Even the Economist says Australian public debate is a joke

Everyone agrees that the quality of public discourse in Australia is dismal. Most of us blame politicians and the media. But the constant carping is getting tedious and irritating. Isn’t it time the rest of us thought about what we can do to lift the quality of public debate?

Troppo commenter Patrick links to a recent article in the Economist that likens Australian politics to a non-stop Punch-and-Judy show:

… the level of political discourse is not high. That is partly the fault of the media, but also the fault of the politicians, some of whom at least are happy to join battle, mouthing jibes and slogans (Let’s move Australia forward, Stand up for Australia, The real Julia, Stop the boats, End the waste), seldom bothering to explain a policy or answer a question without short-term political gain being uppermost in their minds.

It’s a familiar complaint. In 2008 George Megalogenis wrote: "The media has reduced politicians into thinking by the minute." He argued that politicians have come to see the winning the media cycle as an end in itself and devote more attention to ‘selling’ policy than developing it.

Ex-politician Lindsay Tanner has devoted an entire book to the issue. In Sideshow he argues that there’s little reflection and deliberation in public debate. Rather than examining the philosophical principles behind policy differences, "Political debate is now largely composed of empty posturing about trivial matters." And too often it seems as if experts who know what they’re talking about sidelined in favour of focus group and poll findings.

Peter Shergold, a former secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet, argues that university academics have little incentive to engage in policy debates. Speaking on Radio National’s Late Night Live he said that universities and academics are rewarded for publications in academic journals, but not for their influence on policy debate. He’d like to see more academics engaged with the policy process.

But the policy game is tricky for experts. Politicians and senior bureaucrats want solutions that have remained intractable for decades. They don’t want to understand why the problem is difficult — they want a one page list of recommendations. And to be acceptable, these recommendations have to be media friendly and not attract nasty co-ord comments from Treasury or the Department of Finance. In most cases that’s just not realistic.

Experts who play that game enjoy only a brief time in the sun. Their policies may end up being implemented (after various tweaks and compromises). But chances are the problem will remain unsolved and the policy will be branded a failure — as will the academic.

A good start for serious policy debate would be to acknowledge that some problems are difficult. Only a charlatan will offer you an affordable, politically popular solution that fits on a page. But by understanding problems better, experimenting with new ideas and using evaluation to see what happens, we can gradually learn what works and what doesn’t.

The public sphere doesn’t belong to politicians and journalists. Many Troppo readers and contributors have jobs that give them a keen interest in policy. Some are public servants, some work for think tanks or community sector organisations, some are consultants and others academics. What can we do to improve the quality of public debate?

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12 years ago

With an opening paragraph like that, I thought Don Arthur was going to give us the idea and encourage us to get on board! Instead we close with the question.

Perhaps my expecting the answer is demonstrative of the problem. W are already seeking alternative sources of commentary, by being here at Troppo. But clearly the blogosphere does not have the density, and it is in the mainstream media that we will need to see change.

Do we need to create avenues for academics to participate in the debate? New Matilda has shown that the market for non-commercial opinion is marginal. Better support the progressive think-tanks?

(Don finished with a question, and so will I)

Labor Outsider
Labor Outsider
12 years ago

On Shergold’s point – the same is true of academics in the US (they are rewarded for publications) but from what I have seen from living here, they are far more actively involved in public debate in the US…

That said, having lived in France, the UK, the US and of course Australia, I wouldn’t say that public debate is of any higher quality in those countries and public policy overall certainly isn’t superior…

12 years ago

A fair reading of the Economist’s editorial and the accompanying special report leads to a different question, and one that should sit better in Walter Bagehot’s journal:

Should all countries aspire to the mediocrity of Australian political debate?

Because the reality is that much of what the Economist describes as our luck would seem to emanate from:
– a provincial attitude to banking regulation;
– largely sensible and ‘liberal’ commercial laws;
– a broad policy consensus with the effect that most debate really occurs around the margins;
– excellent (at least compared to any other) courts and regulatory infrastructure; and, last but far from least:
– troppo-dom’s favourite bete noire, our public’s eminently sensible aversion to debt and deficits of any kind for any reason.

Carbon tax is a great example because it doesn’t fit the narrative. The mining tax, had labor left it at that (and had they not been such nuff-nuffs – if they had chucked in real personal and company tax cuts it would have been a no-brainer) would have come and fallen off the public radar as fast. With the carbon tax no-one (or no material percentage of the population) really understands why we are doing it or even really what it will do. There is no real consensus on it, mainly for the reason given. Hence it makes for unusual politics in Australia – and hence we should be asking, again, why exactly is it that we are doing this?

Cris Bennett
Cris Bennett
12 years ago

As usual, there’s a lazy assumption here that ‘fault’ has to lie either with politicians or media. But what about the citizenry? Anyone with experience outside the academy will be aware that political debate hasn’t yet sunk to anywhere near its natural level, ie. that of the average true blue.

If it’s the case (as it seems) that from the early days of wireless onwards, media have increased the pressure on politics to respond to a mass audience, then it’s only natural that the general level of political performance will sink inexorably to the lowest common denominator. And that’s pretty damned low. There’s further to fall yet.

The real causal story here, I suspect, is education (in the broadest sense). And when a nation permits corporations to largely colonise the functions of educating the citizenry, then, well, this is where we end up.

murph the surf.
murph the surf.
12 years ago

With regard to banking regulations provincial could be better described as prudent?
The Bank of Santander was lauded for it’s performance during the GFC while basically running itself like an Australian bank.
Watching politicians in Australia currently reminds me of an old saying I heard about business conflicts – “they are fighting while standing in a gold mine”.
A once in a generation opportunity to focus on long term planning and far reaching infrastructure investment is slipping by and while much good will come from the healthy economic conditions we are all enjoying on the whole I think we will forego realising some of our country’s potential.
Patrick states the importance of the recognition of the rule of law which I completely agree with. Alloyed with the sense that everyone has a chance at seeing justice done for their particular cause or case it allows citizens comfort in the functioning of the state. While complaining about the various governments here is an art form underlying this is a sense that the country is ruled for the benefit of most of us. I make that statement having lived and worked in China and the difference is remarkable.
It is also confusing to have a generalisation about all public debate. Certain areas of discussion are as well informed as any I’ve seen around the world – things won’t necessarily be advanced by tugging the forelock at our english ex masters as they write in the Economist and letting them frame the debate as being about our lack of quality.
Your last question leads me back to an earlier thread at Troppo- we could all learn more languages.The frosty dismissal of Pearson’s idea reflects a shallow approach to the issues of learning, language and culture. These are all arenas of intellectual development that improve our skill in dealing with the rest of the world in economic and social issues.

Richard Tsukamasa Green

I actually tried to write several posts on this Don, one as late as yesterday (which I might still post), but every time I ended up getting frustrated and led into the kind of harping that you warn against, and that I wanted to avoid.

I even went to the extent of trying to do a rough model of the different players (including the public) and the means they have to influence the other players, to try and find the ways each of us could try and makes things better.
But I always ended up in a vitriol born of impotence.
As a short summary of what I kept coming up with, no matter how I worked through things
Politicians are passive because the institutional set up in a democracy makes it that way (which is broadly a good thing since those who seek power rarely end up benevolent dictators), so what they do is shaped by the other sectors.

As voters and media consumers we have three main avenues. Consumer sovereignty, feedback and votes (the first two towards media).

We are exercising the first to a massive extent but it is being misinterpreted. The disengaged (who might still want basic facts what a policy is and which party is proposing it, as opposed to who’s winning) aren’t finding anything worth consuming. The sensible engaged are doing likewise. The remaining consumers are spectators who do like the horse race, gotcha rubbish. Yet rather than seeking to find consumers who are not buying any product in a post Henry Ford way, the proprietors are playing a weird mercantilist system where you can only steal customers from rivals, a zero sum game and intensifying sideshow journalism the minority who like what they’re doing. It’s strange that audience share is considered more important than absolute numbers. But in practice it’s negative sum as more viewers from both the disengaged and thoughtful ends are turning off since there’s only the sideshow product available.
Additionally, I’m not sure whether some outlets (such as the Australian) have much pressure to even make money at all.

We can also provide feedback, and we are in huge amounts. But it’s angrily rejected. Most industries actively seek feedback because they want to serve a market. Not so journalism. It’s strange that Mark Scott cites feedback from the likes of Greg Jericho and he’s the only media head with no commercial pressures at all.

Both our avenues to help change media behaviour are failing because the institutions of journalism don’t function in a commercial fashion, to their own detriment. There are supply/cost based reasons for copy pasting media releases and avoiding investigative journalism and analysis etc. But simple reporting on what a policy is isn’t any more expensive than the horse race, but it’s no available anywhere. Even the most elementary details of something like the mining rent tax is unavailable to a normal consumer. They’re not passionate about politics, but if they want basic information its impossible to come accross. No wonder they’re not buying. Barriers to entry mean there aren’t any competitors to try something other than failing conventionally.

We also have the ability to vote, but our knowledge of politicians is solely available through the media (since only the truly engaged is going to visit websites etc.). A politicians may try being non trivial, but no one will ever no who they are, so the power to vote is rendered null.

I think we’re already doing as much as we can, especially since blogs are not only pointing out faults but demonstrating how easy it is to do things better, such as Matt Cowgill’s simple explanation of income distribution. I think with time it might start sinking through the tribalism engendered by the media institutions.

Ken Parish
12 years ago

I don’t think I agree with the premise. Serious MSM political discussion has certainly been diluted at least in the online versions of their offerings by the need to pander to content that will attract “eyeballs” and therefore online advertising in an increasingly desperately competitive market. However it isn’t obvious to me that the hard copy versions of Age/SMH or the Oz are any less substantive than they ever were. I have dim perceptions that the Oz might once have been less relentlessly biased in favour of Rupert’s agenda, but it’s a very long time ago. As for the tabloid media, it has always been dreadful and is no worse today AFAIK.

Turning to the politicians, I think we’re in an isolated but deeply depressing moment in Australian political history where the two current leaders of both major parties are too relentlessly obsessed with fashioning glib, repetitive, simplistic messages to manage the 24 hour media cycle. Abbott combines that with an even more relentless and deeply dishonest policy negativity, as apparently even Nick Minchin realises. This wasn’t true of Brendon Nelson or Malcolm Turnbull and I doubt that it will last much longer. The wheel will turn. Nor was it true of Kevin Rudd, who with all his many faults DID believe in and debate policy and ideas (Dietrich Bonhoffer, strangely distorted ideas of Hayek etc). Julia doesn’t seem to have much interest in considering or conveying ideas or policies in any more than simplistic soundbites. However most of the policy developments over which she is presiding are actually sound and necessary, it’s just that they’re not being conveyed or sold very successfully. Whether that’s entirely her fault is another question. I live in hope that the wheel will begin turning there too as these policies reach fruition and it becomes easier for the public to see that Abbott’s fear campaigns were dishonest and misleading.

Like other commentators, I can’t really see a viable way that academics could be induced to become more deeply engaged in public discourse than is currently the case, unless the federal government is prepared to compel universities to provide real career promotional incentives for it rather than just paying lip service. Otherwise community engagement (even just writing blog posts as I do) is mostly just sacrificing time that a more ruthlessly career-oriented academic would be devoting to refereed publication. I actually think that the blogosphere and other online outlets like ABC online and Crikey result in aggregate in a current situation where Australian academics’ engagement in public discourse is more extensive and effective than it has ever been before.

Ken Parish
12 years ago

Hmm. Yes maybe. But the counter-argument is that we’ve already gone too far down the American road of a politicised public sector. Maybe at least some aspects of the independent, professional, career Public Service weren’t so bad. Yes Minister made some valid points, but at the end of the day it was the PR vanguard for a now triumphant imperialist neo-liberal reform agenda that includes extreme managerialism, outsourcing, privatising and a range of other phenomena which I see as mixed blessings at best.

derrida derider
derrida derider
12 years ago

[Shergold] suggests encouraging secondments or something similar.

Actually, some of that does happen – and yes, more would benefit both sides. The most prominent recent example, of course, is Andrew Leigh. But then I always considered that a bit of a disaster because:
a) it stopped him blogging.
b) it turned his head towards politics.

Labor Outsider
Labor Outsider
12 years ago

DD – Andrew’s head was already turned towards politics.

And I would still like to see some evidence that Australian public debate is conducted at a lower level than in other comparable countries.