Australia – The Mushroom Democracy

A non-automotive post.

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It’s been 2 months now since Labor lost the federal election in Australia – and I describe it that way quite deliberately.

I am convinced that Tony Abbott and his Liberal/National coalition did not win this election because they offered attractive policies or solid personnel. Rather, Labor lost the election because of their ongoing leadership farce, their unnecessary overcommitment to an uncalled-for budget surplus, their stumbling actions on climate change and an inability to cut through and sell their economic credentials.

It should be an unambiguous sign to the Labor Party about just how screwed up they were from 2009 to 2013 that this Coalition government, led by the seemingly unelectable Tony Abbott, looked like a good option. Hell, even Clive Palmer managed to convince enough people to vote for him to get a seat in parliament (which is probably a bigger blow to Tony Abbott than it is to Labor, but electing a clown like Palmer is all the evidence you need that the electorate was desperate for change of some sort).

We’re 8 weeks on from the election and what have we got?

Well, the things we don’t have include a Climate Commission, a science minister, a proper commitment to long-term education funding (aka the full Gonski), plans for an international standard national broadband network, an agency to administer our foreign aid program (let alone a foreign aid program that meets the international commitment we made), a dozen different and very cost-effective expert panels to advise government in varying areas of social importance and of course, we still don’t have a budget emergency. We never did.

What we do have is a government that has decided to try and take Canberra out of the news cycle. Tony Abbott’s opposition did so much active, fever-pitch opposing between 2010 and 2013 that they ensured people would be sick to death of hearing about the government. And it worked. People did get sick of the relentless procession of politicians on their televisions and in their newspapers.

(Labor didn’t help, of course, with former Prime Minister Julia Gillard setting up a 9-month election campaign by announcing a September election date in January.)

The Coalition’s election campaign in opposition followed a small target strategy of keeping the focus on the government’s problems and personalities whilst offering little more than three-word slogans themselves. Stop The Boats. The Budget Emergency. Cut Red Tape. Jobs Jobs Jobs. Build Build Build.

The Coalition has tried to carry that small target strategy into government by closing the windows on transperancy. The Prime Minister himself has barely done one press engagement per week and any penetrating questions asked ‘on the run’ are fended off by minders as the PM moves from ribbon-cutting to his Comcar.

That’s almost understandable. Tony Abbott himself has said that people shouldn’t count on anything he says on the run; only his carefully scripted remarks should be taken as reliable (that’s video of him saying so in an interview, but I’m not sure if it was scripted or not so maybe it’s unreliable).

But even the Coalition ministry, many members of which are capable of saying sensible things without rehearsal, is not allowed to give impromptu press conferences or even interviews to local radio outlets without clearance from the PM’s office. Questions to ministers now often go unanswered.

One of the Coalition’s key policies was immigration and border control. Instead of real-time information on this issue of national importance – as provided by previous governments – the Coalition does one press update per week. And at that press conference, they stonewall on key questions, hiding behind the skirts of it being “a military operation”.

Here’s the phrase that journalists have hot-keyed on their laptops when reporting from Scott Morrison’s press conferences: “We don’t provide information on operational matters”. The result they’re trying to achieve, of course, is a situation where the lack of negative information means that the average Aussie punter has nothing to complain about. The hope is that there won’t be many who care enough to be bothered by the lack of information.

This is Mushroom Democracy at its finest. Keep the people in the dark and feed them the occasional bit of bullshit. Take the government out of the news cycle and hope the people forget it exists.

It worked for a few weeks, but the press gallery is starting to make the government’s relative silence an issue in itself. Laurie Oakes, Canberra’s most respected political penman, has noted it, putting government transparency right back on the agenda.

You have to hand it to the Coalition’s strategists. The hung parliament of 2010-13 presented it with a rare opportunity to create a genuine problem (unceasing political rancour) and offer itself as the quiet, stable, reliable solution.

The substance of that solution is only now being seen.

Where we were accustomed to the press gallery keeping our government accountable, we now get only occasional 10 minute press conferences with minimal opportunities for questions – and those are when the government is feeling generous with its time. Many events of importance such as the backdown on asylum seeker policy that occurred just yesterday, are announced only via press release.

Where we had a budget emergency under Labor with debt and deficit a twice-per-week headline, we now have a treasurer adding 8 billion to the budget deficit by giving the Reserve Bank a slush fund it never asked for and doesn’t need. And that’s on top his slugging low-income earners’ superannuation accounts while giving a free pass to those with millions in their nest eggs.

Where we once had nearly 70% of the population agreeing that climate change was an important issue, that number went down to 36% (now rising again to 40%) because the Coalition managed to get people more concerned about the short term hit to their hip pockets than about long-term ramifications of climate science (it doesn’t help that we’re a fickle bunch, dependent on events such as long term drought to get us to take notice). The Coalition pays lip service to the issue to woo the swinging voter but have a policy that’s been described as an environmental figleaf from within their own party and they’re not even sending an elected representative to the upcoming UN climate conference in Warsaw next week.

These are but a few examples. If you want more, there’s the impending closure of Australia’s car industry, the complete dismantling of AusAid and the quiet re-jigging of the National FraudBroadband Network rollout map, just to name a few.

The media, particularly the Murdoch press, played a huge role in the 2013 election campaign.

Now more than ever, Australia needs an independent, diligent and robust fourth estate to keep the government accountable to the people. It’s good to see they’re already making efforts to do so but it must continue.

Australians should be vigilant about the media they consume and support good quality, independent journalism from a variety of sources. I fear that a lot of the population are happy to take whatever they’re spoon fed but I hope that’s not the case.

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6 Comments

  1. CSIRO employees have much to be worried about. Don’t get me going about the state of science in this country. So much for ‘the Clever Country’…

    1. Saw the CSIRO news last week. Again, no discussion or reason, just the cuts. That, AusAid and the Climate Commission show a sad lack of foresight IMHO.

    1. Haha, yeah, I was thinking the same thing… sounds like they learned a thing or 2 from Stephen Harper. This approach has worked very well for him, though it may now be starting to unravel… but in his case, muzzling his MP’s was probably wise, as there are a fair number of loonies in the ranks… making them stick to talking points (if allowed to speak at all) allowed some sort of facade of sanity… and science? what is that? science is determined by the PMO…

      yeah, good luck with that!

  2. I found this post very interesting, Swade. Someone who writes intelligently about cars and politics presents a lethal cocktail for me in terms of the sheer amount of time I could waste reading it and commenting on it. Reminds me why I vowed to spend less time around here! Better get back to work … 🙂

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