Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Why election campaigns have become so vacuous

For many of us, the big question isn't who should win the election - or who will - but why election campaigns have become so vacuous. Why so much politics but so little policy? So much argument but so little debate? So much sound and fury signifying not very much?

No doubt there are many reasons but I suspect an important one is that campaigning has become more professional, more scientific. The consultants and others who advise politicians have caused them to think more deeply about what they do and why they do it, what works and what doesn't.

The result is a more pragmatic, even ruthless attitude. It's not their job to foster debate, or ensure voters are fully informed on the choices available to them. And being open and accountable is more likely to lose you votes than win them.

If it's just about attracting enough votes to win, and that's not easy, better not to waste time on anything that doesn't do much to help. Why waste your energy trying to win the votes of people who long ago decided not to vote for you or those who are always going to vote for you?

So these days campaigns are directed at people who haven't made up their minds. It would be nice if these were people who were so deep into the policy choices they needed some extra convincing.

Sadly, politics doesn't work that way. The people whose votes are up for grabs tend to be those who don't have strong opinions, aren't ideological and don't take much interest in politics until the election is upon them.

I'm breaking it to you gently that modern election campaigns aren't aimed at anyone smart enough to read a paper like this one. They're for the people who don't think, not the people who do. So campaigns have become less cerebral and more emotional.

Politicians care more about the ads they run on telly than their televised debates. They find simple slogans and pithy sound bites more effective than complex arguments. They find scare campaigns - on the carbon tax, WorkChoices, the mining tax, debt and deficit, and the goods and services tax - very effective with people who are guided more by feelings than thought.

The way politicians look and sound has become as important as what they say. Perceptions matter more than reality.

Few of us have face-to-face contact with politicians during campaigns, so almost all we know comes to us via the media. So campaigns are a product of the symbiotic relationship between politicians and the media.

But the news media have long been in competition with the ever-growing range of other ways for people to entertain themselves in their spare time. So the news media have had to step up the entertainment content of their news, treating politics as a form of football - who's winning in the polls, who won the week, who's got a problem with their hammies - bringing us endless colour and movement on the campaign trail and eternally searching for laughable "gaffes".

The more the media try to keep news entertaining, the more they keep searching for novelty and changing the subject. They see themselves as catering to their audience's ever-shortening attention span, little realising that by changing the subject so often they're helping to shorten that span even further.

The opposition could have released all its policies weeks ago but it didn't because it needed to "maintain momentum" by releasing individual policies every few days during the five-week campaign. Because of this, we're told, it's unable to tell us how its promises will be paid for until the last week.

But this preoccupation with changing the subject combines badly with each side's strategy of focusing attention on a few issues it knows from its focus groups are its strengths, while shifting attention away from those issues it knows are points of vulnerability.

The amazing result is the large number of important policy changes in this campaign that have been announced but never referred to again as the campaign rushes on to something new. Sometimes both sides are in tacit agreement to slip through a tax increase without it being noticed. More often, one side checkmates the other on an issue, so there's nothing left to talk about.

Thus are we robbed of real choice by two sides who've done nothing but argue furiously throughout the three years of minority government.

Under the heading of looming tax increases it suits neither side to talk about (and so go unexamined by the media) the 0.5 percentage point increase in the Medicare levy, an effective doubling of the tax on cigarettes and a new tax on bank deposits likely to be borne by people with home loans.

Under the checkmate heading are the bipartisan promises to not make further changes to superannuation tax concessions (the biggest middle-class welfare rort of them all), to implement the Gonski school funding reforms (provided you don't read Tony Abbott's fine print), to implement the national disability insurance scheme (and worry about the full cost later), to leave the GST unchanged (and thus keep state spending on health and education under an unrelenting squeeze) and to waste yet more taxpayers' money chasing the pipedream of Northern Development.