A happy country indeed

Election campaigns are fascinating events for a social scientist. In a poor country with lots of tensions, the issues would be about survival and bitter divisions, whilst in some sedate countries with no problems election campaigns are about the length of socks. Hence the issues in the election tell you about the state of the country. What is particularly striking about the current Australian election campaign? There are 5 loose observations that caught my eye:

1. The blatant display of the growth fetish. Economic prosperity and economic growth just dominate. Its the official slogan of one side and the unofficial one of the other side. This is despite the mublings of mainstream religion (that frowns on all this greed on display), despite the clear tradeoff between the environment and growth, despite the worries about families not coping with the stress of the 24-hour economy (something you only hear about in between election campaigns), despite the fact that large groups at the bottom have not benefitted significantly for decades from growth, and despite the fact that we know it hardly matters for happiness anyway. The de facto religion for which the population demands all politicians bow is the economic growth of the country as a whole. Like a group of dogs getting exited about chasing a plastic rabbit, we see the blatant fetish of the whole population on display and there’s nothing rational arguments have done to change it or even moderate it.

2. The mass adoption of symbolic environmental measures. The number one think Kevin will do when in power? Ratify the Kyoto protocol. John is not far behind with his plans. And this will do what for global warming? Diddely squat. Even Nicholas Stern calls Kyoto largely symbolic and even the magazine Nature apparently doesnt believe ni Kyoto’s healing powers any more either; its a shambles already in terms of complience by those that signed up; and there’s nothing with beef remotely on the horizon to replace it (as I’ve rambled no at length in previous blogs). Whilst CO2 emissions continue to increase and we at the same moment promise the electorate to build desalination plants most likely run on coal-generated electricity and promise everyone more wealth to afford that long-distance gas-guzling holiday, a ‘key’ promise is to perform the rain dance known as Kyoto. Its just fascinating that so much effort and prestige can be spent on something so useless and ineffective and something so completely at odds with point number 1. There is nothing in the standard economic models we teach at uni that explains this strong need for symbolism.

3. The lack of almost any major change proposed by the political parties or even any major disagreement. Who is promising to run down public services in order to have major tax breaks? No one. Who is promising to increase the taxes on the rich to reduce income inequality? No one. Who is banging the drum about major ethnic or religious tensions in this country? No one because there are no such tensions. Who is promising an increase in state-owned firms or even a hint of a seriously different type of economic policy? No one. Who is promising to shut down the agricultural sector because it is uncompetitive and impoverishes third-world farmers? No one despite the odd person pretending to be interested in world poverty. Who is promising to shut the gates to immigrants? no one because they are effectively welcome. Who is suggesting a large break in the foreign affairs doctrine of the Big and Powerful Friend? No one. Not only is there no difference between the major parties on any major item, but nearly everything that is promised can be described as ‘business as usual’. What does that tell a social scientist? That this is a happy country indeed. If so much energy can be spent on so little substantial difference you know that everything of importance is going well.

4. The relentless use of ad hominem campaigning by both parties. Considering that they dont differ by more than a hairs’ breath, its amazing they can pretend to find enough difference to black label each other.

5. The politicised nature of business organisations, newspapers, television, radio, and many other social organisations. You dont see that in the Netherlands because no-one wants to be too blatantly seen to support any particular party for fear the other bunch may get in. That, apparently is not much of a motivational factor in Oz. Why though?

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The Worst of Perth
14 years ago

Political Apathy is one of the luxuries of living in Australia.

Graham Bell
Graham Bell
14 years ago

Paul Frijters:

Bloody brilliant distillation.

The Worst In Perth:

The quiet you see all around you is definitely not political apathy but a gathering storm.

paul frijters
paul frijters
14 years ago

thanks Graham, another thing I thought about this morning is that the population is fed the stories it will believe, even if they are blatant nonsense. A good example is the whole business of interest rates, which are not set by governments at all but by the RBA. The influence is only indirect via fiscal policy. You’d never know that from the ads which allow you to believe John could personally vary the interest rate at will.

Ken Lovell
14 years ago

The de facto religion for which the population demands all politicians bow is the economic growth of the country as a whole.

I don’t think that is accurate, any more than the population demands that state governments base campaigns around law and order. Just because parties bang on about something endlessly doesn’t mean they’re being driven by voter ‘demands’.

The (limited) evidence that tries to explain voter behaviour suggests they are concerned with their own individual economic circumstances, not the country’s. For example, high unemployment rates were not a significant factor once they had stabilised and the people who still had jobs stopped worrying that they might also lose theirs. I think the truth is more that the Libs harp on economic matters in an attempt to scare people.

As to your last question, I suspect a partial answer is that one of our two major parties was created and is effectively managed by trade unions (which is not to say that unions control its behaviour of course, any more than shareholders control the management of firms). Party politics is therefore directly tied to social institutions in a way that isn’t matched in most other countries.

I don’t altogether buy the idea that the Australian media is politicised, although I don’t read much News Ltd stuff so I’m not the best judge. However there is no way it approaches the levels of partisanship in the US media, where Fox News is a blatant cheer squad for the Republicans.

Patrick
Patrick
14 years ago

Graham, have you read LaRouche lately? I’m sure you two would have a lot to agree on.

I profess to not understanding point 2 at all (that is I understand the point, but not the phenomenon referred to).

I think point 3 is the consequence of point 2 and in its turn point 4 of point 3.

Ken, as I understand it the (broad) evidence is that Australians have voted for economically ‘dry’ parties for the last 25 years.

(PS: what language does this spellchecker think I am writing in?)

Tim Dymond
Tim Dymond
14 years ago

‘As to your last question, I suspect a partial answer is that one of our two major parties was created and is effectively managed by trade unions (which is not to say that unions control its behaviour of course, any more than shareholders control the management of firms). Party politics is therefore directly tied to social institutions in a way that isnt matched in most other countries.’

As I understood Dutch politics, the Dutch Labour Party has strong links to the union organisation NVW. Hasn’t the whole of Dutch society been ‘pillarised’ for most of the 20th century? Or has that changed?

paul frijters
paul frijters
14 years ago

ken,

“Just because parties bang on about something endlessly doesnt mean theyre being driven by voter demands.”

eh…I disagree. Political parties are not idiots, certainly not when it concerns the main thing they talk about. They are one side of the political market with the voters as the consumers. Forgive me for being an economist but I do believe that what is offered in the market is offered because the suppliers believe the consumers want it. Just as suppliers that keep offering unwanted goods go out of business, politicians who keep banging on about things the electorate dont care about dont get voted in. Of course Australian voters are not the only ones with a grwoth fetish. Its a universal thing, making it even less likely that Oz politicians are not reacting to population demands.

Ken Lovell
14 years ago

We might be at cross purposes Paul. Yes people are very concerned with their own material wellbeing. I don’t believe they’re terribly worried about ‘the economic growth of the country as a whole’ though and they certainly don’t make it a ‘de facto religion’. By and large for example people in NSW couldn’t give a continental about the WA resources boom because they don’t see how it’s doing them any good. Interest rates also seem to obsess the media and politicians far more than they crop up in everyday conversation, at least in my circles.

Most people’s concerns are focused on the micro level, not the macro. Indeed the way Keating and later Costello went on and on about national economic indicators might partly explain why they were so widely disliked and distrusted (that should be present tense for Costello but I can’t be bothered fixing up the sentence).

Caroline
Caroline
14 years ago

I agree that we have come to see no great difference between the two major parties in Australia and perhaps in terms of economic imperatives there isn’t much. There are only so many ways you can skin a cat in today’s ‘free market’. There is a difference I believe in the moral difference between the Coalition and at this point in time, the Labor party. If/when Rudd has been in power for a while he may forget these differences in favour of economic expedience or that much vaunted ‘value’ pragmatism.

Howard is wearing the fear that accompanies his increasing age–fear of change and is hoping that the voter will also have a tendency to be fearful of change. But I think Australia as a young country flourishes in a sea of change and on the whole does not fear it.

Howard puts, for my money, another nail into his own coffin when he says the entire country will change with a change of government. Exactly.

paul frijters
paul frijters
14 years ago

Ken if what you say is true, i.e. voters care primarily about how politicians affect their micro situation and politicians banging on about growth are making themselves unpopular, we are seeing one hell of a market failure at the moment. Not just here, but almost everywhere. Sarkozy would then have gotten elected ‘despite’ his platform of growth. The US dictum ‘Its the economy, stupid’ would then not be a wise quote but humbug. I’d like to believe you in your assertion that voters dont really care about national growth which indeed hardly affects their micro circumstances, Ken, but I dont.