We have now begun the election campaign period. The Prime Minister is clearly already in full electioneering mode. Commentators are in no doubt that even if the election ends up being six months away, we have entered an unofficial federal election campaign.
My initial response to this news was one of unease. Despite being an election specialist, having published numerous books about federal and state elections, my first reaction was largely negative.
On reflection I realise that my initial reaction was one-sided, because while I strongly dislike some aspects of electioneering, there are other aspects that I really appreciate. The next six months may not be all bad after all.
There are some good things about election campaigning.
Above all I like that the idea that elections give Australian parliamentary democracy a major focus. They are about choosing our representatives to sit in parliament for the next term. We each get two votes. Voters in each electorate choose our own representative to sit in the House of Representatives and join the representatives of other electorates. Voters in each state and territory choose among candidates to sit in the Senate. That choice is important.
Candidates themselves bring a range of positive characteristics to the task of getting elected. They each want the best for their community, although what "the best" means is inevitably subjective. Australia is a diverse community with a range of values and aspirations, and these diverse perspectives are magnified at election time.
This gives the community a choice. I am a realist and I know that what we are offered is a limited choice, boiled down in most instances to a realistic choice between two and rarely more than three candidates, because political parties are dominant; but the community is still offered a choice between different broad directions.
At their best, elections bring positivity and enthusiasm to the big debates we have been having in the community; scrutiny of debates about the economy, the environment, the world, society, our people, and the land we occupy. Not everyone is interested in either elections or debates, of course. It may unfortunately be a minority. Many people have been driven away or have given up on politics to focus on themselves and their families. But for those who welcome dialogue and discussion, election campaigns are an opportunity to communicate their concerns to the broader community.
Personally I also like the hoopla that accompanies elections. I admit I am in a minority in liking doorknocking, street corner meetings, how-to-vote cards, and even corflutes. There is colour and light about electioneering that enlivens our community.
At the heart of electioneering are the candidates and their volunteer supporters. Being a candidate means long hours and extremely hard work, and most of them put themselves forward without any chance of reward - unless you count being part of a team, or gaining a stepping-stone to higher things. Volunteers are the salt of the earth.
Most seats are safe seats for one side of politics or the other. One of the major party candidates in those seats consequently has little or no chance. This applies in the ACT electorates. Then there are all the minor party and independent candidates, who, despite a significant amount of current attention, mostly have even less chance. But just by standing for office they set an inspirational example, and the community owes them a debt of gratitude.
Unfortunately, these positives about electioneering can be overwhelmed. The negatives receive greater media publicity, while the positives tend to be out of sight and easily overlooked. The positives also tend to be disproportionately located in local election campaigning, while the negatives receive more publicity through national and state advertising and banner headlines.
While competition can bring out the best in humanity, it also often brings out the worst. Self-interest turns honest competition into a no-holds-barred contest. Self- interest is too often backed by large donors whose contributions make "one vote, one value" a mockery.
Facts too often take second place in such campaigning, and the electoral authorities are powerless to insist that allegations and argument stick to the truth. The constitution privileges so-called free speech over honesty.
The rest follows. Civilised argument descends into misrepresentation of policies and exaggeration of the alleged weaknesses of other candidates. There is no effective comeback for those who are attacked.
Worse still is the ad hominem character of much of the argument. Personal attack has become the norm during election campaigns, especially in paid advertising. Such advertising deluges our television screens, and much of it is negative attacks on others rather than positive campaigning.
There is more to be said, and much of it can be summarised as fear and loathing on the campaign trail. Get ready for it. It is already here, and that is why I have increasingly come to dislike the election period.
What adds to my dread is that it has all come to be acceptable as business as usual. While there are always some objections to negative electioneering, there is no sign that things are going to change. Until the community say enough is enough, and party members insist that their candidates and leaders uphold higher standards, nothing will change. I am not holding my breath. Negativity seems to work.
The next six months is my professional bread and butter, full of polls, debates, and policy launches. As much as I will engage with some aspects of the campaign, however, there is a darker side to electioneering that I have increasingly come to anticipate with great apprehension.
- John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.