Easy to be cynical in game of it's a knockout

12 August 2010

Organisations in conflict with each other come to resemble each other. This insight of the great American public policy scholar James Wilson is amply confirmed whether we look at commercial TV networks, spy agencies, football clubs - or political parties.

The organisation most similar to the Liberal Party of Australia is the Australian Labor Party. Tactically, they are mirror images of each other. Both employ advertising agencies and harness market research expertise. Both seek to translate the findings of focus groups into campaign themes. Both plan their 35-day campaign to ration announcements so each makes maximum impact, to generate something newsworthy every day, to visit all strategically important areas and to peak on election day. Both have rapid rebuttal teams targeting the other side's claims, and seeking to neutralise or damage its appeals.

Strategically, both sides are targeting the same swing voters and the same marginal seats, and both have similar conceptions of what motivates them and their cynical and disengaged attitudes to politics.

Both also believe it is easier to convince swinging voters that the other side is woeful than that your side is wonderful. A by-product, of course, is that this helps to persuade many people that both sides are bad, and so adds to the already existing political cynicism. This slides into the attitude that there is no difference between the parties, that no matter who you vote for a politician always wins.

Such nihilism is simplistic, but discerning the difference between the parties is difficult. Party convergence is both more apparent than real and more real than apparent.

On the one hand, in practice, the wider parameters of public policy in a mixed economy are more stable. There will be neither large scale nationalisation nor a radical winding back of the welfare state. So policy movement most of the time takes place in a narrower range than sometimes was mooted in the past.

On the other hand, the rhetoric between the parties, the caricatures that we call political debate, has grown ever more extreme. Each side pictures itself as the epitome of wisdom and virtue and its opponents as the embodiment of dishonesty and folly. Thus the government is the worst in Australia's history, according to Tony Abbott's assessment.

Often the rhetoric suggests a greater difference than there will be in practice. At the moment, the opposition, with its almost exclusive hammering of public debt as the key measure of economic management, is behaving as if it does not believe in Keynesian economics. But presumably if there was another global financial crisis, it would seek to provide economic stimulus as the Rudd government did in 2008.

What parties say in the campaign is not always a good guide to what they will do in government. The things that help to get elected are not the most important things that face them in government. Once in office, David Cameron's new British government became preoccupied precisely with the issues it studiously sought to avoid talking about during the campaign - namely the deep cuts in government spending that it feels are needed.

Sometimes the result is paradoxical. The configuration of party competition and promises was such that if Howard had won the 2007 election Australia would now have a carbon tax.

The great loser in all the noise of the election campaign is realistic policy debate. Our side's policies have benefits without costs; theirs costs without benefits. Intractable problems and complex issues are greeted with simple slogans - stop the boats.

The fault is not with the players; it's the game. It is not that politics attracts pathological personalities, or that we are ill-served because only knaves and fools become politicians. Rather both sides are pursuing the logic of the contest.

But that does not mean it is an edifying spectacle, nor a process that educates people about the choices facing the country, or one that inspires greater enthusiasm for democracy.

But such concerns are a long way from the party managers' minds. Indeed it would be refreshing if on election night they spoke with the same candour as a football coach after a game - ''we didn't want to win pretty; we just wanted to win''.

Professor Rod Tiffen is from the Department of Government and International Relations of the Faculty of Arts.

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