field notes from an election


The formula for election 2013 is by now cast in concrete. The press gallery are being subjected to a degrading series of set-piece doorstops designed to click neatly into the nightly news, and a reasonable number of them are playing along. The Murdoch press have cheerfully abandoned all pretence of impartial reportage and have seamlessly integrated themselves into the Abbott campaign; front page after front page hurled against any chance of an ALP win, with a side-dish of hit pieces on the Greens to keep things fair and balanced.

I’ve now lost count of the number of candidate forums I’ve spoken at with an empty chair reserved for a no-show Coalition candidate. The strategy here is to avoid actual human contact with voters while providing a measured stream of perfectly targeted Putin-style photo-ops for ranks of TV cameras. Abbott in a flouro vest, again. Abbott training to repel traumatised refugees with a platoon of fit young soldiers at Robertson Barracks. Cut back to another flouro vest, nameless candidates ranged behind in some kind of warehouse, nodding as the talking points of the day are delivered like a metronome. It is so tightly scripted that in any given interview it’s not clear whether the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition would pass a Turing test.

If opinion polls tell us anything, it’s that elections in Australia are still won and lost on the front page of tabloid newspapers and the nightly news. There are still brilliant journalists working on all platforms, providing the investigation and the analysis that should inform the workings of a democracy, but they are simply swamped by the sound-grabs designed to inflame talkback radio and the column-kilometres of appalling intelligence abatement rolling off the presses every morning. The ability to transform the decadal holocaust of global warming into an irritating socialist conspiracy to impose a new tax shows just how badly the sensory systems of our democracy have broken down.

Meanwhile, online, a raucous counter-conversation is unfolding at the margins of the deadening futility of the faux contest over whether to vote for coke or pepsi. If you want intelligent conversation, analysis and blistering argument over the future of our country, it’s there if you go looking for it. The Abbott team has dipped a toe in the water of this conversation by orchestrating an army of fake twitter followers to mechanically retweet their carnivorous leader kissing people in creepy ways. One day, elections will be decided on the internet. This is not that day.

Australia is a multi-party democracy, one of the oldest in the world. A slew of new and old parties are contesting this election (some of them little more than preference-harvesting shell entities); but in reality voters are not spoiled for choice. We are free here to express our opinions without too much risk of the door being kicked in at 3am. Although this freedom is being quietly eliminated by indiscriminate surveillance and the deliberate blurring of the boundaries between journalism and terrorism, in 2013 it is possible to believe that we still live in a moderately high-functioning democracy, albeit one that is now flying blind.

Our electoral system, through a century of pushing things uphill, still allows rural independents, greens, pirates and the odd political atavism like the DLP some sway on the machinery of governance, for what it’s worth. The tools of ‘Washminster’, brittle and archaic though they seem, are so much more valuable than we know. Late night budget estimates committees where hard questions can be asked; Auditors General and Ombudsmen digging around in the shadows; the Senate itself, a powerful upper house that permits occasional entry to an unlikely assemblage of campaigners and advocates. While we watch with incomprehension helter-skelter video feeds of dead and dying families strewn on the streets of hell in Aleppo and Damascus, can we pause and reflect for a moment on how fortunate we are here, and how it might be time to turn our thoughts to what effective democracy on a global scale might look like.

Back at home, the election campaign grinds downhill toward some kind of conclusion. It’s time to ask what an Abbott-Murdoch Government would hold for a 21st century Australia, in the few short days that remain while this is still a matter over which we have some agency. I suspect it will be a grim experiment in what happens when the keys to the executive of a modern state are handed to global mining, media and petrochemical companies. As the architecture of the Clean Energy Act is forcibly dismantled at the hands of the coal and gas industries, the long-overdue surge of investment in renewable power stations will be deliberately crippled even as the weather turns implacably more hostile. It looks like we are all about to be Queenslanded.

There is an alternative, of course: hang the numbers again. Voters of Australia, why not serve up another minority government where Parliament retains its role as a debating and negotiating space. The last time one political formation held all the cards in your Parliament, Work Choices and the terror laws happened. Under minority Government, we wrote the Clean Energy Act which has begun to turn the ship toward a renewable economy.

Multi-party democracy is noisy, awkward, and occasionally ugly, but given the chance, it kind of works. It’s certainly better than some of the alternatives.