Why spin trumps policy – until we build a new system of substance

Tony Abbott’s smiling now, but if his hold on the leadership weakens some say the Coalition should go back to Malcolm Turnbull. AAP/Gary Schafer

Spin is widely seen as the scourge of contemporary politics. We rail at politicians who seem more intent on appearing to act, rather than coming up with and pushing through important policy decisions.

It’s the main reason, political observers say, that trust in political leaders and the democratic system has fallen to record lows.

The triumph of spin over substance in recent years is seen largely as a failure of leadership. Political parties are promoting leaders who lack the vision and conviction to come up with future-focused policy that can tackle the big issues of the 21st century.

The answer to the problem seems just as straightforward. Replace these poor leaders with braver, more visionary ones and our political system will again deliver the long-term policy solutions we need.

Kevin Rudd, then Julia Gillard as leader, then Rudd again: that’s the politics of spin for you. AAP/Alan Porritt

The result is an ever-faster leadership merry-go-around. Julia replaces Kevin who replaces Julia and is then replaced by Tony, who replaced Malcolm who, some now say, should replace Tony.

But what if the real barrier to good policy is not the people inhabiting the system?

What if our democratic system is making it more and more difficult for politicians – no matter how determined or well-intentioned they are – to come up with coherent policy programs or get public support for their agendas?

Our system is outdated and broken

In reality, our political system – otherwise known as liberal democracy – represents a 19th century political construct. When we dive beneath surface appearances, we find its institutions and decision-making processes are built around 19th century assumptions and organising principles about how the political and policy world should work, as well as how citizens should engage with it.

The key institutions responsible for creating policy and winning the public consensus needed to activate policy change – namely elected parliaments and political parties – are simply not designed to deal with the 21st century world.

The comparatively languid rhythms of 19th century time are reflected in the highly deliberative, drawn-out policymaking processes embedded in all parliaments. They are supposed to allow elected representatives enough time and scope to decide and legislate on policy in a deliberate, considered way.

Yet, as time has become increasingly super-sped by globalisation and the internet, these languid timeframes become increasingly out of whack with the 21st century world.

Liberal democracy also assumes elected representatives are the prime decision-makers on policy because they are best able and placed to understand the world around them. At the top of the policy and political hierarchy, they are in a privileged position to “see” further and decide which policies best shape the future.

Yet in today’s increasingly super-complex, hyper-networked world it has become nearly impossible for elected politicians and parliaments to anticipate and proactively shape what is going on. This is because in the internet-driven, networked world, knowledge and information are increasingly devolved outwards, not upwards.

Old political boundaries are gone

Further, our democratic system assumes that most political or economic events will be contained within the geographical boundaries of electorates, states or even countries. It assumes that national parliaments will always be the dominant realm which will decide what, in terms of policy, will have a major and ongoing impact on the citizens they represent.

Yet in an increasingly globalised, digitised world, more and more of the issues that affect us are escaping the control and authority of our parliaments.

These barriers to coherent policy action are compounded because the political party system is failing. Party systems provide for distinctive political programs usually organised around dualistic, left-right views of the world. They are offered to citizens in the expectation these will meet most, if not all, their political and policy aspirations.

Thus liberal democracy assumes that the party system is the best way to corral and organise the political voice of citizens to advance change. Yet it has become increasingly difficult for major parties to order the 21st century political world around these assumptions.

This is primarily because parties continue to try to project themselves around 19th century cleavages of class, geography and ideology. These divides have increasingly little relation to the complex, rapidly changing political voices and identities of a social media-driven, globalised citizenry.

The old party-political divides are a poor fit for the citizenry of the 21st-century. AAP/David Mariuz

Parties respond by continually altering their political and policy programs to chase the ever-changing political identities of the increasingly pervasive “swinging voter”. In the process, they undermine their core claim of representing consistent policy positions, as well as their key points of differentiation from rival parties.

The result is a growing distrust and disconnect from the political party system. Record numbers of citizens are detaching themselves from party affiliation.

It also means the political party system is increasingly incapable of organising broad support – otherwise known as a mandate – for major policy change. In short, even if politicians are able to come up with coherent policy, they find it harder and harder to generate a mandate to act on it.

All that is left for politicians is spin

Faced with these growing challenges, politicians retreat into “territories” of action where they can still demonstrate authority as well as differentiate themselves from rival political leaders. In particular, they withdraw into personality-based politics such as the way they dress, the values they hold and the way they communicate.

They also retreat into short-termism like the 24-hour media cycle. This is because the short-term is another “territory” they can still control as their ability to anticipate, let alone shape, anything that occurs beyond next month, or even next week, diminishes.

Shorn more and more of their policy action functions, the role of politicians is reduced to that of storytellers and commentators about events they have little capacity to control. This becomes the ultimate territory of political competition in 21st-century liberal democracy: who can construct and tell the most coherent, cut-through and clever narrative?

In other words, which politician has the most ability to “spin”?

No system, political, economic or social, lasts in perpetuity. Liberal democracy in its current form reached its use-by date in the early 1990s when the super-speed, super-scale and super-complexity of political, social and economic activity began to take hold.

Because liberal democratic systems are simply not designed to deal with this different world, our first challenge is to recognise the real reasons that force our politicians to rely more and more on spin rather than substance.

Our second is to think seriously and strategically about ways to renovate our democratic system so it can again develop policy outcomes that address the pressing challenges of the 21st century.

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