Monday, 16 August 2010

Mediating Cynicism

Election time in Australia again, and for those who have been living under a rock it really is a petty election. Both parties are out there desperately trying to show that the other is not fit for government, and the issues that the election is hinging around are a joke. In the senate, unless you want number every candidate your preferences are dictated by back room deals. We are run by career politicians who deal in media sound-bytes that seldom reflect how government is really run. And worst of all is that both major parties have almost identical platforms yet there is such a deep polemic undercurrent.

So it is really easy to be cynical, and from what I can see a lot of people are taking that path. And for the most part that cynicism is justified. What I want to distinguish between is that cynicism about particular aspects to a cynicism in the sense of futility and acquiescence about the entire process. While there is much to be critical of and certain aspects are beyond our control, it's hard to deny that a lot of the process actually works quite well.

A victim of its own success
To look at countries like Italy, Thailand, and Fiji there's something this country must be doing right. Instead of having massively corrupt politicians and the country sitting on the verge of dictatorship, we've got two parties that argue over little things. While some candidates are religious, there's little chance of pushing towards a religious obtrusion unlike Turkey, and somewhat in the United States. And forget about the risk of poisoning for our leader (Ukraine), or riots in the street (France), compared to all that endless political slogans and pork barrelling seem mild in comparison.

While it's far from perfect, it's important to remember that things do to an extent work here. While there are quarrels over the state of our healthcare system, it's important to remember that we do have one and those quarrels are over efficacy and efficiency. Funding for schools isn't about the need to have schools or the importance of public education, but where the best bang-for-buck is. The infrastructure here isn't all bad even if there's the lacking of more modern projects such as high-speed rail and telecommunications. There is a lot of waste in government departments, but it's hard to deny that those departments are useless.

Right now the main issues are to what percentage mining should be taxed and illegal migration, issues about economy have largely dried up as the two major parties both tout similar economic credentials and practices. The battle becomes over wedge issues because moral issues are what get people passionate.

Wedge politics and pork barrelling
Each election there are two real battles going on. The first battle takes place in marginal seats, where the results of between 10 and 20 seats show which way the government is going to swing. The second is for the balance of power in the senate.

There's no use for a political party not to focus on those marginal seats. If those seats are the ones that an election will hinge on, then the party that doesn't do so is effectively giving up. Because of that it's only fair to take any policy offered in the context of those marginal seats. Perhaps the internet filter doesn't poll well amount the majority, but does it among swing voters in marginal seats? If so then it's no surprise that it's still being pushed. It's also no surprise that a disproportionate amount of funding goes to marginal seats.

Now the balance of power in the senate makes for a qualifier. As seen in 2004, having a bad leader can have catastrophic consequences so there is at least some check for overall policy. And brought in to play are minority parties, where back-room preference deals can decide the senate composition. But at least there's a state-wide ability for proportional representation with 6 senators where a simple majority has the all-or-nothing in the lower house.

A reflection of us
It's easy to write off politicians for engaging in this sort of behaviour, but what should be the take-home message is that these tactics are done because they work. We can complain that politicians don't believe anything any more, then at the same time dismiss those who do as ideologues. The whack-jobs are those who have ideologies we disagree with - no wonder opinion polls and wedge politics are at the heart of campaigning.

And that's where cynicism is becoming unhelpful, the politicians are damned if they do and damned if they don't. Nationwide policies are framed in terms of the individual because if one party doesn't do it then the other party will. So instead of talking about the National Broadband Network in terms of telecommunications infrastructure it is being argued in terms of personal internet speed. Something is lost when the big picture is being sold in a series of small components.

The proposed internet filter is a great example of this, instead of anyone standing up for the ideal of freedom of expression one of the major parties is putting it in terms of protecting children and the other opposing it on the grounds that it wouldn't work. The leader of the opposition just a few years ago couldn't even trust women to make a choice about the manner by which to get an abortion and tried to keep a particular treatment under his discretion.

Controlled Cynicism
To my mind the cynicism divorces you from the political process, which guarantees that those issues won't be addressed. If those tactics work on the people that matter then there's no reason for politicians to move away from them. Heck, it might be like America were some politicians even pander to the cynicism in order to get elected. I hate big government and want to see Obama's birth certificate before he throws my Grandma into a death camp!

Firstly I see satire as playing an important role because that exposes the nonsense. But that should only ever be a starting point, just as being sceptical shouldn't lead to the denial of any knowledge. If people aren't getting it, engage with them and explain what these tricks are. If the society pushes for a better class of politician then they will be forced to provide.

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