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Democracy goes missing in action as politicians obfuscate, avoid and patronise

Voters know when they are being given a ‘sell job’ by politicians. AAP/Dean Lewins

As we pass the halfway mark of the 2016 federal election campaign (how long is it since you heard so many grown adults effectively asking “are we there yet?”), key message scripts and political performances are daily in evidence.

Media reporting is following form, making news out of slips of the tongue and the inability of serial offenders to stay on message. The election narrative is being written and rewritten by a mix of commentary and dog-whistling.

The pollsters are in full swing counting voter intentions. But for those clinging to the view that Australia is a democracy, there are rather more pressing questions: how are citizens receiving what is being pushed at them? And what sense they are making of it all?

My doctoral research investigated how ordinary Australians receive and make sense of the political discourse, and how that affects their engagement with democracy. The qualitative method involved discussions with three groups of voters recruited on the day of the 2013 election at polling stations in Oak Park, Australia’s most average suburb.

Oak Park, in Melbourne’s inner-north, is in the previously safe Labor seat of Wills which, with the long-serving Kelvin Thompson retiring, is being viewed for this election as a potential win for the Greens.

The voters in my sample were unanimously dissatisfied with the national political debate. They view the politics of their own country as outsiders.

They are deeply critical of the media’s role in how politics is reported and discussed. Overwhelmingly, from media and politicians, they hear messages of their own powerlessness. They talk in terms of “us” and “them”, and of not being respected by those in power.

When they talk about public voice as “their” voice, they talk about lack of recognition. They find meaning in what is and is not spoken, in who is and is not heard. They “hear” the missing voices as significant gaps in the political conversation. They don’t hear themselves.

Ordinary citizens like the Oak Park voters know when they are being given a “sell job”. They recognise when they are being targeted with shallow slogans, promises short on detail, and politicians promoted as celebrities whose success is proportional to how well they stay on message, no matter how banal it may be.

These voters know when they are being kept in the dark, when information critical to them is being kept from them. This should serve as a memo to ministers who hide behind “operational” or “commercial-in-confidence” excuses for secrecy.

Secret political business is received as undermining the democratic fundamental of two-way accountability – the obligation on the representative to be accountable to the people and the obligation of the demos to hold their representative to account.

When the conversation is thinly constructed by the political professionals with three-word slogans, outrage, and quasi-celebrity, it is recognised as “dumbed down”.

These citizens hear a lack of trust when the language is over-simplified to discourage their understanding and judgement on what they know are difficult issues. They get the three-word slogans, but they want the whole story, not what they detect as the media’s blatant agenda-setting.

In their discussions soon after the Rudd-Abbott contest, my research participants were irritated by the personalities on offer, when what they really wanted was access to a full suite of policy products from which they could pick and choose as much or as little information as they wanted.

Labor appears to have heard that message from the electorate; it super-sized its 2016 offering with “100 Positive Policies”. The Liberals have a “plan” with 14 issues, and a gradual reveal of Coalition policies.

The voters, feeling excluded and undervalued – “well, they wouldn’t want to listen to us, would they?” was how one participant put it. They are increasingly alienated by how the political insiders talk at and around them. “Tuning out” was considered such an expected reaction that it acquired noun status.

Jacqui: I stopped listening. Yeah I stopped listening. I even turned off 3AW.

Facilitator: Did anybody else have that experience of tuning out?

Sylvie: Yeah, very much so.

Jacqui: When did you have your tune-out?

Sylvie: Um, (laughs) there was a lot of tuning out. Because I didn’t like either side. Any side. Yeah, I just, um, a lot of the debate was on those kind of things, the leadership battle. There was no real discussion about policy. When there was it was sensationalised, um. Y’know, there was always in the background the gay marriage issue, and would one of them take it on? And I just thought this is ridiculous, I’m not interested.

When Malcolm Turnbull made speeches about improving the language and content when we talk politics, he was one of the few insider voices with an apparent sense of the essence of democratic discourse.

Given the chance subsequently to engage the citizenry in adult conversations, Turnbull has disappointed. But he’s not alone.

It is the nature of campaign “debates” to be constructed around repetitions of the party mantra and daily talking points. Ordinary voters get the sense that all that political talk has not much to do with them, and is rarely what they would like to hear.

When politics is heard like this, as exclusionary and lacking accountability or respect for the power of the demos, the Australian political discourse can be seen as, in effect, un-making democracy; it is de-democratising.

The citizen outsiders may be alienated by the way we talk about politics, but they remain engaged with the idea of democracy. In the words of one Oak Park participant:

Where’s democracy in this country? I’m yet to find it.

So, are we there yet? On the evidence – nope, not yet.

Names of voter participants have been changed to protect anonymity.

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