Trending politics is damaging our democracy

June 18, 2013

By Emily Millane

A friend of mine recently wrote an article in an Australian music magazine which asked: is the album dead?

Daft Punk’s much-anticipated album, Random Access Memories was launched in May this year with more than the usual amount of media hype. It went straight to the top of the charts here and internationally.

Some two weeks later, the album had stopped trending on Twitter. To the unacquainted, this means that it dropped off the proverbial radar. Such is the collective desire to consume, devour and discard.

Our consumption fetish has spilled over into our political culture. Today’s Government is yesterday’s papers. Today’s Prime Minister is yesterday’s woman. The Government has been dumped without an election having been conducted. As Barrie Cassidy put it, the upcoming election is more like a handover.

Why does any of this matter? It matters because the speed of our eat-it-up and spit-it-out political debate is having a detrimental effect on our public institutions and democracy itself.

In a liberal democracy such as ours, it is incumbent on the electorate to be informed about politics and to make informed political decisions at the ballot box. Only then can our system of representative government be truly representative. If this sounds like politics 101, it is. The system works imperfectly at the best of times, but it’s the system we’ve got.

In turn, the electorate depends on the media to disseminate and interrogate the ideas which the parties put forward. With the proliferation of media sources from online newspapers and other media outlets to Twitter, the modern electorate consumes its media – and therefore its politics – at a more rapid rate and in smaller bytes. Too bad if the subject doesn’t fit the form: the form rules.

To take one example. A senior government minister was recently at the opening of a public facility. During the tour of the facility, the minister’s advisors became aware of four new areas of questioning which journalists would direct to the minister at the end of the tour when the minister fielded questions. These questions were not necessarily in the minister’s portfolio area. The advisors sent through dot-point responses to the minister’s Blackberry which the minister checked briefly before the end of the tour. The minister then fielded questions from the media and gave responses to the questions, based on the hastily compiled email received during the tour. It’s the age of Blackberry briefings, and a fear that saying “I haven’t formed a view as yet” is tantamount to the greater crime of “I just don’t know”.

The increasing reliance on technology is not, of itself the issue. The issue is the expectation that the minister should be fully charged with the information and knowledge to provide a considered response to political issues as they arise. We wouldn’t expect this of other people in positions of responsibility in our society. Imagine asking a doctor to give a diagnosis or a judge to hand down a decision on the basis of a few bullet points. If anything, we would castigate them for being irresponsible.

So why are our political ideas different? Do we value them less? More likely, it’s indicative of the contempt with which we regard our politicians and the major political parties. They may as well be speaking in tongues; such is the scant attention we pay to the detail of what they’re saying.

Paradoxically, the mark of the next great Australian leader will be their ability to conceive, articulate and carry through a great political idea or set of ideas over a period of time. With the parliamentary cards they’re dealt. Against the internecine wars within their own party. And with the electorate’s media-induced attention deficit disorder.

It’s time to take stock and ask ourselves whether we really want the trend for disposable politics to continue. The media does not exist in a vacuum: wearing its consumer cap, the electorate can choose to delve into media sources that present more detailed political analysis. At the end of the day we’re not Liking or Tweeting or hashtagging our elected representatives. We’re voting for a government and we’re shaping society. #itsdemocracystupid.