Voters' political blame game lacks self-reflection

When voters make a choice about who to support at the polling place on Saturday they should also take time to reflect not just on the Australian political system but also on their own role in creating or condoning the negative culture which increasingly surrounds it.

The election campaigns of both Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten have at times become messy. Pictures: Dominic Lorrimer/Alex Ellinghausen

The election campaigns of both Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten have at times become messy. Pictures: Dominic Lorrimer/Alex Ellinghausen

A major theme during the weeks of the election campaign has been the string of negative assessments of it. We have all heard them and perhaps agreed with them: awful choices, terrible campaigns, unqualified candidates, unpopular leaders, careerist politicians, treating us like fools, no vision, broken or ridiculous promises, never deliver, neglect their constituents, leading us down the path to rack and ruin, breach of trust, out of touch, etc, etc.

I share some of these views, which social surveys confirm are often widely held, at least by a substantial minority of Australians. But I also think that this blame game has careered out of all proportion and often lacks a sense of self-reflection about what role Australian citizens and Australian society more broadly may have played in all this. It can't all be other people's fault, including the political class.

Throughout my long teaching career in political science I have always tried to stand up for politicians as a group. Sometimes that has flown in the face of the conventional wisdom. I have applauded those people who have put their hands up to participate in public life. But standing for election, whether as a representative of a political party or as an Independent, is not the only way to get involved in politics.

During this campaign I chaired a "Meet the Candidates" forum conducted by U3A. Five candidates, four from the parties and one Independent, interacted with an audience of 130 seniors for one and a half jam-packed hours. There were Q&A and short statements mixed up together. The candidates were articulate, passionate and personable. One was an MP, but the others will probably not be elected. Some have no realistic chance. They were essentially performing a civic duty on our behalf. Sure there were boos, hisses and groans from the audience from time to time, and some anger and disbelief, but the feedback was largely positive from candidates and audience alike.

I came away from the forum thinking how lucky we are in Canberra to have such choices - and that was just a sample of the candidates to choose from. Perhaps more of that sort of personal contact, supplemented by door-knocking and other community activities, would add balance to our assessment of the political process, while not taking away our many heartfelt and justifiable criticisms.

We should realise and/or admit that many aspects of what we don't like about campaigns, elections and political parties are commonplace in society at large.

The injection of such personal interaction into the equation possibly explains the previously noted frequent divergence between generally negative attitudes to politics and politicians and more positive attitudes to many individual, named politicians, such as local MPs (putting party politics aside).

It may also explain how some individual political leaders remain popular in many quarters. John Howard and Bob Hawke, for instance, are often deluged with congratulations to the point of adulation when they make it onto the campaign trail many years after holding office.

There are some other aspects to self-reflection regarding campaign promises and campaigning style.

One is the contribution that average citizens (admittedly a terrible term) may make to the acceptance of the never-ending election bribes that are offered during campaigns. We all like better services whether they be grand national schemes or assistance to our local sports club or community facility. That means, I'd suggest, that we are somewhat two-faced about such political campaign bribery. It is not so much that we are NIMBYs (not in my backyard) about the supposed negative encroachments on our lives, but that we are JIMBYs (just in my backyard) about the sweeteners and outright bribes for our votes.

We line up to receive bribes to our electorates, suburbs and community groups while at the same time decrying vote-buying as a general phenomenon because of its deleterious impact on our economy and society.

Secondly, we should realise and/or admit that many aspects of what we don't like about campaigns, elections and political parties are commonplace in society at large.

These aspects include brand advertising, dodgy deals, social media, excessive commercialisation and consumerism, reality television, and so on. This extends to breaches of trust, broken promises and hypocrisy.

Politicians are not inventing patterns of behaviour but borrowing from the commercial and social world. They don't exist in a vacuum and cannot be insulated from general social trends.

Politics may just be an easy target. Too easy. Perhaps if we don't like such wider trends in society we should condemn them too, not just get agitated when they appear to contaminate election campaigns and political life. Some of that has already happened as other traditional institutions, such as banks and churches, have already fallen from grace too.

The blame game has reached a crescendo but has been taken too far. We are all in this together and politicians and politics cannot reasonably be asked to shoulder all of the blame for the faults of society.

Politics is just one aspect of society and many of its practitioners are drawn from established social institutions, including sporting clubs, trade unions, the military, small business, tourism, public relations and communications. They are not the dregs of society but a representative sample.

The old saying is that we get the politicians we deserve. For that reason we are all called to more self-reflection as we exercise our rights in this festival of democracy.

  • John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.