Part XII: Transformation through Re-Self-Organization!
Some Political Reflections on Engaged Engagement* 0. Preamble The results of the Australian elections in 2010 have given us a hung parliament. In this paper I would like to reflect on what might be entailed in engaged engagement in the political arena? First, I would like to look at the influence of poll-driven campaigns on both sides of politics as an instance of a non-authentically engaged form of political life. Second, I would like to look at the engaged role independents might have to play in order to break that type of policy-formation that appears to be aimed at ‘the marginals in the marginals’, i.e., the swinging voters in marginal electorates? To conclude I would like to see if we can come to some conclusions about the nature of a more authentic engagement with the country in general, the electorate in particular and specific issues. (0)
1. Introduction Immediately before the 21st of August, 2010, the actual day for voting, polls were pointing to the increased likelihood of a hung parliament although the betting moneys placed were still indicating a Labor win if only by a small margin. In an analysis of the polling trends, states by states, regions within states, have revealed a number of quite contrary trends. Queensland experienced a shift to the Liberal Coalition of about 6 percent. Labour experienced a lesser shift against it in NSW although in some regions they also increased their polling numbers. In WA the trend against the Labor government did not substantially materialize whilst in SA and Victoria Labor did very well. Some commentators would argue that disaffection with State Labor in NSW, and especially in Queensland, contributed to these swings. However, on the Central Coast of NSW these adverse trends for Labor were in the opposite direction or not so adverse. Much concern was voiced by commentators, in the light of a flood of polls, that there was a Western Sydney effect where increased migration, lack of infrastructure, congestion, a perception of State Labor ‘incompetence’ all contributed to a sense of dissatisfaction with the so-called ‘Labor brand’. Certain infamous ‘leaks’ in the second week of the campaign also added to this sense of malaise and from which the newly replaced Labour Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, had a difficult job of turning around especially in the light of the campaign run by the opposition leader Tony Abbott and his tendency to reduce complex issues to simple formulaic sound-bites. Both campaigns, it would seem, were geared towards these ‘marginals in the marginals’ as I have labelled these relatively right-of-center swinging voters. With both campaigns aimed at this narrow sector of the population on many issues there would be little difference between Labor policies and coalition polices and, as a result, some commentators have argued the result was a hung parliament where, ultimately, on balance, people could not see a real difference between these two parties. Can this interpretation be argued for? Let me examine this ‘reading’ and its implication for an authenticity of engagement? (1)
*Latest version: www.homestead.com/noelshomepage/noelshomepage4.html
2. Government by Polls? Democracy can never be absolutely democratic! Hence the need for a representative democracy. However, we should also note that, equally, a representative democracy cannot be an absolutely representative democracy. If we were to continually poll the populace we would need to ask who formulates the questions for the poll, and, how were they framed, and, how would certain determinations determined through polls be enacted, when would they be enacted, and, importantly, how should that poll be constructed… on a first past the post? …some form of proportional voting? …to what extent would a tyranny of the majority be allowed to exercise its right of the majority? ...how often should polls be conducted? …and how often should changing poll-results be allowed to counter previous polls..? Then, in this we should also ask to what extent public opinion is being manufactured by the media and others forces manipulating/being manipulated by the same? All in all a recipe for an absolute nightmare! Better to let our representatives represent us and, hopefully, act on a sense of conscience that promotes the whole rather than some part whether that part be relatively dominant or relatively non-dominant. To be quite blunt, to conduct a democracy on the basis of polls is not an authentic way to run government nor an authentic way to run an election campaign!1 (2)
This consensus has also been recently arrived at in the context of the hung parliament realized in the 2010 Australian federal elections? A superficial reading might regard both parties, Labor and Coalition, as equally doing this practice of risk-averse, poll-driven lack of leadership and vision. That, on balance, it may well have been the few visionary policies promoted by the part of Labor, more on the margins, such as the Nation Broadband Network rollout, that may have well defused this bifurcation of political will, or rather, a relative lack of political will? A number of commentators, including pollsters themselves, have decried the use of polls to formulate policies and drive a risk averse political economy when such tools should be seen as ‘adjuncts’ and not something that should be central to policy-formulation.2 Let me dissect this apparent phenomenon in a philosophical framework and later contrast it with what might be considered to be an engaged political process. (3)
Polls can be useful tools in the market place of ideas. They can be used to give us feedback on certain issues and even discern what issues need to be noticed. New ‘products’ can be test-run within the controlled confines of a small group and its opinions tabulated and statistically analysed, etc. However, this motivation is no substitute for the formulation of policies in an engaged political marketplace! (4)
What ‘motivation’ seems to have overridden the use of this tool and promoted it to a central place in the dissemination of political information about the required processes of redirection and re-direction felt to be needed to be exercised in the re-organization of that ‘political economy’? Democratic candidates, parties and leaders are elected (on various levels of the political hierarchy). Survival demands a successful election or re-election. Strategies are put in place in order to achieve this type of objective. Such an objective is quite different from the exercise of political power, however, a democratic politician needs to be democratically elected in order to function in this political scheme of things and both spheres are interrelated in a variety of ways. E.g., in order to be elected or re-elected a politician will need to engage with their electorate and, by such means, will find they need to account for what ‘they stand for’ and be accounted for ‘where they have stood’ along with developing a basic understanding of the real ‘issues’ of that electorate, etc.3 Or, poor policies, poor communicative performance and the poor exercise of that policy mix can also be a reason for politicians to find themselves not being elected or re-elected. So, although these two domains are separate in the course of political life they are also highly interrelated in a democratic arena. Such a relationship, between the process of being elected and the political exercise of that election, needs to be adequately engaged.4 In this recent election alluded to we have, rightly or wrongly, an example interpreted or misinterpreted as an instance where a desire to be re-elected appears to have overridden the exercise of that election if it were to be achieved: the independent Andrew Wilkie suggested that the Hobart Hospital might need up to one billion dollars to be rebuilt and Tony Abbott, needing his vote, in part, to become Prime Minister promised this figure without accounting for how such a sum would be arrived at through due process. This ‘apparent’ recklessness was offered as one reason why this independent could not back Abbott. Whether this interpretation is correct or incorrect this type of point has been raised with that type of adverse inference by both this independent and the media. Then, again, a recent criticism of recent political practice by the ex-Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser that these days politicians spend too much time raising money for the re-election of both themselves and their parties.5 This is undoubtedly a problem in American politics and hopefully we don’t head further in that unsavoury direction! Suffice to say that a proper and appropriate balance needs to be in place between these two types of political practice (although it could also be said that fund-raising, ethically conducted, could also be seen as a test of the potential and actual effectiveness of those policies being disseminated by a particular party, etc. But this information would be better determined in a more time-effective manner through the use of polls, noting concerns raised by the public, issues raised in the media, etc.).6 (5)
For what reasons have the use of polls appeared to have become more central to contemporary political practice? Reasons might be divided between finding a passive understanding of where the electorate is and an active need to re-shape that same electorate. Interest in these senses of reflection and re-shaping are shared immediately by the politicians themselves, the media, and, indirectly, by the public. Between these three spheres, complex processes of interaction can occur that overlap with intended and unintended consequences. (6)
What are political historians going to say about the Australian Federal Election 2010? Highly likely, in my opinion, they are going to say the Australian Labor Party was poorly served in the form of advice it appears to have acted upon. Policies and positions needed to be better explained both before and during this campaign. Certain issues should have been highlighted rather than retreated from. We have only to note Tony Abbots relentlessly repeated formulae to see where Labor should have aggressively engaged in this regard. “Stop the waste” – this myth of waste, rightly or wrongly, needed to be neutralized; not by running away from it but by admitting what waste had occurred and what measures were now in place to see that this would not be re-occurring. ‘Waste’ in the school program was not a great as projected by the opposition. Furthermore, the level of debt needed to be put in a suitable context or contrast and this was well-handled by Julia Gillard noting that in an income of $100,000 current debt was no more than $6,000 in comparison. “No big new tax” – was also an indirect fear campaign run very successfully by the Opposition when they should not have been able to get away with such nonsense.7 Abbott was going to tax big business for his overly generous maternity care scheme (another form of upper-middle class welfare?). Eventually, at some point when the budget was balanced, it would have reverted to a scheme fully paid for by the government (and, therefore, a form of welfare). The ‘mining tax’ was only a tax on mining companies whose profits in relation to costs of production overtime have greatly benefited the mining companies.8 That a successful scare campaign could be run on this type of topic indicates just how the dominant political discourse was seized and maintained by the Opposition.9 (7)
I am of the belief, more perhaps an intuition, that a dumbing down on both sides of the political spectrum was achieved, first, by the non-fear of polls for the first two years of the Labor government by that government along with a sense of complacency accompanying the same (with an attendant lack of explanation of policies, a lack of attention to their execution, etc.), and, a fear by both parties of polling figures or, rather adverse poll figures especially as the time of election became imminent. Then, with both parties very close in the polls just before and during the election campaign both major parties adopted a risk-adverse type of process. No doubt Tony Abbott’s minders were fearful that he would be unscripted in an adverse fashion (exposed, e.g., in his lack of attention to his National Broadband Policy?)? On the other hand, advice received by the Labor Party was that polling in the Western Sydney electorates were indicating a major loss of confidence in the Labor brand; this level of discontent spilling over into a federal arena. That there was also a similar phenomenon in the Labor state of Queensland? Consequently, the marginals voters, in key marginal seats, were especially focused upon in a risk adverse tailoring of policies in the framework of an agenda already seized by the Opposition (itself also beholden to a similar relationship with these ‘same’ polls?)? Now, this might have had adverse, unintended consequences for the country as a whole, however, it could also be argued that the West Sydney electorates, generally, continued to be held by Labor. I would argue, however, that a dumbing down of the campaign, in its risk-adverse nature, a lack of seizing back the dominant political discourse headed this country to a hung parliament and that the Labor government saved the day for itself with a few risk-adverse policies in the form of the National Broadband Network rollout, already underway, the ‘successful’ prosecution of a mining tax, policies on superannuation, etc., versus the relative deficit of initiatives on the side of the Opposition (except their overly generous maternity leave?). In the light of my intuitive observations and reflections let me later propose a few tentative conclusions in this regard. (8)
2. Some Other Considerations on the Nature of Engaged Governance? The hung parliament of 2010, in Australia, has found a sense of resolution through the decisions of a few independents and one Green member in the House of Representatives. The magic number of 76 seats, out of 150 seats in the Lower House, was finally achieved by Labor on 7 September. Let me ask if the chaotic nature of this particular parliament, in and off itself, is a positive or a negative for good governance? (9)
In this set of essays, chaotic phenomena are suggested to manifest as points of bifurcation that can be harnessed for either good or ill, manipulated non-adversely or adversely, or, existentially engaged in a greatly enhanced manner before the window of the advent of negative unintended consequences also manifests themselves. It would appear that the quality of the independents thrown up in this election, overall, to be of ‘good heart’ (even if certain solutions proposed by some may well be impracticable). Furthermore, a cooperative integrity by the same will be demanded since it is obvious that the Opposition will conduct a “ferocious campaign” to call the government to account, i.e., de-stabilize this government (and not indulge in the practice “of a more gentle polity” as once advocated although, sadly, only for a short period of time during the negotiations for the crucial votes of these independents). Where are we heading? Undoubtedly we will be “moving forward” into interesting times! Already, certain considerable reforms in the field of political process have been achieved (rather than excessive items of pork-barrelling that could have occurred [and might well have been promoted and orchestrated with inducements offered from the Coalition?])? Chaotic points of re-direction can be successfully realized through a spirit of engaged cooperation. In this light, I am hopeful that political donations, excessive expenditure on political advertising can also be better regulated? A spirit of cooperation appears to be in evidence with the Greens and the apparent wisdom of their manoeuvres will be closely observed by the electorate as a whole should they find the major parties continuing in a risk adverse mode and mentality?th Furthermore, the close cooperation of most of the independents is also in evidence and hopefully this ‘spirit of cooperate engagement’ will be maintained over the next three years?! But time will tell if this trend for political engagement will find itself subverted by events and/or political forces or successfully augmented? (10)
3. Some Tentative Conclusions? Polls are obviously a political tool that cannot be avoided. However, they should be used as ‘adjuncts’ rather than the ‘drivers’ of political policies. It is also probably a good idea to ban them (or proscribing their dissemination in the media) during or just after the start of an election campaign (on the grounds that they can be used to adversely influence governance, and, that as an unintended consequence they can also be used to drive opinion rather than merely reflect it?)? Furthermore, a ban on the publishing of polls during campaigns might also make for a more informed field of commentary rather than the horse-race type of mentality where commentators merely comment on polls rather than real issues, etc. Parties need to existentially seize the dominant discourse in an adequate existentially engaged manner, i.e., properly, appropriately and validly. This could be done through the effective use of policies that directly engage real issues through their careful formulation, explanation, etc. The envisaged advent, to that extent possible, of unintended consequences should also be engaged proactively. The misuse of polling is warping the body politic through a number of reasons noted in the course of this short paper. Is this effect, however, less a cause from polling, etc., and more a symptom of a deeper malaise where the practice of politics has become ‘more spin and sound-bites’ rather a ‘substantial food to nourish the political soul’? (11)
To be engaged means to be engaged and not merely to be seen to be engaged! In a representative democracy let our representatives represent us in all senses of that expression and not merely reflect a representation of where we currently stand in regard to certain media isolated and disseminated issues. In all of this we can only hope that politicians will successfully and existentially drive these same polls rather than be driven by the same! Hopefully, this existentially conducted ‘spirit of engagement’ can be extended from the top down and from the bottom up in a harmonized re-direction of political policies, practices and consequences in all arenas of political engagement..!! (12)
Noël Tointon, Sydney, 15.9.10.
Polls like all tools are ‘two-edged swords’! They can be used properly and improperly. Imagine the following hypothetical scenario. A certain chain of newspapers and/or a political organization decides or decide to initiate a certain scare campaign. They will do this by continually re-iterating a certain message, say, e,g., that the government is mishandling a certain program and that the ensuing waste of public finances, etc., should be something the public is concerned about. Then, after instigating this program, a certain poll will be conducted ‘questioning’ this public concern. Now, we should ask, why should members of the public be asked their opinion about a certain topic if these same members of the public asked for their opinion have no good access to the information needed to make an informed judgment in this regard. It is rather circular to ask people for their opinion when you have already, to some extent, manufactured that opinion or, at least, manufactured a heightened concern in that regard? (13)
Polls conducted in the context of certain campaigns of misinformation now seem to be an unfortunate fact of political life? We have recently been subjected to the spectacle of The Australian declaring that it is out to destroy the Greens and, no doubt, by extension, all who associate with their ‘ilk’ be they Labor or Independents.10 Should we not be disgusted with this rampant display of editorialising blatantly promoted in sections of the paper traditionally reserved for news content? In the light of such propaganda, linked with campaigns of informational manipulation, would it not be reasonable to ask that polls be banned during election campaigns in order to restore a more level playing field in this regard? (14)
In this light, polls can be a bit like asking misleading presuppositional questions such as “is President Obama a Moslem?” Or, “would you be concerned if the President were a Moslem” and by such strange questions sow seeds of doubt in the public mind in this regard. That 10% of the American population should believe such nonsense is an indication that public media (and its extension through the Internet) is failing to address such issues and engage in an existential manner with the public? How should the public misinformation of information be handled and rectified? Let me address this in my next paper dealing with the temporal nature of the process of value-formation. N, 16.9.10.
1 Polls, among other things, can be done and selectively released or not released when it suits the persons organizing that poll (as, e.g., a chain of newspapers would be able to do, or, a political party could find a political edge by conducting better polling than some other political party). Then, polls cannot only reflect the state of current consensus but also create a consensus or non-consensus. Moreover, polls can be used to find ‘issues’, much beloved of the media, and through their publicity create a pressure on policy formation or reformation regardless of whether those ‘issues’ need that level of a media/government attention. Lastly, a government intent on running a risk adverse set of policies, informed by polling, is not to existentially engage in the act of governance as will be examined later in this paper, etc.
2 E.g., we have the retiring Labor pollster Rod Cameron making this type of comment on the ABC program Lateline, 8.9.10.
3 By ‘real issues’ are the concerns and prevalence and intensity of those concerns raised directly by the electorate (rather than as filtered by the media or focus groups or concerns voiced by the party itself).
4 I.e., properly, appropriately and validly, and, that professional standards be proscribed and evaluated through such criteria.
5 This comment has been made on the ABC program Q & A where Malcolm Fraser has made a recent re-appearance.
6 These issues concerning the efforts a candidate must make to raise funds for their party or their own political candidacy need to be re-addressed. I would strongly suggest that political advertising needs to be limited, paid for by the state and other donations obtained from individuals only, and all of this conducted in a fully transparent manner! Personally, I would ban television advertising. With the advent of the Internet even print publishing could be effectively limited.
7 Another scare campaign was run over “stopping the boats” which, however ludicrous the concept, it had the effect of resurrecting unsettling issues still not properly dealt with by both political parties. However, I am also of the belief that this rerun of a much beloved Coalition practice had much less effects on the country as a whole (and that perhaps we have had a certain degree of inoculation to this issue since the Tampa Incident, The Children Overboard Affair, Pauline Hanson and the deconstruction of One Nation?).
8 Accurate figures for prices of commodities should have been widely disseminated! I believe, from what meagre information I received in that regard, that over ten years coal prices have risen nine times, over the last three years iron ore has risen four times. Gold has also risen considerably. Costs of production should not have risen to the same degree, and, royalties are not a good way to tap into that stream of profit as they tax the quantity of the raw resource itself (whether the company concerned is making a profit or not). Taxes are notoriously slow in reaping their due share of income, etc. Lastly, it is wrong to cast aspersions on those economists, etc., who formulated this type of tax as they should have also seen to what extent intended and unintended consequences might also flow from the same and in the light of such reflections minimize what adverse features it might possess. A slight slowing of production might also be seen as advantageous since the rest of Australia is going to have to pay for the inflationary consequences of a mining boom (along with its demand for resources) and the adverse effects a raised currency, as a consequence, would have in the arenas of agricultural, manufacturing, tourism, etc.
9 This topic of ‘having seized/seizing back’ the ‘dominant/major discourse’ versus non-dominant/minor discourses will be examined in much greater depth in my fifteenth essay. I am alluding here to philosophical ideas introduced and developed by Foucault and Deleuze in this regard?
th Current trends (as polled) suggest they are rapidly becoming a third party on the stage of Australian politics?
10 The reader might like to refer to an article discussing this in the blog Crickey.com on September 9th written by Jeremy Sears. Refer to this blog www.crikey.com This article can be found on the following link: http://blogs.crikey.com.au/purepoison/2010/09/09/the-australian-announces-that-it-wants-to-destroy-the-greens/