our elected leaders. Citizens need to have clear and comprehensible information about how each party will tackle the problems of Australian society. When all we get is election spin, it is not surprising that many people prefer to tune into something else.

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